Adrian Cowell and ‘The Decade of Destruction’: A film can make a difference!

The Amazon burning
The Decade of Destruction A unique chronicle of the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.

Whatever we might think about Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, I’m glad it has settled one question: can a single film make a difference in tipping public opinion about a matter of global importance? The answer, where climate change is concerned, is a resounding yes!

But years or decades before Al Gore, other film makers have had their own impact on other environmental issues. One of them is Adrian Cowell, the award-winning British film maker whose quest to tell the story of the destruction of the Amazon forest made politicians listen and the world take note.

According to the Centre for Social Media at the American University, “He catapulted the environmental movement to save the Amazonian rain forests through the television series The Decade of Destruction and Banking on Disaster.”

Adrian Cowell
Adrian Cowell
Adrian, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking on several occasions, is a world acclaimed leader in our field. Born in Tongshan, China in 1934 and educated at Cambridge University, Adrian has been making films longer than I have been alive — and luckily for all of us, he is still at it.

He began filming his path-breaking series called The Decade of Destruction in 1980, when the Amazon was first opened up to settlers and developers. He has documented the systematic destruction of the rainforest there into late 1990 when, for the first time, there was an indication that the fires were being brought under control.

As the synopsis says: “Each episode follows the real life stories of people caught up in the frontier’s web of need and greed, stories of personal tragedy and great courage. The programs relate the individual’s struggle to the wider developments going on around them. Together they illustrate the principal issues of Amazonia during the 1980s – its decade of greatest destruction.”

The Chicago Tribune called it an epic, “a brilliantly told story of greed, death, politics, violence, heroism and environmental holocaust.”

I recently came across this brief account by Adrian Cowell himself, looking back at his long engagement with the Amazon:

“In January 1980 we started 10 years of recording the destruction of the Amazon forest. We began by filming colonists invading the territory of the then unknown, and very vulnerable, tribe, the Uru Eu Wau Wau, in the Brazilian state of Rondonia. Many colonists had received, free of charge from the government, plots of 40-50 hectares in the forest traditionally hunted by the Indians. Tragically, within a decade, this ‘colonisation’ process, called the Polonoroeste Project, would not only leave three-quarters of the Indians dead, but also prove a disaster for the colonists themselves. They had been given such poor soil that, within six years, 60% of the land they had so hopefully deforested would be abandoned.

Amazon: The last frontier?“So we were astounded when the World Bank moved in to lend nearly half a billion dollars to the project, and were even more astonished when we realised that what was being played out in front of our cameras was evidence of one of the most disastrous loans the Bank had ever made. Not unnaturally, I went to Washington to find out what could explain the Bank’s loan. And there I met three environmentalists, Bruce Rich, Barbara Bramble and Brent Blackwelder, respectively from the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Policy Institute. They were campaigning on how international economic development affected the environment. But by a remarkable coincidence they had decided to focus, not only on the World Bank, but on – of all its hundreds of loans all over the world – the very Polonoroeste Project that we were filming. They asked me to show our film in Congressional hearings and I telephoned José Lutzenberger – more or less the father of Brazilian environmentalism – to ask him to testify. By yet another happy coincidence, an American researcher, Brent Millikan, had written a report giving academic detail to the facts behind what we had filmed. And an American expert on Amazonia, Dr Philip Fearnside, added his authority to the diagnosis of what was going wrong.

“And so, some months later – after a complex chain of legislative and political developments – we were able to record Senator Robert Kasten, the chairman of the powerful Appropriation Committee’s subcommittee on foreign operations, cutting off 20% of the money the US donated annually to the World Bank. Nothing concentrates a banker’s attention more than the withdrawal of some of his money. Within a few months we were able to conclude our programme, Banking on Disaster, by filming World Bank president Barber Conable admitting, for the first time, that a Bank loan, specifically the Polonoroeste Project, had gone wrong. This was to be the beginning of a very slow and gradual greening of World Bank policies.

