Shukichi Koizumi (1933 – 2014): Leading Japanese documentary filmmaker bids goodbye

Shukichi Koizumi speaks during Penang workshop in March 2014, flanked by his colleagues Juka Kawaai (to his right) and Kenichi Mizuno - Photo by Mariyam Niuma

Shukichi Koizumi speaks during Penang workshop in March 2014, flanked by his colleagues Juka Kawaai (to his right) and Kenichi Mizuno – Photo by Mariyam Niuma

Shukichi Koizumi, a leading Japanese documentary filmmaker and television professional, is no more. When he passed away in Nagano, Japan, on 12 November 2014, aged 81, he had been making films was more than half a century.

Koizumi was the founder and, until 2010, President and CEO of Group Gendai Films, a documentary and television programme production company in Tokyo. He also served as honorary chairman of the non-profit media organisation TVE Japan, and was a partner and ardent supporter of filmmakers, activists and educators across developing Asia.

Koizumi will be best remembered as a maker of long format documentaries on public interest scientific and environmental topics. He had a special interest in how synthetic chemicals – such as pesticides – and nuclear radiation affected both human health and nature. For years, he also visually chronicled Japan’s struggles to balance economic growth with caring for its public health and the environment.

I first met Koizumi-san in the early 1990s, when I served as a juror at EarthVision, the Tokyo Global Environmental Film Festival. In the two decades since, we collaborated on various Asian film productions and video skills training workshops.

Every time we met, I found him productive and creative – he seemed to have a never-ending supply of energy and enthusiasm. At any given time, he had several ideas for new films on nationally or globally important issues.

Our last meeting was in March 2014, when he joined us at an Asian regional workshop on communicating sustainable agriculture and agro-biodiversity, held in Penang, Malaysia. It brought together a dozen Asian partners who shared experiences of distributing TVE Japan’s latest film, Hopper Race (80 mins, 2013).

On his own or through Group Gendai Films, Koizumi produced a large number of broadcaster-commissioned and corporate promotional films. They kept the business going, but the ones that stand out are those he took up as personal projects. They reflected his intellectual curiosity and social concerns.

And unlike many filmmakers who prefer to move from one production to the next, Koizumi knew the significance of effective film distribution and outreach. With his friend (and TVE Japan’s Executive Director) Kenichi Mizuno, he kept on raising money from Japanese philanthropic and governmental sources to support these endeavours in Asia. He never gave up despite hard times caused by Japan’s lost decades and the global economic recession.

A longer tribute is to be published soon.

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) and Shukichi Koizumi in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2010

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) and Shukichi Koizumi in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2010


How can scientists use web videos to communicate climate science?

Let’s face it: not every scientist is a potential David Attenborough, David Suzuki or Carl Sagan. Such supernovae are rare in any field.

But in this digital age, most scientists can use online platforms and simple digital tools to communicate directly with the public and/or policy makers. At least some scientists try to tap this potential — and we are grateful.

The World Resources Institute (WRI), a respected non-profit research and advocacy group, is currently trying to understand “how recent climate science discoveries can best be communicated via video”.

With support from Google, and with the help of three climate scientists, WRI has recently produced 3 different video types in order to test which works best. They are currently on display on their website, with a request for readers to vote and comment:

1. “A webcam talk” uses a self-recorded video of the scientist discussing his findings

2. “A conversation” uses a slideshow with a voiceover of the scientist discussing his findings

3. “A whiteboard talk” is a professionally shot video of the scientist in front of whiteboard discussing his findings

Here is the comment I submitted: the challenges WRI face are common and widely shared. And I do have some experience covering climate and other complex science and environmental stories across Asia for the visual and print media.

First, thanks for asking — and for exploring best public engagement method, which most technical experts and their organisations don’t bother to do.

Second, Andy Dessler comes across as an eager expert — not all scientists are! Some are visibly condescending and disdainful in doing ‘public’ talks that they immediately put off non-technical audiences.

Third, the options you’ve presented above are NOT mutually exclusive. For best results, you can mix them.

Webcam method is helpful, but people don’t want to see any talking head for more than a few seconds at a time. They want to see WHO is talking, and also WHAT is being talked about. The images in Conversation method come in here.

