Taya Diaz: Amiable tour guide to a (biological) Treasure Island

Taya Diaz conducts film making master class during Wildscreen 2011 in Colombo

“Taya Diaz has the shortest name in Sri Lanka but is a big man with a personality to match and a bushy black beard. Apart from being an excellent guide with good knowledge of all aspects of Sri Lankan Wildlife, he’s also a writer and film maker and is excellent company.”

That’s how a bird-watching website once described Taya Diaz, Sri Lankan conservationist turned wildlife film maker.

During the past two decades, Taya has collaborated in making over 20 full-length international wildlife documentaries, all showcasing Sri Lanka’s rich biological diversity and ecosystems. He has been a scientific investigator, presenter, narrator or Sinhalese scriptwriter.

One of his earliest involvements in international film making was with The Temple Troop. Made in 1997, for the BBC and Discovery Channel, it documented a year in the life of a troop of monkeys living in Sri Lanka’s ancient city of Polonnaruwa. These monkeys have been the subject of a long-running study by the Smithsonian Institution’s Primate Biology Program.

Trained as a scientist, Taya has worked in a number of field based conservation projects including the Smithsonian study of monkeys. But it’s as a wildlife and natural history that he now makes a name both in Sri Lanka and overseas.

The Urban Elephant (2000, for PBS/National Geographic), and The Last Tusker (2000, for BBC/Discovery) are two other productions that used Taya’s ground knowledge and scientific expertise. He has provided local liaison for broadcasters such as New Zealand TV, Canal+, Discovery channel, and BBC1.

Taya Diaz: Enough stories to last a lifetime!

For all these reasons, Taya was a natural choice when TVE Asia Pacific was asked to recommend a Sri Lankan film maker to present a master class when the Wildscreen traveling film festival held in Colombo from 17 to 19 February 2011. His master class, titled “Untold Stories of Sri Lanka”, looked at Sri Lanka’s as yet largely untapped potential for authentic, factual stories related to wildlife, natural history and the environment.

He explained the premise for his master class: “Sri Lanka is a pot of plenty in every aspect — the opportunities for a documentary filmmaker are astounding. But sadly, what most audiences see on the airwaves is very standard and boringly similar, touching on the same topics year in and year out.”

Taya feels that documentary films and TV programmes are also essential for educating Sri Lankans about their own natural heritage. Sri Lanka has an impressively high number of plant and animal species for its relatively small land area — which makes it one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world.

“Sri Lankan naturalists, wildlife experts and environmentalists should collaborate more closely with film makers and/or broadcasters to make more local films aimed at local audiences,” he said during a panel discussion I moderated on February 17. “This is essential for raising awareness on environment and sustainable development issues as Sri Lanka pursues rapid economic development after the war.”

Read TVEAP News story on Taya’s master class: Story telling through the local eyes vital, says Taya Diaz

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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