“Obviously, our television film had played a part in this political change. But though a film may sometimes be the most dramatic way to present a case, it is an illusion to think that it can be more than just one tool or facet of the very complex process behind international and environmental evolution.”

* * * * *

Here’s more biographical background about Adrian:

The Decade of Destruction - book cover
Book of the TV series
Adrian Cowell has been making documentary films for five decades. In 1955-56, he joined the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition, an experience which launched his film career and his interest in Burma. The following year, he made his first foray into the rain forest of Brazil, part of a joint Oxford-Cambridge expedition of young filmmakers. These early trips became the seeds of Cowell’s award-winning epic projects. His series Opium was filmed over an eight-year period (including nine months when he was trapped behind the lines in Burma). His ten-year chronicle of the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests during the 1980’s—broadcast as the television series The Decade of Destruction —stirred the world and contributed to the international debate on how the Amazon should be developed. In 1990, The Decade of Destruction was broadcast on Channel Four in Britain and on PBS FRONTLINE in the U.S. Adrian Cowell’s more recent British TV series include The Heroin Wars. It is a follow-up to The Opium Trail (1966), The Opium Warlords (1974) and Opium (1978).

Cowell is an environmental activist, co-founder of the Television Trust for the Environment and the author of two books on Brazilian Indians, The Heart of the Forest (Knopf) and The Tribe that Hides from Man (Stein and Day). He also wrote a companion book to the TV series The Decade of Destruction (Henry Holt and Company).

Read PBS interview with Adrian Cowell on another of his film series, on opium trade in Southeast Asia

News wrapped in laughter: Is this the future of current affairs journalism?

Who can follow these footsteps?
Who can follow these footsteps?
In an excellent op ed essay assessing the lasting value and meaning of Walter Cronkite to the world of journalism, Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times on 26 July 2009:

“What matters about Cronkite is that he knew when to stop being reassuring Uncle Walter and to challenge those who betrayed his audience’s trust. He had the guts to confront not only those in power but his own bosses. Given the American press’s catastrophe of our own day — its failure to unmask and often even to question the White House propaganda campaign that plunged us into Iraq — these attributes are as timely as ever.

“That’s why the past week’s debate about whether there could ever again be a father-figure anchor with Cronkite’s everyman looks and sonorous delivery is an escapist parlor game. What matters is content, not style. The real question is this: How many of those with similarly exalted perches in the news media today — and those perches, however diminished, still do exist in the multichannel digital age — will speak truth to power when the country is on the line? This journalistic responsibility cannot be outsourced to Comedy Central and Jon Stewart.”

I cannot agree more with the premise and arguments in this essay, which is well worth a careful, slow read by everyone, everywhere who cares for good journalism — either as practitioners or consumers (and in this media saturated age, don’t we all fall into one or both categories?).

At the same time, without detracting from the value of — and the crying need for — investigative, reflective and ‘serious’ journalism, I believe comedy and especially political satire play a key role today in analysing and critiquing politicians, businessmen and others whose decisions and actions impact public policy and public life.

Anchor, anchor, burning bright...
Anchor, anchor, burning bright...
Political satire is nothing new: it’s been around for as long as organised government. Over the centuries, it has manifested in many oral, literary or theatrical traditions, some more memorable and enduring – such as Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm. And for over a century, political cartoonists have been doing it with brilliant economy of words – as I have said more than once on this blog, they are among the finest social philosophers of our times.

In the age of electronic media, it’s only natural that the tradition of satire thrives on the airwaves and online. In fact, there is a rich and diverse offering of politically sensitive and/or active satire in the mainstream and online media that we can consider it a genre of its own. Some of it is so clever, authentic and appealing that we might momentarily forget that we are experiencing a work of satire.
Purists might decry this blurring of traditional demarcations between information, commentary and entertainment — but does that really matter?