I realise webcams are usually set up inside buildings, but visually speaking the more interesting backdrops are in the open. In this case, if Andy Dessler were to record his remarks outdoors, on a clear and sunny day with some clouds in the far background sky, that would have been great!

I’m personally less convinced about Whiteboard Talk: many in your audience probably don’t want to be lectured to, or be reminded of college days. I would avoid that.

More about my work at

2012: Will End-of-the-World industries end this year?

Read my Sunday column on 4 Nov 2012: End-of-the-World, Inc.

Read my post on 21 Dec 2012: 21 Dec 2012 is here: So where’s the End of the World I was promised?

Simple explanations are always the best - but not entertaining enough?

So 2012 is finally here! I’ve been waiting for you…

Citing various ancient lore, some say this year will see the end of the world — where have we heard that before?

The Wikipedia describes the ‘2012 phenomenon’ as comprising a range of eschatological beliefs according to which cataclysmic or transformative events will occur on 21 December 2012.

And to think that a blockbuster Hollywood movie, rather than any ancient prophecy, likely triggered this wave of public concern!

Wikipedia notes: “The 2009 disaster film 2012 was inspired by the phenomenon, and advance promotion prior to its release included a stealth marketing campaign in which TV spots and websites from the fictional ‘Institute for Human Continuity’ called on people to prepare for the end of the world. As these promotions did not mention the film itself, many viewers believed them to be real and contacted astronomers in panic.”

The campaign was heavily criticized by scientists, of course, but the public chose to believe the scary make-believe rather than the more sober reality.

Will life imitate art? Find out on 21 Dec 2012

The film 2012 became one of the most successful of that year, grossing nearly $770 million worldwide. So the film’s producers were laughing all the way to their bank…

The US space agency NASA has stepped into the debate with sobering analysis. Its website says: “Impressive movie special effects aside, Dec. 21, 2012, won’t be the end of the world as we know. It will, however, be another winter solstice.”

Recalling the Year 2000 computer bug (Y2K problem) that didn’t quite materialise, it says: “Much like Y2K, 2012 has been analyzed and the science of the end of the Earth thoroughly studied. Contrary to some of the common beliefs out there, the science behind the end of the world quickly unravels when pinned down to the 2012 timeline.”

NASA scientists answer many questions that they are frequently asked regarding 2012.

Meanwhile, a few weeks before 2012 started, Lankan astrophysicist Dr Kavan Ratnatunga issued a public challenge on prime time TV.

“I will give 10% of the value of any property to (its) legal owner who will write a deed of sale of their property to me, effective from 22 December 2012, after that owner is so confident the World was going to end on December 21st!”

So far, Kavan has had no takers.

But the hype continues, with the media stirring things up as much as they can: after all, if Hollywood made money from people’s gullibility, why not others?

So might End-of-the-World industries end this year? Not a chance. A sucker is born every minute, and this is one industry that will continue to thrive as long as there are credulous believers.

Mayan prophecy - or their sense of humour?

Tareque Masud (1956 – 2011): The Song of Freedom, Interrupted

Tareque Masud in Cannes in 2002. Photo by Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP

South Asia’s notorious killing fields, a.k.a. roads, have robbed us of another highly talented and committed professional. Bangladesh film maker Tareque Masud died on the spot when his microbus collided head-on with a passenger bus in in Ghior, close to Dhaka, on August 13.

The accident also killed Mishuk Munier, CEO of Bangladesh’s private ATN television news channel and three others, and injured Tareque’s film maker wife Catherine. The Masuds and team had been returning after scouting for locations for their next feature film, named Kagojer Ful (The Paper Flower). It was to be a prequel to his award-winning first full-length feature film, Matir Moina (English release title “The Clay Bird”).

That film, which tells the story of a young boy living at a madrasa or Islamic religious school, was inspired by his own childhood experiences. When it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002, it won him the International Critic’s Award as well as the FIPRESCI Prize for Directors’ Fortnight for “its authentic, moving and delicate portrayal of a country struggling for its democratic rights.”

Matir Moina was received with critical praise and toured the international circuit. However, the Bangladeshi Government initially refused to issue a censor certificate for national screening, saying it gave a distorted image of the madrasa system, and that it could hurt feelings in this Muslim-dominated country. Confronted by Tareque’s appeal and widespread international pressure, the decision was later reversed.

