The quest for next David Attenborough continues…

Human Ambassador to the natural world...David Attenborough

Human Ambassador to the natural world...David Attenborough

I spent most of today at the Wildscreen film festival being held at the British Council Colombo. Naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough featured prominently in two films screened: Can We Save Planet Earth? (2006) and Life in Cold Blood: Armoured Giants (2008).

For me, it was more than a fascinating journey to far corners of our endangered planet in the company of the world’s best known broadcaster, and Britain’s most trusted public figure. I recalled how in this very venue, as an eager teenager growing up in the simpler, pre-web days of the 1980s, I watched his pioneering series Life on Earth (1979) and The Living Planet (1984). These path-breaking series redefined how natural history documentaries were made, and inspired a whole new generation of film-makers and nature lovers. A quarter century later, I’m still hooked.

Over the last 25 years, Attenborough has established himself as the world’s leading natural history programme maker with more landmark series: The Trials of Life (1990), The Private Life of Plants (1995), The Life of Birds (1998), The Life of Mammals (2002) and Life in the Undergrowth (2005). The final chapter in the ‘Life’ series is Life in Cold Blood (2008).

As fellow broadcaster Jeremy Paxman noted in a Time magazine tribute to Attenborough: “Life After Death is almost the only natural-history series yet to be made by Attenborough. In a career that has taken him to every corner of the world, he has explored life in all its richness — from mammals and birds to plants and reptiles. No living person has done more to make the people of Planet Earth aware of the world around them.”

Close encounters?

Close encounters?

But as I wrote in May 2007, “like all creatures big and small in the great Circle of Life that Sir David has so avidly told us about, he too is mortal. At 81, it’s time for the world to look for the next David Attenborough.”

In his Time tribute, Paxman noted that what distinguishes Attenborough is “that boundless, schoolboyish enthusiasm, the infectious joy of discovering the infinite variety of life”. Yet as the popular song goes, dragons live forever, but not so little boys – so the quest for the next Attenborough has quietly preoccupied the minds of many practising or following the world of natural history and environmental film making.

I’m not obsessed with this question (and I wish Sir David many more years of life on Earth and life on the airwaves), but I today popped it to Jeremy Bristow, a producer of environmental programmes at BBC Television, at the end of his fascinating master class on The role of films in Environmental Conservation. Jeremy’s most recent project has been two films hard-hitting films on Climate Change with Sir David Attenborough for BBC1 and the Discovery Channel.

The bad news is that despite searching far and wide – even some competitions – the David Attenborough has yet to be discovered.

“There are many talented, passionate natural history film makers and some of them also have good screen presence — but none to match Sir David,” said Jeremy Bristow. “I know many in the natural history film world have kept their eyes open for a potential successor.”

Perhaps Sir David is a unique product of his time and circumstances, Jeremy speculated. Certainly, there weren’t too many getting into this business in the early days of television broadcasting. The first major programme series to feature Sir David was BBC’s Zooquest, which ran from 1954 to 1963. And then, one thing led to another…and more than 50 years later, he’s still in the business.

To me, it’s the voice – authoritative without at all being pompous or pontificating – that gives Sir David enduring and endearing appeal. Time called it ‘the voice of the environment’.

Now is the time when that voice of reason, moderation and passion is needed more than ever. A time when the natural world is under siege from human-induced accelerated climate change even as the world of science takes daily beatings from assorted fundamentalist forces.

At 82, Sir David still remains not just our most versatile ambassador to the natural world, but also one of the best spokespersons for the rigors of science and intellectual curiosity.

Here’s a recent example of Sir David – taking us on a quick, animated guide to evolution of life on Earth, in a 2009 documentary called Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life to mark 150 years since Charles Darwin published his famous Origin of the Species:

Shooting wildlife or wild-life: Environmental film-makers’ dilemma

Speaking of wild-life to a mild audience....

Speaking of wild-life to a mild audience....Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP

The Wildscreen film festival got underway at the British Council Colombo this morning.

The keynote address was delivered by Sri Lankan minister of environment and natural resources. The British Council asked me to speak a few words at the opening as TVE Asia Pacific is a local partner for this event.

Here’s what I said, which sums up why we are in this business:

We are delighted to be partners in hosting Wildscreen film festival in Sri Lanka. We thank our friends at the British Council and Wildscreen festival for this opportunity to join hands.