When we survey the media and cultural scenes in our globalised world, we see things getting hopelessly entangled and mixed up everywhere. Nothing is quite what they seem – or claim – to be anymore. Content that is explicitly labelled as pure news and current affairs is looking more and more like entertainment. My friend Kunda Dixit, who edits the Nepali Times, says this is inevitable when the same mega corporations own both cartoon networks and news channels.

No news is good news -- for whom?
No news is good news -- for whom?
If the mainstream news organisations don’t quite live up to our expectations to gather, analyse and reflect on the current affairs of the day, we should at least be grateful that some comedians are stepping into that void. We must welcome, celebrate and wish their tribe would increase!

The rise and rise of political satire is also being chronicled and analysed. A new book tells us why we now have to take satire TV seriously — it turns out to be the bearer of the democratic spirit for the post-broadcast age. Titled Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, the book is co-edited by Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey Jones and Ethan Thompson (NYU Press, April 2009).

Here’s the blurb introducing the book: “Satirical TV has become mandatory viewing for citizens wishing to make sense of the bizarre contemporary state of political life. Shifts in industry economics and audience tastes have re-made television comedy, once considered a wasteland of escapist humor, into what is arguably the most popular source of political critique. From fake news and pundit shows to animated sitcoms and mash-up videos, satire has become an important avenue for processing politics in informative and entertaining ways, and satire TV is now its own thriving, viable television genre. Satire TV examines what happens when comedy becomes political, and politics become funny.”

The book contains a series of original essays focus on a range of popular shows, from The Daily Show to South Park, Da Ali G Show to The Colbert Report, The Boondocks to Saturday Night Live, Lil’ Bush to Chappelle’s Show, along with Internet D.I.Y. satire and essays on British and Canadian satire. “They all offer insights into what today’s class of satire tells us about the current state of politics, of television, of citizenship, all the while suggesting what satire adds to the political realm that news and documentaries cannot.”

Let me summarise the news so far. Intentionally or otherwise, some news anchors and politicians are increasingly behaving like comedians. Meanwhile, a few professional comedians are talking serious politics and current affairs in a genre of media that is growing in popularity by the day.

Are you confused yet? Well, get used to it. This is the shape of things to come.

In such topsy-turvy times, we need more Jon Stewarts to puncture the bloated egos and images of not only elected and other public officials, but also of our larger-than-life news anchors, editors and media tycoons. I would any day have conscientious comedians doubling as social and political commentators than suffer shallow, glib newscasters trying to be entertainers. That’s what you call laughing for a good cause.

Parting thought: There is another dimension to satirising the news in immature democracies as well as in outright autocracies where media freedoms are suppressed or denied. When open dissent is akin to signing your own death warrant, and investigative journalists risk their lives on a daily basis, satire and comedy becomes an important, creative – and often the only – way to comment on matters of public interest. It’s how public-spirited journalists and their courageous publishers get around draconian laws, stifling regulations and trigger-happy goon squads. This is precisely what is happening right now in countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka, and it’s certainly no laughing matter. More about this soon.


The news as you never saw it before...
The news as you never saw it before...
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is an American late night satirical television programme, airing on Comedy Central, a cable/satellite channel. The half-hour long show is presented as a (fake) newscast. In their own words, the Daily Show team “bring you the news like you’ve never seen it before — unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy.” It “takes a reality-based look at news, trends, pop culture, current events, politics, sports and entertainment with an alternative point of view.”

The show premiered in July 1996, and was initially hosted by Craig Kilborn. Jon Stewart took over as host in January 1999, and made it more strongly focused on politics. In each show, anchorman Jon Stewart and his team of correspondents, comment on the day’s stories, employing actual news footage, taped field pieces, in-studio guests and on-the-spot coverage of important news events.