Matir Moina later became the first entry from Bangladesh in the best foreign language film category at the Oscar awards.

Tareque made several documentaries before venturing into feature film making. I first came to know his work through Muktir Gaan (The Song of Freedom, 78 mins, 1995), the most famous film in early age of his career.

In that documentary, the camera follows a music troupe during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. The members of the troupe sing songs to inspire freedom fighters. The film was made mainly based on the footage of American filmmaker Lear Levin that Masud got from the basement of Levin’s house in New York.

Catherine Masud tells the untold story of how Muktir Gaan was made

Muktir Gaan was an extraordinarily compelling film that was released theatrically in Bangladesh, blazing a new trail in distributing long-format documentaries in South Asia. It was also a strong entry at the inaugural edition of Film South Asia festival in Kathmandu, where I was on the jury. We awarded it a Jury Special Mention.

A scene from Muktir Gaan, 1995The Masuds followed it up with Muktir Kotha (The Story of Freedom, 82 mins, 1996), an oral history documentary about the experience of ordinary villagers during 1971 Liberation War. They also made many development related films through their Dhaka based production company, AudioVision.

I have fond memories of meeting Tareque and Catherine at the FSA festival. Our paths crossed at least a couple of times more in different corners of South Asia. Although we once discussed a collaborative project, it never happened due to the lack of funding.

As one film critic noted, “They were a delightful couple who managed to be deeply committed to the improvement of Bangladeshi society without ever being pompous or self-righteous.”

The Guardian obituary by Ronald Bergen, 15 Aug 2011

The Making of Matir Moina – Tareque and Catherine Masud

Wildlife and Natural History Film making: Are Darwinian Rules at play?

Wildscreen 2011 Colombo Panel: From L to R - Taya Diaz, Amanda Theunissen, Delon Weerasinghe, Anoma Rajakaruna, Dominic Weston and Nalaka Gunawardene

Is there an elite or ‘charmed’ circle of wildlife and natural history film makers in the world? If so, how does a new film maker break into this circle?

This is the question I posed to a group of visiting British film makers and their Sri Lankan counterparts during a panel discussion I moderated at the British Council Colombo on February 17 evening.

The panel, organised around the topic ‘Differences and mutual challenges in Asian, American and European productions/film making’, was part of the Wildscreen traveling film festival held hosted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from 17 to 19 February 2011.

Amanda Theunissen, who has worked with the BBC Natural History Unit and National Geographic Television, gave a straight answer: yes, there is such a charmed circle.

And although she didn’t say it in so many words, it was clear from our overall discussions that the circle is jealously guarded, and it’s not easy for any newcomer to break into it. And the entry barrier becomes harder if the film maker is from the global South.

I opened the panel recalling the opening sentence of Our Common Future, the 1987 Report by the World Commission on Environment and Development: “The Earth is one but the world is not”. I said: “A similar disparity exists in wildlife and natural history film making. We are all covering the same planet Earth in all its splendour and diversity. But on this planet there are many different worlds of film making.”

I asked my five panelists — Amanda Theunissen and Dominic Weston from the UK, and Delon Weerasinghe, Anoma Rajakaruna, and Taya Diaz from Sri Lanka — to address three key challenges faced by all wildlife and natural history film makers everywhere: the art of effective story telling; fund raising to make films; and ensuring wide distribution of the films made.

The panel discussion was lively, wide-ranging and engaged the audience which comprised mostly aspiring film makers or film students. I didn’t want our discussion to scare any of them away from a career in environment and wildlife film making. But at the same time, we wanted to acknowledge the practical realities — and disparities — that exist within and across countries in this respect.

I’ve now written up a summary of the panel discussion for TVE Asia Pacific news. Its heading comes from a provocative question I asked during the panel: does wildlife film making operate on almost Darwinian rules?

Read the full story: Wildlife and Natural History Film making: Survival of the Fittest?

