'The New Environmentalists' series looks at Dmitry Lisitsyn's fight to protect endangered wildlife from oil and gas development in Siberia.

‘New Environmentalists’ Salutes Gutsy Grassroots Guerillas

Michael Fox October 7, 2011

Goldman Prize-winning environmentalists' work highlighted in short-form pieces by Parrinello, Antonelli and Dusenbery.

Will Parrinello calls it the best gig around. For eight years—soon to be nine—he and cohorts John Antonelli and Tom Dusenbery have produced profiles of the half-dozen activists worldwide chosen each year for the renowned Goldman Environmental Prize. The pluses are inarguable: Ample funding, travel to exotic locales, dynamic subjects who are making a real difference. But that doesn’t mean The New Environmentalists is a cake job.

“We really have only a week in-country, and we film four or five days,” Parrinello explains. “By the time we arrive, [the subject and I] have to know each other fairly well. Now, they don’t achieve what they achieve without being in charge. And you don’t make a film without being in charge. So you have to create a relationship [ahead of time]. I say to them, ‘It’s a partnership. We’re going to make this film together.’”

The intent of the Goldman Prize, and by extension The New Environmentalists, isn’t to instigate masses of people to dedicate their lives to an environmental, human rights or social-justice issue, Parrinello explains. The goal is to publicize the extraordinary effect that a single person can have locally. If ten viewers are inspired to create and spearhead a project in their communities, well, the positive impact would be enormous.

Along with a compressed production schedule, the filmmakers are frequently dealt the wild card of unwelcoming, if not overtly hostile, authorities. In those cases, the crucial challenge is getting people and equipment in and out of the target country safely.

“Everyone has different rules and requirements, and sometimes because of the sensitive nature of our work we are singled out and purposely delayed in entering with our gear,” Dusenbery says. “Last year, on the remote island of Sakhalin, Russia, our equipment was held up in customs for two and half days even though we had followed the rules.”

“Recently we pared down the crew and equipment so that we could look like tourists going through customs after the Zimbabwe government turned down our film permit and visas,” Antonelli relates. “We flew across the border in a small private plane and pretended we were staying at an exclusive resort down the road from where the environmentalist was working on his rhino preservation project. Once we got through customs, we diverted to the preserve and were reassembling our gear and shooting within minutes of landing. Later we got a ride across the border back into South Africa.”

Antonelli adds, “It kind of brings me back to the days of guerilla production when Will and I were doing everything—shooting, recording, editing, producing. There's a simplicity to it that's a little like being a writer or a painter, and I find it brings me closer to the subjects of the stories.”

Back in their Marin County production offices, the producer-directors condense each expedition into a five-minute piece, and compile the six shorts into a half-hour program. When they embarked on The New Environmentalists eight years ago, they expected to have more room to maneuver. But the presenting station, KQED, sold them on the shorter format.

“That first year we knew we had enough material to create an hour-long program,” Parrinello recalls. “Our assumption was an hour. [Longtime KQED Director of Programming] Scott Dwyer said, ‘We need half-hours. Nationally, PBS is looking for a younger audience, so we’d be interested in shorter films and shorter stories, and we’d probably be able to use those stories in multiple ways.’”

Dwyer’s instincts turned out to be solid. A number of festivals have shown them as individual five-minute films, and Sundance Channel broadcast several as interstitials. But the filmmakers still grapple with the constraints of of five-minute profiles.

“We have come to rely a lot on the input and feedback from the staff at the Goldman Prize for helping us determine if we're really on-story regarding the importance and impact of each activist's work,” Dusenbery says. “But purely as filmmakers I think we have all developed a sense over the years for what really touches an audience and what they will respond to. Each year we have been able to hone this skill a little more.”

“The biggest thing to me is how do the people we profile, and their close associates, react to the piece,” Antonelli says. “Did we do them justice? Their work is so complicated and often extends over decades. It feels a bit like we are trivializing their accomplishment to make it only five minutes. So I try to drill down and find what it is that drew them to their work, and what they feel is their greatest achievement, and try to keep it as simple as possible without a lot of detail about their opposition or other facts that might get lost on the audience. What's the emotional content of their story? What did they change by their commitment and their actions?”

The inevitable self-doubts bred by the proscribed length, along with the drama-packed accomplishments of many of the prize-winning activists, have impelled two of the filmmakers to develop long-form treatments. Antonelli is well down the road on The Killing Seasons, a documentary about animal conservationists in Zambia and Swaziland. Parrinello just received his first grant, from National Geographic, for a feature doc about an El Salvadoran farmer who led a successful campaign to block a water-polluting gold mine.

Next month, though, Dusenbery, Antonelli and Parrinello will sit down for their first story meeting to divvy up the new crop of Goldman awardees. Each filmmaker is guaranteed one of his top two choices, and no one ends up disappointed.

“What we’ve learned is that all the stories are great,” Parrinello says. “One winner may have seemed like a stronger narrative, or a simpler storyline, or a more powerful individual. The one that seemed a little uninteresting to me, for whatever reason, was in fact as powerful, if not more powerful, than the one that on paper seemed the strong one. What you learn is not to have expectations—which is a great lesson in life.”

“The New Environmentalists” screens Saturday, October 8 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, October 15 at 4:15 p.m. in the Mill Valley Film Festival program “Our New Frontier: Sustainability.” The doc also airs Monday, October 17 at 7:30 p.m. on KQED-Channel 9.

Notes from the Underground
Frameline and Festival Director Jennifer Morris have parted ways after 17 years. The organization announced the addition of Desiree Buford as Director of Exhibitions & Programming, Frances Wallace as Director of Strategic Partnerships & Programmer and Sarah Deragon as Director of Educational Programming & Acquisitions. … Luke Griswold-Tergis’ Smokin’ Fish, edited by Maureen Gosling and executive produced by Jed Riffe, receives its U.S. premiere Sat., Oct. 8 in the Mill Valley Film Festival. … Tom Weidlinger’s Original Minds airs Sat., Oct. 8 at 6 p.m. on KQED and Sun., Oct. 9 at 11 p.m. on KQED World. … The Saul Zaentz Co. filed suit against Miramax and former owner Walt Disney Co. in the latest development in a long-running dispute over profits from The English Patient (1996).

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