This is what the Wikipedia says: “The program has grown in popularity since Jon Stewart took over hosting, with organizations such as the Pew Research Center claiming that it has become a primary source of news for many young people, an assertion the show’s staff have repeatedly rejected. Critics, including series co-creator Lizz Winstead, have chastised Stewart for not conducting hard-hitting enough interviews with his political guests, some of whom he may have previously lampooned in other segments; while others have criticized the show as having a liberal bias. Stewart and other Daily Show writers have responded to both criticisms by saying that they do not have any journalistic responsibility and that as comedians their only duty is to provide entertainment.”

OK, The Daily Show may not be intentionally serious journalism, anymore than mainstream news channels are intentionally funny. But a significant number of American TV viewers and TV critics, as well as media researchers, have found the analysis and commentary to be highly insightful and incisive. It has won many awards including an Emmy and Peabody Award. It’s been on the cover of Newsweek for its outstanding elections coverage and serious journalism. It’s not to be laughed off easily.

After the Last Newspaper...
After the Last Newspaper...

How ‘Hole in the Wall’ ICT experiment inspired ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

21st Century, here we come...
21st Century, here we come...
With the 81st annual Academy Awards (Oscars) to be announced on February 22, all eyes are now on the nominated movies.

Updated on Oscar night: Slumdog wins 8 Oscars out of 10 nominations!

Few films in recent years have generated as much buzz as Slumdog Millionaire, the British-Indian film based in the slums of Mumbai. It has won five Critics’ Choice Awards, four Golden Globes and seven BAFTA Awards, and is nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Much has been written about the movie’s depiction of India’s stark urban realities of poverty, organised crime and street children. But there is another face of India that the movie captures: how information and communication technologies (ICTs) are changing culture, economy and social relations in the world’s largest democracy.

I just called to ask...
I just called to ask...
Early on, film critic Ben Walters spotted this aspect. He asked in The Guardian on 9 December 2008: Is Slumdog Millionaire the first truly 21st-century film? Among his reasons: “Jamal works in a call centre decorated with London Underground paraphernalia and whose employees are kept up to date on EastEnders plotlines to improve their chances of successful small talk with their customers. Aptly enough, the customers are mobile phone users – another emblem of 21st-century connectivity – and a mobile plays a crucial part in the story’s climax.”

Indeed, the mobile phone combined with live broadcast television both feature in the story’s climax. The film was partly shot on the actual studio set used by Kaun Banega Croreparti (KBC), the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. As I wrote earlier, the cerebral world of quizzing blends seamlessly with the rough world of Mumbai slums to produce an enthralling 120 minutes.

And now it turns out that a real life ICT experiment triggered the idea of the Slumdog story.

Indian author Vikas Swarup, on whose 2005 novel Q&A the movie is based, has recently revealed how he was inspired by the hole-in-the-wall project. This was an initiative by Dr. Sugata Mitra, chief scientist at NIIT, a leading computer software and training company in New Delhi. Mitra embedded a high-speed computer in a wall separating his firm’s headquarters from an adjacent slum, he discovered that slum children quickly taught themselves how to surf the net, read the news and download games and music. He then replicated the experiment in other locations. Each time the results were similar: within hours, and without instruction, the children began browsing the Internet.

Swarup told Indian Express in January 2009: “That got me fascinated and I realised that there’s an innate ability in everyone to do something extraordinary, provided they are given an opportunity. How else do you explain children with no education at all being able to learn to use the Internet. This shows knowledge is not just the preserve of the elite.”

Discover your world...
Discover your world...
Dr Mitra’s project was the subject of a 2002 documentary film, called Hole in the Wall, made by the New York based production company GlobalVision.

The film was introduced as follows: A revolution in information technology is redefining poverty, as how much you know is becoming just as important as how much you own. “The Hole in the Wall” examines one possible solution to the growing technological gap between rich and poor — the so-called ‘digital divide’ — that threatens to consign millions to an “information underclass.”

The film was made by Rory O’Connor and Gil Rossellini. An 8-min version was broadcast by PBS in October 2002 in their program Frontline/World. A 60-min version was screened at the United Nations in New York City in December 2002. The film has been widely screened, and won several awards.