Wildscreen Colombo Panel: From L to R - Taya Diaz, Amanda Theunissen, Delon Weerasinghe, Anoma Rajakaruna, Dominic Weston, Nalaka Gunawardene

Anand Patwardhan: Film maker as perennial trouble-maker

Anand Patwardhan

Anand Patwardhan is one of India’s best known and most outspoken documentary film makers. He has been making political documentaries for over three decades, pursuing diverse and controversial issues that are at the crux of social and political life in India. He epitomises the activist film maker and has inspired a generation of socially sensitive film makers.

In the world’s largest democracy that is India, and in a country with a vibrant and diverse media that is considered to be among the most free in the developing world, Anand has constantly run into problems getting his films seen on broadcast television. Many of his films were at one time or another banned by state television channels in India and became the subject of litigation by Anand, who successfully challenged the censorship rulings in court.

As his website notes, several of his films have also incurred the wrath of right wing fundamanentalists both in India and abroad. “In keeping with the uneven nature of India’s democratic institutions and its sharply divided polity, bouquets have been accompanied by brickbats.”

I came across a good interview with Anand Patwardhan in the Indian current affairs magazine Frontline, issue for 4 – 17 December 2010. Here are two questions concerning the censorship problems he has often faced:

Ram Ke Naam (In the Name of God), 1991

Q: You have had problems getting clearance from the Central Board of Film Certification for almost all your films, and then later they were not allowed to be screened on Doordarshan. Your films are also not screened on private channels. How do you see this constant struggle with these forms of censorship?

A: Right from the first film, I faced censorship in some form or the other. Even the Janata Party after it came to power refused to screen Waves of Revolution though it was against the Emergency. L.K. Advani was the Information and Broadcasting Minister then. I had added an epilogue which said that the janata raj [people’s rule] that the film spoke about was not the same as [that of] the Janata Party now in power. I also drew attention to the political prisoners still being held in jail. Finally, after media pressure built up, the film was screened on Doordarshan.

Prisoners of Conscience also got into trouble with the censor board, and it took a letter from Satyajit Ray to the government saying that they must not stop a film like this to get the required clearance.

Ram Ke Naam followed the rath yatra of Advani and the violence in Ayodhya on October 30, 1990, when the Babri Mosque was attacked for the first time. It was meant to be a warning to the nation about the rise of Hindutva fundamentalism. I had trouble with the censors initially, but it finally got through in 1992 and then I had trouble with Doordarshan, which refused to show it. Finally, after the film won a national award for Best Investigative Documentary, I was able to go to court and argue that the government cannot give me a national award and yet say that I cannot show the film on Doordarshan, which it had been doing systematically. In fact, whenever any film of mine won a national award, I used it to go to court. I argued that not showing such a film on national TV was a denial of my right to freedom of expression and of the viewers’ right to information.

On these grounds I have won seven cases till now – five in the High Courts and two in the Supreme Court after the government went in appeal. Ram Ke Naam was finally shown on Doordarshan in 1997. The judge ordered that the film should be telecast at prime time.

Stills from Anand Patwardhan (courtesy his website)

Q: Why have you not approached private channels to screen your films?

A: The private media, including television, are not about giving people information. They are run by corporates more interested in providing entertainment. Their news and analysis are restricted to five and 10 second [sound] bites. Their clear mandate is commercial. They will ask, “Where are the advertisers who will endorse your product? Who is going to give the money to show this? Are we going to waste one and a half hours of TV time on issues?”

I have also discovered that even in the private domain there is political censorship. A few days before the Allahabad High Court verdict on [the] Ayodhya [title suit] was due, a private channel approached me to screen Ram Ke Naam. They paid me for three broadcasts but stopped after showing the film just once despite extremely positive feedback from viewers. On inquiring, I was told that the channel was pressured not to show the film by both the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and the TV Broadcasters’ Association. Anyone who watches Ram Ke Naam will realise that this censorship was done to protect the interests of unscrupulous politicians who had used the emotive appeal of Ram for financial and political gain.

The situation today is such that you cannot pinpoint where the censorship is coming from. During the Emergency you at least knew who the enemy was. But now what do you do when every wing of society – whether it’s the legal system, and so on – is complicit in a blanket suppression of facts.

Read the full interview in Frontline magazine, issue for 4 – 17 December 2010

Read TVE Asia Pacific profile and interview with Ananda Patwardhan in 2002

Satinder Bindra: It’s the message, stupid (and never mind the UN branding)!

