Response and Reflections

Born in 1966 in France, I am growing up in Malaysia and Singapore from the age of 5 to 18. In 1987, I graduate from UC Berkeley with a BA in Humanities. In 1990, I drop out of Medical School in Paris. The following year I’m reading “Compared Literature” at the Sorbonne. At 25 years old, I find a poorly paying job in a production company for TV commercials. There I discover digital special effects and climb my way up the ladder to become a freelance post-production supervisor for feature films.

In 2002, I’m 36 years old and leading a comfortable life in Paris. I am never out of work but feel something is wrong. My midlife crisis awakes my boyish desire to be out in the wild observing wildlife. I thus buy myself a camera (a SONY PD 100) and leave for Indonesia for 3 months for my first filming experience. I’m startled by the extent of the forest destruction I witness around me and I decide I want to make films for conservation. Once back home, I learn how to use Final Cut Pro and edit my first film “Tears of Wood”, a 26-minute film on the Indonesian forest and its destruction from the point of view of a big male orang-utan. I continue working part time as a freelance digital special effects supervisor and soon go back to Indonesia to make a 52-minute version of “Tears of Wood” which I call “Losing Tomorrow”. I’m then commissioned by Global Witness to make a film on Forestry Monitoring in Cameroon as well as by WWF to make a film on bush-meat and ivory poaching in a national park in Gabon. I decide to go back to making my own self-produced films because I enjoy the freedom of not having to make compromises. My problem is that my personal films are not reaching a wide audience because TV broadcasters show no interest in them. So for my third self-produced film, Green, I decide to make it available for free download on the Internet and make it copyright free for public screening.

Luckily, Green has received more than 35 awards in festivals worldwide; it has been broadcasted on about 10 TV channels, it is downloaded everyday by people around the world and it is presently being used as an educational tool in schools and universities. Green shows that a low-budget-homemade-conservation film can indeed reach a relatively wide audience. But of course, this choice of broadcast doesn’t always work out so well. My latest film “Alma”, also self-produced, copyright free and available on the net, is hardly reaching anybody. It is not winning awards, very few people are downloading it and it will probably never be broadcasted. Perhaps I’ll get it right again with my next film, the one I’m now working on. I finance the making of my films through different means: by selling my raw footage to NGOs or production companies, by the sales of Green to TV channels, by inviting people to make donations on the website, by sometimes working as a camera man, and by giving talks in schools and workshops. When shooting, I travel alone or with a friend for sound recording. I only carry a small camera (now a Canon HXA1) and a tripod. I then edit on my laptop and have friends to help me with the key steps in post-production such as sound design, foley, colour grading, graphics, music and mix. Luckily, the fact of making films “for the good cause” without commercial interest, draws many professionals to help me at no cost.

All my films are about deforestation, loss of biodiversity, animal and human suffering, consumerism and economic development. I like to make them independently, free of all political or commercial interest. They are my way of helping the forest, the wildlife and the victims of human greed. My films are a citizen act driven by empathy and by the guilt of being myself a part of the problem. When I set off to make Green, I knew I wanted to make another film on deforestation in Indonesia and the plight of the orang-utans, but I had no specific story in mind – I had no script. Upon arrival in Indonesia with my friend (a guitar teacher who composes the music to my films), we spent 3 weeks in national parks in Sumatra. I filmed everything I found beautiful in the forest, while he did sound recordings. He then went back home and I continued alone to an orang-utan refuge in Central Kalimantan. There, in the clinic, I came across an orang-utan lying on her back, in a bed with a towel as a blanket, a “Hello Kitty” pillow under her head and IV tubing taped to her left leg. The sight startled me, she looked so human. I was told she had come from the wild (as opposed to many who come from captivity), she had been rescued a few days ago from a palm oil plantation where she had been captured by the workers on site. The vet told me she believed the orang-utan had had an ICH (intracerebral haemorrhage), which had left her half paralyzed on her left side. That was the reason why she was lying on her back unable to get up. The clinic staff had named her Sandra.

I spent the following 3 weeks by Sandra’s bedside, with my camera. As the days went by, I began thinking that she could become the central character of my new film, but unfortunately nothing much happened in her room. Her condition was stable and she hardly ever moved. There wasn’t much of a story to be told. However, she had all these incredible expressions and it occurred to me that the story could be that of what was going on in her mind. Of course, I had no way of knowing what she could be feeling and thinking of, but I could imagine it, I could make it up. Sometimes she looked relaxed as if thinking of something peaceful (like the forest), sometimes she was stressed, like when she heard the gardener mowing the lawn. Perhaps the machine sounds reminded her of the chainsaws. I quickly saw how, through her expressions and her point of view, I could tell the story of the three main industries destroying the Indonesian rainforest. When I felt I had enough footage of Sandra, I set off to film what was missing. When I got back to Paris a few months later, I began editing. With the footage I had managed to film, I could fabricate a simple story around Sandra: lying on her hospital bed, she would remember how it was in the forest with her baby, how the chainsaws and fire destroyed her home, how she ended up on the last tree still standing and how she was taken to a hospital where she lets herself die of sorrow because she’s lost everything.