Initiator of the Hole in the Wall project carries on his mission to adapt ICTs to serve the unmet needs of India’s poor. Watch Dr Sugata Mitra talk about his work in this TED Video:

Romulus Whitaker: Mixing films and conservation in India

A young volunteer gets to know a snake at Agumbe research station - photo courtesy Rolex Awards
Romulus Whitaker introduces a young volunteer to a snake at Agumbe research station, Tamil Nadu, India – photo courtesy Rolex Awards

“I haven’t had to do a nine-to-five job ever in my life, and that is a very envious situation to be in if you like the wild. Life has been much like a river in that it picks you up and carries you along. I have got into things as they come towards me.”

That’s how Romulus Whitaker, reptile and amphibian specialist, conservationist and filmmaker sums up his long, eventful and illustrious career. At 65, he is full of zest for life, ready to take on new challenges in protecting India’s forests and wildlife.

His current ambition, for which he has just been selected as an Associate Laureate in the 2008 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, is to create a network of rainforest research stations throughout India.

I caught up with this American-born, naturalised Indian citizen a few days ago when he and fellow Indian Moji Riba were presented with their Rolex awards at a ceremony in New Delhi.

Of course, I’d heard about Romulus (Rom) Whitaker for years and seen some of his natural history films. In some ways, his style was a bit like that of ‘The Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin — putting himself in the picture, sometimes in daring encounters with potentially dangerous animals…all in the name of bringing nature a bit closer to us in our living rooms.

But such similarities go only so far. Rom takes a less dramatic and more philosophical approach to humans’ relationship with Nature. For him, television is only a means to an end. As Rolex award profile put it, “the combination of a foreign name, mildly Viking looks inherited from his Swedish mother, an unexpected fluency in local Indian dialects and a thoroughly irreverent attitude” makes him “a highly unconventional yet effective conservationist in a country far from his birthplace”.

To catch a glimpse of this remarkable man, watch this ‘Incredible India’ PSA featuring Romulus Whitaker:

Rom was the founder director of the Snake Park in Chennai. The park was established in 1972 ‘to preserve the endangered reptile species in the sub continent’.

Rom’s career in film making was a byproduct of his life-long desire to bring people and Nature closer. He chronicled his venture into the world of television and film in a chapter he wrote for a book published by India’s Centre for Environment Education and TVE Asia Pacific in 2002. In that book, titled Wild Dreams, Green Screens, eight leading Indian film-makers shared insights about their careers, including how and when they decided to get involved in this field. They also talked about some of the exciting — and frustrating — experiences they have had while filming nature and wildlife.

From dreams to screen...
From dreams to screen…

In the early 1970s, Rom worked with a Russian film crew who turned up to do a sequence on snakes for a film based on the famous Kipling story, Rikki Tikki Tavi. “It was fun for me to help them figure out how to film a snake stealing an egg from a bird’s nest – and it took a whole week to do it. I was impressed by their patience and persistence,” Rom recalled in the book.

After that, every few months, some film crew would show up to do either a short news story on the Snake Park, or a short film on Indian snakes for foreign audiences. India’s stereotyped reputation as a land of snakes and snake-charmers partly fueled this interest.

Rom continues: “By the 1980s, I started thinking I knew something about making wildlife films – even though I didn’t have a TV, and there weren’t really very many such documentaries screened anywhere in India. I was aware that films could show and teach people about my beloved reptiles like nothing else. Surely the Snake Park with nearly a million visitors a year could make good use of such films, and I knew the visitors would go away with a new awareness of how beautiful, graceful and interesting reptiles are. A single broadcast on a TV channel and 20 million people would be able to see it all at once!”

Determined to do his own films, Rom teamed up with two school friends John and Louise Riber, and Shekar Dattatri, to make a film on India’s snakebite problem. They had a tiny budget (Indian Rupees 50,000, which is approximately US$ 1,000 today), an old Arri camera and ‘a lot of enthusiasm’.

