Monday, December 28, 2009

Filmmaker Q&A: Gavin Newman, "To Save the Whale"

The 2010 San Francisco Ocean Film Festival has the honor of showcasing the world premier of Gavin Newman’s film, “To Save the Whale”, which tells the inside story of a group of Greenpeace activists as they attempt to stop Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. Although this is not a Greenpeace film, it is a film made about Greenpeace and their anti-whaling campaign

Since 1975 the environmental organization Greenpeace has been defending the worlds dwindling populations of whales by placing themselves between the hunters harpoons and the whales.

Since the worldwide ban on commercial whaling was introduced in 1982 the Japanese fleet has continued to hunt whales using a loophole in the regulations that allows for “scientific” whaling. Greenpeace ioppose even this scientific hunt, exposing it as little more than thinly disguised commercial whaling. “To Save The Whale” follows the Greenpeace crews as they go to extraordinary lengths to defend the whales from the explosive tipped harpoons of the Japanese fleet amid the icebergs and beauty of the Antarctic Southern Ocean.

This hard-hitting documentary exposes the reality of this hidden hunt whilst also trying to understand the reasons for its continuation and the human faces behind those trying to stop it. Far from the stereotypical environmentalists portrayed elsewhere, the Greenpeace crews are comprised of a surprisingly varied group including seafarers, activists, scientists, doctors, and even ex-nuclear submariners and ex-White House staff. They all have a varied tale to tell, yet never fail to impress with their understanding of the issues at hand, their commitment to the Greenpeace principles of non-violence, and their absolute dedication to save the whales. The story told exclusively in the words of the Greenpeace crews starkly contrasts the hunting with the beauty of the environment and the hopes of the activists for the future.

What was your inspiration for creating the film?
I always wanted to make a film about a Greenpeace campaign and as a diver and underwater filmmaker the campaign to protect the whales was an obvious choice. The annual Japanese whale hunt in the Antarctic goes on so far from the public eye that few realize the true horror of what goes on from a Government backed commercial enterprise that is thinly disguised as scientific research. Whilst it doesn’t make for a pretty or comfortable viewing, the medium of film enables me to bring the real story to the attention of as many people as possible. Secondly, whilst Greenpeace has a very high public profile I always felt that most people have a distorted view of environmental activists and often fail to understand the people involved and the work that goes on behind the scenes of such a global organization. In recent years much television time has gone to promoting the efforts of others to engage the whalers, often openly belittling the Greenpeace campaign. In doing so the role of the activists has become sensationalized and the issue reduced to little more than a reality TV show. By telling the story of the campaign through the eyes of those who have been working on this issue for over 30 years, I hope that I can go towards returning the focus to the real issue -- that of Saving The Whales.

What was the most challenging part of creating the film?
Working as a one-man band on this project, lack of budget, and having to work alongside other film crews also trying to make a documentary on board the same ship!

What was the most enjoyable part of creating the film?
Being in the Antarctic, the most pristine environment on earth, having the satisfaction of completing such a challenging project and [for those that have seen it] the audience response to the issue.

What was the most memorable moment in creating the film?
Being woken early one morning to be told that the ship was surrounded by whales and then spending the next few hours on an inflatable boat amongst the icebergs filming nearly 50 humpback whales both above and below water.

How or why did you begin creating ocean-focused films?
I've always loved the ocean. I started diving when I was a teenager and always loved to capture the underwater world first on still pictures and later on film and video. Working as a cameraman for both the BBC Natural History Film Unit and Greenpeace has over the years allowed me to see both the best and worst sides of what goes on in our oceans. Hopefully through the medium of film we can bring both the best and the worst sides to the attention of those who don't have the opportunity to go out there and see for themselves.

Why did you choose to submit your film to the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival?
I decided to submit this film to the festival because there is not a more iconic symbol of both the ocean and man’s relationship with it, than the whale. It’s the perfect event at which to premiere this film.

Other stuff…
Whilst the organization had put no editorial or financial input into the project, the film would not have been possible without the fantastic support from Greenpeace in giving me open access to their extensive video library and the trust shown in me by the crews onboard the ships. I have sailed as a cameraman on many Greenpeace ships in the past and this inside knowledge of the organization and their knowledge of me undoubtedly gave me the edge to be able to make this film.

Newman also recently won an Emmy Award for cinematography on the BBC Travel Channel's “Wild China” Natural History Series.