“Everyone who makes films has to be an athlete to a certain degree because cinema does not come from abstract academic thinking; it comes from your knees and thighs” – film-maker and documentarian Werner Herzog.
On Tuesday, September 6, three powerful new films chronicling EIA’s recent undercover investigations into timber smuggling, the ivory trade and whaling will make their world debut in the USA on Nat Geo Wild.
Broadcast under the collective banner of Crimes Against Nature, Blood Ivory depicts the brutal horror of elephant poaching in Kenya and black market trade in the marketplaces of Hong Kong and China; Making a Killing exposes Iceland’s hunting of endangered fin whales to package and sell for consumption in Japan; and Chainsaw Massacre uncovers the Vietnamese army’s involvement in the widespread smuggling of timber from neighbouring Laos.
Each film follows seasoned EIA investigators in the field as they methodically piece together the clues of wildlife and forest crime and follow evidence trails leading to corrupt officialdom, organised criminal syndicates and grasping businessmen. Along the way, viewers will share the setbacks and successes in films rich with imagery both startling and haunting.
What they won’t see, and possibly won’t suspect, is the long year of preparations and often physically and emotionally demanding work behind the scenes to get three one-hour films in the can.
The project effectively began in 2009, following EIA’s tiger team in China and Nepal for a pilot film eventually broadcast early last year on Nat Geo Wild as Eco Crime Investigators – Inside the Tiger Trade.
The broadcast, first in the USA and subsequently worldwide (and it’s still in heavy rotation), was such a success that further programmes were commissioned.
Initial meetings with the London-based production company hired by Nat Geo to make the films focused on the likely scope of the three investigations, the probable shooting times and budget requirements for each, and a loose schedule around which investigators would have to fit all their usual campaign work and commitments.
It was in October 2010, when filming was concluded in Iceland and underway in Vietnam, that I was brought onboard as Project Co-ordinator; you could draw up a job description for the role which might run to several sides of A4, or you could just as accurately say my primary function was to help ease the process along as required.
Both EIA and the production company shared the same goal – to make the best programmes possible; naturally, both came at it with different considerations to the fore. The nature of conducting investigations in the field is that you never know what’s going to turn up and where it might lead; the nature of film-making is that you have to satisfy those commissioning the venture that they’re going to end up with a solid narrative arc and a substantial conclusion, preferably before shooting begins.
From the word ‘go’, EIA was adamant that its investigators would not serve as props, nor would they be mouthpieces for scripted lines which might in any way reflect poorly or inaccurately on the organisation, its methodology or its invaluable work. At the same time, we accepted that the film-makers needed to distil often-complex issues in a way that was accurate and wouldn’t leave viewers scratching their collective brows and reaching for the remote control. Looking at the finished products (and I believe I must have done so a score of times for each!), I think it’s fair to say this was achieved remarkably well.
In the field was where problems could most easily arise as directors fretted that they wouldn’t get the key shots they needed within the timeframe allowed, or when they were debriefing an investigator following an emotionally exhausting undercover filming session and needed the same kind of projected energy on take seven as was given the first time around. But our investigators are nothing if not troopers – and on many occasions during this project they were fixers and guides too – and the passion they have for their various campaigns all but radiates from the screen.
When location filming concluded by late March, it remained to fine-tune the narratives, film interviews with the key campaigners and nail down the voice-over and visual inserts such as animated maps..
With security the key consideration for EIA, this was also the time for me to go through each film with a fine toothcomb and ensure that the identity of our undercover Chinese investigator was protected at all times; you’d be amazed at how often somebody’s features can be fleetingly reflected in background mirrors and table tops.
All that remains now is for you to watch the films, and help EIA by spreading the word for others to do the same.
* After the US premiere on Tuesday, the three programmes are due to be broadcast on Nat Geo Wild in other territories, including the UK, later this year – watch our website and blog for details as we learn them.