Satinder Bindra (left) and Keya Acharya

Satinder Bindra (left) and Keya Acharya at IFEJ 2009 Congress

Satinder Bindra left active journalism a couple of years ago when he joined the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) as its Director of the Division of Communications and Public Information (DCPI) based at UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi. But thank goodness he still thinks and acts like a journalist.

Satinder, whom I first met in Paris in the summer of 2008 soon after he took up the new post, gave a highly inspiring speech to the latest congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), held at India Habitat Centre in New Delhi from 28 to 30 October 2009.

We have gone beyond the cautionary stage of climate change, and are now acting out ‘Part II’ where we have to focus on what people can do, he said. “Climate change is no longer in doubt, and if anything, the IPCC’s scenarios are turning out to be under-estimates.”

He was referring to the IFEJ congress theme, “Bridging North-South Differences in Reporting Climate Change: Journalists’ role in Reaching an Ambitious Agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen”.

Satinder sounded emphatic when he said: “We have a limited time in which to reach as many people as possible. Environment is the single biggest challenge we face in the world today, and we as journalists have a tremendous responsibility in providing the latest, accurate information to our audiences.”

He added: “There is still a debate among journalists on whether or not we should be advocates for the environment. We should not be scared to push the best science, even if we don’t choose to engage in advocacy journalism.”

Satinder mentioned the “Paris Declaration on Broadcast Media and Climate Change,” adopted by delegates at the first UNESCO Broadcast Media and Climate Change conference held in Paris on 4-5 September 2009. It resolved to “strengthen regional and international collaboration, and encourage production and dissemination of audiovisual content to give a voice to marginalized populations affected by climate change”.

Satinder, who was a familiar face on CNN as its South Asia bureau chief until 2007, acknowledged that the media landscape was evolving faster than ever before. “Thanks to the web and mobile media, our distribution modes and business models are changing. YouTube has emerged as a key platform. Viral is the name of the game.”

His message to broadcasters, in particular, was: “You may be rivals in your work, but when it comes to saving the planet, put those differences aside.”

Copy of Seal the Deal

A call to the whole planet...

Satinder is spearheading, on behalf of UNEP, the UN-wide Seal the Deal Campaign which aims to galvanize political will and public support for reaching a comprehensive global climate agreement in Copenhagen in December.

To me at least, the most important part of Satinder’s speech was when he said that he was not seeking to promote or position the UNEP or United Nations branding. His open offer to all journalists and broadcasters: “If you need to use the hundreds of UNEP films, or make use of our footage in your own work, go right ahead. We want you to make journalistic products. There’s no need or expectation to have the UN branding!”

Wow! This is such a refreshing change — and a significant departure — from most of his counterparts at the other UN agencies, who still think in very narrow, individual agency terms. They just can’t help boxing the lofty ideals of poverty reduction, disaster management, primary health care and everything else within the agenda setting and brand promotion needs of their own agencies.

I have serious concerns about this which I have shared on a number of occasions on this blog. See, for example:
May 2007: Feeding Oliver Twists of the world…and delivering UN logos with it!
August 2007: ‘Cheque-book Development’: Paying public media to deliver development agency logos
October 2007: The many lives of PI: Crisis communication and spin doctors
July 2009: Why can’t researchers just pay the media to cover their work?

In a widely reproduced op ed essay published originally on in August 2007, I wrote:

“As development organisations compete more intensely for external funding, they are increasingly adopting desperate strategies to gain higher media visibility for their names, logos and bosses.

“Communication officers in some leading development and humanitarian organisations have been reduced to publicists. When certain UN agency chiefs tour disaster or conflict zones, their spin doctors precede or follow them. Some top honchos now travel with their own ‘embedded journalists’ – all at agency expense.

“In this publicity frenzy, these agencies’ communication products are less and less on the issues they stand for or reforms they passionately advocate. Instead, the printed material, online offerings and video films have become ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.”

Let’s sincerely hope that the pragmatic and passionate Satinder Bindra will be able to shake up the communication chiefs and officers of the UN system, and finally get them to see beyond their noses and inflated egos. It’s about time somebody pointed out that vanity does not serve the best interests of international development.

See also April 2007 blog post: MDG: A message from our spin doctors?