One thing led to another. “‘Snakebite’ turned out to be a good little half-hour film which was translated into several Indian languages… Amazingly, this little film won a first prize at a festival in the United States, and was awarded the Golden Eagle by the American Movie and Television Federation. Lo and behold, I was a filmmaker!”

‘Snakebite’ (1985), made on 16 mm film, also launched the career of Shekar Dattatri, a multi-award winning Indian filmmaker who worked as an assistant director on this production. Coincidentally, Shekar was an Associate Laureate of the Rolex Award in 2004 for his ‘Wild India Project – Changing Hearts and Minds through Moving Images’.

Vikram Akula (left) presents Rolex Awards certificate to Romulus Whitaker in Delhi, 22 January 2009
Vikram Akula (left) presents Rolex Awards certificate to Romulus Whitaker in Delhi, 22 January 2009

We missed Shekar at the Delhi event – he couldn’t make it due to scheduling difficulties. But as Rom has written, the Whitaker-Dattatri partnership continued for several years while they struggled with ‘very crude equipment’ and tiny budgets. Films like ‘Seeds of Hope’ (on tree planting) and ‘A Cooperative for Snake Catchers’ followed.

Rom further writes in his chapter: “We worked hard on these films, learning as we went along month after month, working with really good people like the tree planters of Auroville and the Palni Hills Conservation Council, and, of course, the fantastic Irula tribals. We did have a few narrow escapes with snakes, but we always felt we were in much more danger driving down National Highway 45, than from any of our venomous subjects!”

Rom’s film making in the past two decades has taken him not only to the far corners of India, but to other biodiversity hotspots of the world – such as Indonesia. As the years passed, his enhanced reputation attracted big names in wildlife films, such as National Geographic, Discovery/Animal Planet and BBC Natural History. Combining his conservation knowledge with public education skills, Rom has also been presenter of several films.

The King (Cobra) and I
The King (Cobra) and I

These multiple involvements have earned him a string of awards – his documentary King Cobra made for National Geographic won him an Emmy award, considered the television equivalent of the Oscars.

Despite the rigorous demands of film making (and the occasional lure of television medium), Rom has remained active in conservation circles both within India and at global level. While many conservationists in India focus their attention on charismatic megafauna like tigers and elephants, Rom has stayed faithful to his chosen field of reptiles and amphibians. Years ago he realized that his beloved species cannot survive unless their natural habitats do. So, like many others, he evolved from naturalist to conservationist.

“A lot of us get wrapped up in our own little special animal and then we wake up and start thinking it has got to be habitat and it has to be eco-development that involves people and, now, in my case, it has crystallized into the whole idea of water resources,” he says.

Read his detailed CV for details on his conservation, publishing and film making accomplishments.

Rom’s colourful career has itself become a subject for other filmmakers. In 2007, he was featured in a critically-acclaimed documentary produced by PBS, under their “Nature” banner, on “super-sized” crocodiles and alligators, which was filmed in India, East Africa and Australia.

And in January 2009, Whitaker returned to the small screen in another “Nature” documentary on real-life reptiles such as Komodo dragons and Dracos that inspired tales of dragons.

Extract from The Dragon Chronicles, which premiered on PBS in January 2009:

Read the PBS/Dragon Chronicles interview with Rom Whitaker

The man who turned to moving images in the 1980s to move people’s minds towards conservation is still engaged in that business. He is a conservationist who puts a premium on public engagement, and especially on working with children and young people.

He says: “We are doing a lot of work with young people, bringing them to the forest and showing them what happens here and why it matters. It can be very difficult to change adult attitudes, but with the young, it is easier to get across the knowledge that what we are doing to the forests we are doing to ourselves.”

In Romulus Whitaker's hands, snakes become educational tools for children and icons of nature conservation. Photo courtesy Rolex Awards
In Romulus Whitaker\’s hands, snakes become educational tools for children and icons of nature conservation. Photo courtesy Rolex Awards