Thursday, June 24, 2010

Filmmaking & Conservation: wrestling with the Faustian bargain

The picture above shows me on the job recently as director of photography on a recent film shoot (see previous post about reluctant sharks on this same shoot). I enjoy many aspects of location filming and this image represents some of the particularly fun moments - getting an interesting camera angle, doing something a bit different, maybe even a bit risky.

But there are moments when you are reminded that you are part of a large organization, simply a hired hand with a defined role. A recent post by David Shifman/Why Sharks Matter (portions of which are copied below) is a perfect example of the dilemma that filmmakers face when trying to both educate and entertain. David cites an episode of the Animal Planet series River Monsters about bull sharks and how it is full of over-the-top killer shark hyperbole. The host of the show, biologist Jeremy Wade, describes the bull shark and its ability to move within fresh or brackish water rivers in very alarming terms. If I was on the film crew, I would have been most likely rolling my eyes around, hearing this dialog - but I would know that I was hired to do a specific job and that I was not the screenwriter.

Jeremy Wade is in the same position. Hired as the on-screen host, with his biology credentials adding a degree of credibility to the show, the reality is that he is very limited as to his input regarding content. I'm sure he is able to make some suggestions, but if the producers or the network want more sensationalism, 99 times out of 100 they will get it. Sometimes a host, if he/she was the original developer of a show, might be able to initially negotiate with the networks to have some degree of editorial oversight - but that is a very, very rare occurrence.

The issue is the fundamental business model of broadcasting which has not changed in decades: the need for the broadest audience, which equates to high ratings (used to determine how much advertisers pay for commercials) and the tendency for that need to pander to a lower common denominator.

The world of digital online video has begun to shake the foundations of that business model in recent years but the type of productions that many of us in the nature documentary field would like to make are not necessarily cheap and so, if we expect to pay our bills, we work with the networks and hope the end product is something that is factual and enlightening. It is often a Faustian bargain.

Anti-shark stereotypes in River Monsters
Over Memorial Day weekend, Animal Planet aired a marathon of it’s new hit show “River Monsters”. The show focuses on self-described “biologist and extreme angler” Jeremy Wade’s attempt to find some of the largest freshwater fish on Earth. I’ve heard good things about the show in the past but had never seen it before. After discovering that there were two episodes that dealt with bull sharks, and I immediately DVR-ed them to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I was absolutely shocked at what I heard Jeremy Wade say about sharks:

“No fish inspires the same terror as the shark… but at least these killers are confined to the oceans… or are they?”

“As an angler and biologist I wanted to find out how this is possible, and how far inland these sharks will bring their reign of terror. My mission is to find out whether it’s safe to get back in the water even if you’re miles from the sea.”

“It would mean that there is no water safe from these predators. It can happen anywhere. The danger they present isn’t restricted to Australia.”

“Their ferocity is the stuff of nightmares… the ultimate killer shark”

“…there lurks a beast that is the embodiment of savagery…”

“…a battering ram armed with razor sharp teeth…”

Are you kidding me?

Most ridiculous of all was Wade’s constant assertions that bull sharks swimming into freshwater was a new behavior. He describes this several times:

“more and more, it seems like this freshwater Jaws is bringing its savagery into our once tame backyard”

“This is totally not normal in a river”

“I’ve hooked a creature so strong there’s no way that it should ever be in this river”

“This unstoppable predator is bringing its savagery into the very heart of our civilized world”

“Now we know that there’s more than one shark using this river, and that’s a concern”.

“It seems one species of shark has been trespassing… fresh water, operating where people thought no danger existed”

Actually, Mr. Biologist, bull sharks have been doing this for millions of years. And of course there’s more than one.

This kind of unscientific fearmongering would be intolerable from anyone, but it is completely inexcusable from a scientist who works for a nature channel.

Read David's entire post.


WhySharksMatter said...

Thanks for your perspective, Richard. I remain frustrated with Jeremy Wade, though.

Even if Animal Planet wanted to sell the show via fear, he could have said "I refuse to side with the folks who threatened to kill a scientist for releasing bull sharks". He did not.

RTSea said...

He could have said that of course. But he has to weigh that against his contractual obligation and the impact of being fired or sued.

What a scientist does with his career is as varied as anyone else. Some will teach high school, some will write books, some will bury themselves in research, and others will seek exposure in front of the camera.

Whatever the motivation, there will be pluses and minuses, obligations and responsibilities, and people to report to.

I am as frustrated as you are with a sensationalist program that is factually inaccurate. Sometimes the person in front of the camera is the easiest and most visible target, but often you have to dig deeper.