While in Indonesia, I helped rescue a weak and dehydrated young female orang-utan from a palm oil plantation who died in my arms on the way to the clinic. She stopped breathing when I was alone with her. The vet and driver had gone for a quick diner, but I stayed sitting in the car holding her like a baby in my arms and whispering to her softly that she had to be strong, that everything was going to be fine, that no one would harm her anymore. Inside the car, all was quiet and peaceful. I could feel her breathing on my stomach. An angel passed and the breathing stopped. She was gone with one last soft heartbeat. I cried and felt so sorry for her. The poor little thing had probably seen her mother shot before her own eyes, had been locked up in a wooden box on the plantation where we found her, and had been left there alone, scared, cold, hungry and thirsty for days or weeks perhaps. And she was just one of the estimated 5000 orang-utans who die each year due to deforestation. The extinction of the orang-utans was happening right here in my arms! After the tears dried up, I realized that we all shared responsibility for her death: not only the workers on the plantation who captured her, but also all of us in the rich countries whose homes are filled with products made of exotic hardwood, paper and palm oil. With Green, I wanted to make people feel what I had felt. Feel the pain and the sense of guilt. I wanted every viewer to appreciate his (or her) own part of responsibility and chose to act accordingly: stop consuming products made of forest destruction. That is why I decided to have Sandra die at the end of the film. I couldn’t afford to take the risk of having people think “Oh, she lives on, it’s not that bad after all, she’ll just have to get better and adapt to her new environment. I can continue consuming stuff the way I like to”.

While editing, my biggest fear was that people wouldn’t “buy” the story I had made up around Sandra. Anyone who works closely with orang-utans would see that the orang-utan in the opening shot, and all those in the wild, in the degraded forests or in the palm oil plantations are all different from one another, and from Sandra. But fortunately the average viewer doesn’t really pick up on this and goes along with the story. And those who share my sensitivity actually do feel the pain and guilt. I know that the impact of the film is insignificant regarding the global picture, I know that human greed and indifference will eventually destroy all of Indonesia’s forest, but I still prefer to fight and resist rather than do nothing. I didn’t put any shots of local dwelling Dayak people in the nature sequences of the film because these sequences refer to today’s forests, the ones where orang-utans (and many other species) are presently being wiped out to make room for palm oil plantations. Today in Kalimantan, there is hardly any forest left with both Dayaks and orang-utans. Usually, where there are Dayaks, all the orang-utans have long been shot and eaten. It is mostly in the patches of forest where there are no Dayak hunters that one can still find orang-utans. As for the end credits, I didn’t put the name of big environmental NGO’s because, at the time of making the film, I didn’t realize how political, deceitful and counter productive many of them are. I only recently became aware of this with Fabrice Nicolino’s book “Qui a tué l’écologie?” (Who killed ecology?). I was also hoping these NGO’s would use the film as a campaign tool, but I don’t think many did. Ideally, the end credits of Green should be updated every three or four years to be able to keep up with the changes in the different industries.

I don’t consider Green (or any of my other self-produced films like Tears of Wood, Losing Tomorrow or Alma) as documentaries. I see them as poetical films or something equivalent to poetry in literature. Documentaries demand a rigour that I don’t follow. My only rigour is to never have any “mise en scene” nor use special effects other than cleaning or stabilising shots. But I allow myself the odd “cheat” like when the vet in the film says “Green”. Of course, in my rushes, she actually says “Sandra”. I allow myself this, because having the vet say “Green” seemed to me as the subtlest way of making the viewer understand that the orang-utan’s name is Green. And I’m sure that had I called the film “Sandra”, it wouldn’t have got half the awards it did. “Green” seemed to me the best possible name for the dying orang-utan and for the title of the film.

PS: Last I heard regarding Sandra, she is still alive but still half paralysed. She’s in a small cage in the refuge, with very little mobility. The managers have asked the Indonesian authorities the permission to euthanise her, but it was not granted. I am told that the Indonesian authorities never allow any euthanasia of orang-utans. I suppose this is because the statistics are bad enough as it is.