Saturday, January 16, 2010

Filmmaker Q&A: Julia Szucs & Steve Smith, "Arctic Cliffhangers"

Arctic Cliffhangers can be viewed on Saturday, February 6 at 4pm in the 7th annual San Francisco Ocean Film Festival. If you're interested in seeing the film, click here to buy tickets.

What is your overall summary for the film?
Climate change is affecting sea ice cover in Arctic waters, influencing marine life and altering the traditional lifestyles of northern peoples. For over thirty years, scientists have been examining how environmental changes are affecting Arctic Seabirds. By examining the lives of these hardy creatures of the northern seas, Arctic Cliffhangers provides an in-depth understanding of the relationships between reduced sea ice cover and the health of the Arctic ecosystem.

Can you tell us a bit about the filmmakers?
Along with being a filmmaker, Co-Director/Co-Producer, Steve Smith is also a wildlife biologist. He has been working with seabird specialists for decades, both in Antarctica and Canadaʼs Arctic. He began learning about seabird ecology in the early 1980s, when he was hired by Dr. Tony Gaston (who is the inspiration for this film) to conduct field studies in the High Arctic. In recent years, it has become evident through Dr. Gastonʼs long-term dataset of information on seabirds that global climate change is impacting the Arctic marine ecosystem. This important discovery was the original inspiration for making the film.

Co-Director/Co-Producer Julia Szucs began her work in environmental education and leadership training in the late 1980ʼs. In recent years she has lead numerous multi-week sea kayak expeditions along the Pacific Coast between Baja, California and Alaska, as well as in Canadaʼs High Arctic. When she heard that there was strong scientific evidence about the impacts of climate change on Arctic Seabirds, she was inspired to get involved with the film project, to communicate the real risks of altered ecological balance as a result of climate change.

Can you share more about your inspiration, Dr. Tony Gaston?

He is featured in the film at the High Arctic colony of Prince Leopold Island, and it was Tony who inspired and encouraged us to take on the project. Tony has spent 35 years of his life studying Arctic seabirds and he is one of the worldʼs leading seabird scientists. His dedication to fieldwork and to understanding the ecology of the Arctic is inspirational, as well as the hard work he has put into managing and coordinating several multi-decade research projects around the Arctic.

What do you want to impart on your filmʼs viewers?
Probably the most important idea of the film is that no matter how far away we live from the Arctic, we all play a part in influencing its future. Thereʼs a ripple effect to all of our decisions that we often arenʼt aware of, whether itʼs purchasing items with flame retardants that ultimately end up in the eggs of Arctic seabirds, or itʼs turning the ignition key that boosts the atmosphereʼs carbon dioxide levels, creating a loss of polar sea ice habitat. We are all connected - thatʼs what this film reminds us of - and we all need to be cognizant of our actions and how they affect even the most remote places of our undeniably finite planet.

What was the most enjoyable part of creating the film?

The filming! We were so fortunate to be invited to join scientists and to follow Inuit to some of the most spectacular seabird colonies of the Canadian Arctic. And joining the Newfoundlanders out on the high seas in a 20 foot skiff in the middle of February was a gripping adventure!

What was the most challenging part of creating the film?
While we had hoped to do an educational film that was told only through the words of scientists and seabird hunters, once in the editing room we realized how difficult it would be to piece together all of ʻtalking headsʼ and all of the technical information into a cohesive and compelling story. We had to find a way to create a story that would be told in a manner that would not intimidate non-technical audiences.

Since Steve had a long history of Arctic exploration and study that included several years of working with seabird biologists, we felt that he was the most passionate narrator for the story. And once we made that decision, the idea of making a story about Steve going on a ʻfield tripʼ across the Arctic came together pretty easily... we could craft the questions that we wanted to answer as well as Steveʼs observations in ways that a general audience would be able to follow. And Steveʼs first-person adventure makes the learning aspect of the film easier to digest.

What was the most memorable moment in creating the film?
At one of the colonies, Steve was doing double-duty as filmmaker and field researcher. He was helping to capture birds in order to collect electronic recording devices that hadbeen attached to their legs, and he realized that the bird he was holding was the same bird that he had once banded in 1985! This bird (featured in the film) had to be at least 30 years old! And of the millions (literally) of seabirds that we were around during the production, it was quite amazing to be holding the very same bird that he had worked on
23 years previously.

How or why did you begin creating ocean-focused films?
Steve Smith and I (Julia Szucs) both have a huge passion for the ocean. We are both certified sea kayak expedition guides and ocean naturalists we have spent many seasons of our lives traveling and living on different oceans and coastal areas in various areas of the planet. So making films about the ocean is a natural outlet for sharing our passion and concern for the ocean.

Why did you choose to submit your film to the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival?
We wanted to share our film with those who have a passion for the ocean and marine related environmental issues and we feel that this audience will be willing to share what they have learned with a general public in a geographic location that is far from the filmʼs location in the Canadian Arctic. It is also exciting for us to be able take part in the festival and be inspired by other ocean filmmakers. We look forward to meeting other filmmakers; sharing ideas, concerns, victories and challenges of this type of documentary filmmaking.

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