by Bill Morris
This week we found out that another Centre for Science Communication film, “Gone Curling” by Roland Kahurangi and Rachael Patching has been nominated for the Best Newcomer award at Wildscreen. It is the fourth of our films to appear at the festival, which is the world’s most prestigious wildlife and environmental film festival. Wildscreen is held in conjunction with the BBC’s Bristol Natural History Unit, the legendary organization responsible for the famous natural history programming many of us grew up with – Life on Earth and more. Those gloriously-filmed wildlife shows, made in exotic locations and drawn together by the dry-gin-and-pickled-onions, sun-never-sets-on-the-British-Empire intonations of Sir David Attenborough are still wildly popular – witness the success of the recent Frozen Planet, which drew millions of viewers across the world (albeit narrated by Alec Baldwin in America.)
However, just as the sun has set on the British empire, it is also setting on the golden era of wildlife filmmaking that inspired many of our students to follow their passions into the filmmaking and science communication field in the first place.
Television production companies today compete globally for an ever-diminishing slice of the money pie and there are intense commercial pressures to produce television that is instantly gratifying, fast-paced and tailored to appeal to as large a section of the potential audience as possible. This is referred to by some as “dumbing down,“ however the reality of the situation is that in order to survive, production companies need to make commercially successful television on very small budgets. Natural history as the BBC makes it is expensive and time-consuming. It requires film crews to spend months and even years in remote locations waiting on Nature to perform, which she does on her own time. But every day a crew is out in the field waiting on a polar bear to emerge from hibernation or a swallow’s eggs to hatch eats hungrily into the budget. These days it is really only the British taxpayer-funded BBC and Japan’s enormous NHK corporation that can afford this type of filmmaking, and that may be coming to an end too – budget cuts at the BBC may hamstring the Bristol Natural history unit in the future.
At the same time, “our world” is changing. Finding unspoiled locations in which to film wildlife is getting harder and harder. What we think we see on the screen is not necessarily the real deal – natural history documentaries are often very effective at concealing the fact that much of the world has become an over-crowded and polluted place. Artful framing, careful editing and shooting in dressed up locations, even zoos, can create a somewhat fabricated illusion of the world we like to think is out there. In a effort to address this, the final episode of the Frozen Planet series did look at the impact of global warming on the polar regions, although several major American broadcasters refused to screen this episode. However the companies making these shows can’t escape the reality that what they are creating is first and foremost entertainment; and as with all entertainment, smoke and mirrors may be required to immerse the viewer in a reality outside of their own. And sometimes, uncomfortable, unpleasant truths need to be avoided, concealed or simply ignored in order to maintain the illusion. Television is all about escapism, after all.
One of the best things about seeing films from the Centre for Science Communication is that although they are made on very small budgets, they do not have commercial imperatives hovering over them. In other words, students can tell the story they want to without accountants, programmers and executives demanding ratings success down the line. The best student films are entertaining yet informative and tell stories in a way we rarely see on mainstream television.
“Gone Curling” is an example – expertly shot and crafted, it captures a unique rural sub-culture in Central Otago at risk from global climate change. The climate message is subtle yet effective – the film lovingly explores the culture of outdoor curling in Naseby as they wait for a freeze that threatens not to arrive.
At first glance, it seems incongruous that a people-focussed film like Gone Curling would find favour at Wildscreen, but when you think about it, it’s a perfect fit. It documents the reality of what’s happening in the world today and how global climate change is impacting on human lives. It’s real and honest, in a time when big-budget natural history films are beginning to feel a little bit like a manufactured reality.
Some other Centre for Science Communication films that have been to Wildscreen: