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GOING GREEN - Envisioning A Greener Future: Film Students In Kenya Confront Climate Change

Posted By Katie Carpenter, Friday, October 11, 2019

Picture this: a young African woman is racing down a stretch of savanna, baseball hat, blouse drifting behind her, armed with a butterfly net. As the glare clears from the lens, we see she is chasing a bright orange butterfly, weaving in the sub-Saharan sun. Ivy is laughing at her companion, another Kenyan entomologist. He can’t keep up with his swift lab partner. “Run, run, run,” she chides in her African lilt, laughing as she leaps forward to catch her prey.

The African queen butterfly the two scientists take back to their bush lab at the Mpala Research Center tells a story of the global pollinator crisis and the impact of climate change on our world. The drama will unfold in a stunning film, with shallow depth of field, bright colors, photogenic locations and catchy African rhythms. Best of all, it’s a tale told through a character unquestionably ready for her close-up.

Maybe Hollywood could use a dose of Ivy.

“Why Is Hollywood So Scared of Climate Change?” That was the headline on a recent New York Times article, and when I was called for a response, I did a little research. Only three studies pop up on the topic of why more stories about climate change don’t appear in U.S. film or TV. The results are stark. One study determined that out of more than 800 movies released last year, the total with foreground climate themes was three.

Most blockbusters that touch on environmental themes are focused on conflict, politics or mayhem. Avengers: Infinity War and Aquaman come to mind—hardly the level of engagement in the issue we’re looking for. I recall a thoughtful scene on a farm in Interstellar, and a symbolic storm in Beasts of the Southern Wild. We can’t overlook Downsizing from 2017 or Young Ones in 2014. Still, a paltry showing.

If features tend to ignore climate change, you might think television news surely must be on the case. But just when experts are predicting worsening impacts from climate change, we learn from Media Matters that “Broadcast TV news coverage of climate change plummeted 45% from 2017 to 2018, even as the climate crisis steadily worsened.” One studio exec told me the lack of coverage is largely because climate is still a divisive issue, and producers and studios need to sell tickets or get high ratings. This year, though, the UN reported that sea level is rising faster than expected—temperatures too. Can we doubt there is human drama in that?

I was recently in Kenya teaching documentary film to a class of American and Kenyan undergraduates in the Princeton Global Seminar. They learned camera, sound and editing, but also how to create innovative films about climate and conservation that would engage audiences around the world, in spite of the clear resistance and polarization.

I saw an opportunity to conduct an experiment: Could fresh young minds with movie cameras and a passion for wildlife and wilderness take on climate and conservation differently? Could they get their films to reach beyond “the converted” audience and out to audiences everywhere?

Five hours north of Nairobi in rural Laikipia County, stories of drought, hunger, thirst and endangered wildlife reign. There are also powerful tales of resilience and compassion. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking and mesmerizing country, a frame that is rich with opportunities to talk about climate change and conservation without dividing audiences. I have spent quite a bit of time in Africa, producing films about elephant poaching, flamingos in decline, crocodiles hunted for their skins and other endangered species.

Now the lens needs to be widened, for none of those stories is complete without addressing climate change.

To prime the students, we spent the first week tucked away in a rustic classroom, serenaded by noisy hornbills and pinstriped guinea fowl, screening the great and the near-great of environmental documentaries. We diagrammed them, discussed them and evaluated their elements, asking why they thought some succeeded and others failed.

After that first week, the bleary-eyed novice filmmakers began high-end camera training, research and interviews. Some of the scientists we shared our campus with came to talk about the reality of African environmental issues. The most often repeated stories were about the increase in human-wildlife conflict and scarcity of water. These were dark themes, and bringing them to life in engaging ways would be a challenge. Two weeks in, the students launched the production of their film projects, each an eight- to 10-minute “conservation short” on a globally relevant topic.

In the end, the students produced short works of surprising power. Their films were original, refreshing and bordering on radical. The film about butterflies brought tears to our eyes. Another about small farmers standing their ground in a fight for water—while the supply is declining and mechanized farms are using huge pumps to steal it out of the river that runs between them—brought us to our feet. The personal profiles of a charismatic ranger and a wildlife veterinarian conveyed the looming extinction of the northern white rhino. The last two on the planet were located on a nearby reserve. Climate change was a plotline in every film. We were blown away.

The productions were low-impact, with almost no environmental damage. No animals were harmed, no climate was changed. Instead of huge Range Rover Defender safari vehicles, choppers and small planes, this group shot using cargo-carrying bicycles called  boda boda bikes and a small drone operating on rechargeable batteries. We lit our night shots with headlamps. We had no printed scripts, no plastic and we recycled everything. We drank rainwater and cooked over a fire.

Clearly that would be hard to duplicate in Hollywood, but we need to up our game. Our films have to be more persuasive, cheaper, greener. We need to work with purpose, compassion and ingenuity, while telling a great story with amazing characters. Box office numbers and ratings will come. 

Maybe this is the year conservation shorts will break out. This fall, filmmakers, network heads and foreign buyers will gather at the Jackson Hole Wild Film Festival to celebrate environmental films. I have won at Jackson with two of my recent films, on elephant poaching and ocean conservation. This time I’m judging the category of Conservation Shorts, which includes an entry from Richard Branson on endangered rhinos, along with others on rising sea levels and burning rainforests and their impact on wildlife.

I’m delighted that some of the participants in our Mpala film course applied to travel to the festival from Kenya to learn more about filmmaking in the wild from the veterans. The rich programming to be offered at Jackson Wild is tantalizing, and yet the Mpala students might have more to teach than they have to learn.


Green production guidelines, vendors and inspiration can be found at

- Top image photographed by Gerson Leiva
 Box image photographed by Brady Valashinas




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