May I say a brief word about ourselves. We’re Television for Education Asia Pacific — trading as TVE Asia Pacific. We’re a regionally operating media foundation anchored in Colombo and engaging developing countries of Asia. We were set up in 1996 by a group of Asian and European filmmakers and TV professionals to cover the full range of development issues using broadcast television, narrowcast video and now, the web.

We are driven by a belief that what is happening in the world’s largest and most populous region has far-reaching implications not just for our region — but also for the entire planet.

When introducing our work, I like to recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi. Once, when asked by a visiting foreign journalist for his views on wildlife in India, he said: “Sadly, wildlife is declining in our jungles, but wild – life is increasing in our cities.”

It is precisely this wild–life that interests us more. In our work we keep asking: when life itself is going wild, what hope and prospects are there for wildlife, Nature and environment?

For example, we’ve literally just finished a short film looking at environmental restoration of Afghanistan. This will be screened to the environmental minister from around the world who will gather shortly for the UN Environment Programme’s Governing Council meeting in Nairobi.

We can't just walk into a glorious sunset and forget real world challenges - Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP

We can't just walk into a glorious sunset and forget real world challenges - Photo by Niroshan Fernando, TVEAP

Capturing wild-life is now the focus and concern of wildlife and environmental film makers everywhere. There was a time, not too long ago, when films used to simply capture the beauty of Nature and the diversity or behaviour of plants and animals. Such documentation is still very necessary and useful — but it’s no longer sufficient.

In the past couple of decades, all film makers have been challenged to look at how our own ‘wild’ ways of living affects:
– each other in our own human species;
– the rest of Nature and other species; and
– also, the future of life on Earth.

We see this transformation reflected in the content of films entering Wildscreen and other film festivals. I saw early signs of this when I served as a juror at Wildscreen 2000 festival. This process has gathered momentum since.

To remain relevant and topical, films can no longer just cover ‘green’ subjects — they have to acknowledge the ‘brown’ issues as well as the harsh black-and-white, life-or-death concerns such as climate change.

At the same time, we have seen a rapid diversification of formats or genres — especially with the emergence of online and mobile platforms. These now compete with broadcast television to engage audiences. This is both good news and bad news for us engaged in film making and film outreach. Yes, we now have more ways of reaching people than ever before. But engaging audiences is harder: people have more choice — and more distractions!

Of course, we can’t just give up the good struggle and walk away into those beautiful sunsets. At TVE Asia Pacific, we believe that making good films is only half the job done. Distributing them far and wide is just as important. This is why the slogan of our own organisation is: Moving images, moving people!

In that process, film festivals such as this one play a key role. We’re very happy to add an extra day of screenings to this event. On Saturday in this auditorium, we’ll be showing a number of films on climate change and sustainable development drawn from our own catalogue of films we distribute to broadcast, civil society and educational users across Asia.

These are small efforts in a big world. I can only hope all these help us in winning history’s greatest race – which, according to H G Wells, is one between education and catastrophe!

Wildscreen comes to Colombo: Feb 12 – 14

Wildscreen comes to Colombo

Wildscreen comes to Colombo

Wildscreen, the world’s largest and most prestigious wildlife and environmental film festival, will be touring India and Sri Lanka in February 2009.

Nine wildlife or environmental filmmakers from the UK will be coming to India and Sri Lanka as part of this event, organized by the British Council. The festival will also see screenings of wildlife and environmental films from across the world, some of them winners of the Wildscreen festival’s Panda Awards, the environmental equivalent of the Oscars.

The Wildscreen Festival was founded by Sir Peter Scott in 1982. It has been organised every alternate year for the past 25 years, and is now considered to be the world’s largest and most prestigious wildlife and environmental film festival. Held in Bristol, UK, it attracts hundreds of delegates from around the globe who work in film, television and new media, as well as those involved in environmental conservation.

The Festival is coming to Sri Lanka for the first time. The programme, held at the British Council Colombo on 12 – 13 February 2009, will screen several award winning films on climate change and wildlife, showcasing the best of current environmental film making worldwide. On 14 February 2009, TVE Asia Pacific will present a selection of films on environment and sustainable development drawn from their global catalogue, which includes some Sri Lankan and South Asian titles.

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