What happens when a small and culturally diverse group is flown in from different parts of the world, put up in a comfortable hotel, fed well — and mandated to watch two or three dozen excellent films and asked to come up with a selection of ‘the best of the best’?
That pretty much sums up the experience of the final jury process of international film festivals that have a competitive element. The festival secretariat lines up the logistics but entrusts all the rankings and selections of entries to an independent jury – which typically serves without pay, and works long and hard.
Hosting the Wildscreen Film Festival in Colombo, Sri Lanka, which ended last evening, brought back memories from eight years ago, when I served on the global jury of Wildscreen festival in Bristol in October 2000. It wasn’t just the turn of the millennium that made the festival especially remarkable that year. In some ways, Wildscreen 2000 marked a significant change in how wildlife and natural history films are assessed and honoured.
I’ve done this a few times before and since 2000 — among them Earth Vision (Tokyo) in 1993 and Japan Wildlife Festival (Toyama) in 2003. But being on Wildscreen jury was special, for it’s considered to be the world’s largest and most prestigious wildlife and environmental film festival — the ‘green’ equivalent of the Oscars.
Serving on film festival juries can be both tedious and highly rewarding. On the plus side, I get to watch the best of contemporary factual film making on these subjects from all over the world, and then discuss their relative merits with some of the best professionals in the industry. The downside is that no jury can ever satisfy all film makers who enter their work, nor come up with a selection that is universally accepted: after every festival, there are those who feel their creations didn’t receive the recognition they deserved.
While all the film juries I have served on managed to reach consensus decisions, it often wasn’t easy. Much depends on the jury chair’s ability to find common ground among jury members who hold diverse – sometimes even opposite – views. Wildscreen 2000 jury was very ably chaired by Peter Goodchild, who came from a background of science film making, and was once editor of BBC’s Horizon science series (He was called in on short notice when the chair designate Christopher Parsons, co-founder of Wildscreen, fell ill.)
Among my fellow jurors were conservationist Dr Lee Durrell and Canadian film-maker and co-inventor of Imax Roman Kroitor. Jane Krish, then Executive Director of Wildscreen, kept us going and made sure there wasn’t too much blood on the expensively carpeted floors of the Bristol Marriot hotel where we were holed up.
Details of what happened during that week is now buried too deep beneath sediments of memory. I remember watching and discussing some great films in great company and racing against time to reach our decisions for the awards night. Parallel to this, the festival’s multiple events were taking place in nearby venues but we couldn’t join them – except some social events in the evenings.
I’m only sorry that I haven’t got a single photograph of that occasion in my personal collection – it was a year or two later that I started the routine of taking my camera on all my travels. But I’ve just located, from the digital archives two laptops ago, the opening remarks that Peter Goodchild made at the awards ceremony, which he’d typed out on my machine. That neatly sums up our extraordinary experience:
“In the past week my jury and I have, in effect, left the human race. During our four days’ viewing we have seen no less than 54 films. And in that time we have tramped over billions of tons of sand, swum in every ocean of the world with trillions of fish, experienced 80 full moons, watched the production of 30 tons of elephant droppings, around 120 copulations (not ourselves), 15 rapes (not ourselves), 210 killings including 30 infanticides, several thousand insect bites, and we have done all this in temperatures of 50 degrees Fahrenheit below and temperatures of 50 degrees Centigrade above.
“In those aforementioned copulations we were privy to the sight of a pair of 1 ton testicles accompanied by what looked like 3 meters of stout garden hose, but was referred, very tastefully, by the narrator as a ‘flexible friend’.
“And so it goes on, 73 assorted prehistoric animals, 18 symphony orchestras, around half a dozen heavenly choirs and — we have refrained from killing each other and we learned that Nature is prolific, but merciless, that humankind has screwed things up quite a bit, and still is, but we are beginning to try to remedy our ignorance and mistakes. And now we return to you here with the results of our deliberations amongst what is, with one or two exceptions, an embarrassment of riches…”
From then on, each member of the jury took turns in announcing winners in various categories, some technical and others more editorial. Each winner received the coveted Panda Award, affectionately (and unofficially) known as the ‘Green Oscar’. Wildlife film-makers from Australia, Britain, France, India, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa and the United States shared the honours that evening.
Each Panda award was introduced with a brief citation. I presented two: the Conservation/Environment Award and the award for the best film entry from a country that did not have a long tradition of making natural history films.
When presenting the latter, I noted: “It is tempting to draw parallels between the natural world and the world of natural history film making. There are enormous inequalities and disparities in both. Film makers everywhere find it increasingly difficult to raise adequate budgets, but this has always been a stark fact of life for film makers in those parts of the world that lack a long tradition of producing natural history films. In these harsh conditions, the resourcefulness and ingenuity of film makers are tested on many fronts.
“This festival received relatively few entries from such parts of the world and from such film makers, but we understand that it is better than last time. This indicates the presence of talented professionals working against many odds, and trying to exploit the medium to raise public understanding of the environment. The finalists we saw bear testimony to the resolve and commitment of their film makers — who clearly know the art of story telling on television in ways that best engage their audiences. And we need to remember that some of them reach out to hundreds of millions of viewers. These people can make a difference for the planet.”
The award went to Indian film maker Mike Pandey, for his film Shores of Silence: Whale Sharks in India. The 25-minute film, made in early 2000, was the first ever revelation of the killing of whale sharks on the Indian coastline. It so stirred the collective conscience of the authorities, that the government banned the hunting of these endangered marine creatures seven months later.
Every jury’s selection sends out signals, and this is especially so when it concerns the natural history film industry’s most coveted awards. Beyond selecting the winners, our jury also recommended the expansion of the festival’s scope in two ways.
Firstly, we pointed out that simply documenting animal and plant behaviour and their habitats was no longer adequate in a world facing a multitude of environmental crises. There was an urgent need, we said, to mainstream films that looked at the nexus between the natural environment and human society – both conflict and harmony between the two.
Secondly, we recognised the rapid changes taking place in the worlds of broadcasting and web, which challenges film makers to try out new formats or genres, including some that used much shorter durations than those used in wildlife and natural history films until recently. Reviewing eligible film formats was necessary, we said, in an industry that was embracing multimedia to retain or attract eyeballs.
As Peter Goodchild noted in his remarks: “There’s little doubt that there will be increasing demands for personality led programmes, for cheaper format programmes and, because a valuable award – a panda on the mantelpiece – is one potent way of moderating any feared slides into banality, it seemed to us that the Festival needed to create an award rooted in entertainment, where good work in this kind of programming would be recognised.”
It’s heartening to note that Wildscreen festival took note of these recommendations, as evidenced by changes in subsequent editions of the festival. But Peter’s words still hold true: “What is needed, in our view, is to keep testing alternative forms and approaches, expanding the range of programming and avoiding the dangers of a rut based on a past successes.”