`I believe in making films that identify the problem and offer practical solutions,' wildlife filmmaker Shekar Dattatri tells SHALINI UMACHANDRAN. `I believe in making films that identify the problem and offer practical solutions,' wildlife filmmaker Shekar Dattatri tells SHALINI UMACHANDRAN.
XAVIER LECOULTRE/ROLEX AWARDS
Focussed -- Shekar Dattatri with a colleague.
"ONE day all these beautiful banyan trees along the roadside will disappear. They'll be chopped down to widen the road or make space for more buildings," says wildlife filmmaker Shekar Dattatri, driving down the East Coast Road, Chennai, en route to the Vedanthangal bird sanctuary. "We are pursuing a path of development that is needlessly destroying all that is irreplaceable."
Dattatri was recently selected as an Associate Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise 2004. The awards were established in 1976 to provide support and recognition for initiatives in science, technology, exploration, environment and cultural heritage. Dattatri's proposal "Wild India Project: Changing hearts and minds through moving images", a plan to make a series of 12 short films over the next three years on specific environmental and conservation issues impressed the Rolex Awards selection committee. The films will focus on subjects like forests as the source of rivers, the importance of wetlands and the natural history knowledge of indigenous people who live in the forests. They will be Dattatri's way of promoting environmental awareness among children, corporates, teachers, journalists ... anyone who is willing and ready to listen.
need for awareness
"Creating awareness is like growing a tree," he says. "It's a long, slow process, which may not have an immediate, tangible impact. But without it future generations are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. The most important thing to keep in mind is that each individual can make a difference." Which means it is essential to reach out to everyone, from kindergarten students and leaders of industry to politicians and bureaucrats. "Since it is not possible for me to go out and meet all these people, I make films that have the potential to reach them," says the 42-year-old.
At Vedanthangal, he points to the hordes of tourists mainly school and college students who are chattering, screaming, yelling and littering, oblivious to the scores of beautiful birds perched on the trees a few feet into the water.
"We must learn to treat nature with reverence, and stop carrying the city's problems (of noise, pollution, garbage and over-crowding) into our dwindling wild spaces."
This is where eco-tourism could create the awareness that is so desperately needed. "But there is nothing `eco' about the tourism in Indian forests at the moment," he says. It's not about rushing jeeploads of people through the forest, showing them a couple of pugmarks and stopping to gawk at an occasional animal. True eco-tourism, he explains, is a holistic experience in which even visitors who arrive with little knowledge go back with a deeper understanding of the natural world.
importance of the media
Under threat -- how long will this forest remain untouched?
It's been about 15 years since cable TV exploded into our lives and Dattatri says people now know that environmental problems exist, because of the National Geographic genre of programming. But this needs to be taken further. "I believe in making short films on specific issues that can be screened for target audiences. This can have a far greater impact than wildlife films shown on TV.
"Ideally, awareness should grow organically. Environmental education shouldn't be a subject you memorise and forget just for a grade." Dattatri feels parents and teachers need to make an effort to sensitise children even if the education system doesn't demand it. "But the teachers themselves don't know much, and need to understand environmental issues before they can help children. I'm hoping these films will serve as an educational tool," he says.
Dattatri plans to invest the Rolex Award money in equipment for the project but he will still need to raise resources to make the films. "I am hoping to get corporate support for this initiative." Corporate interest in ecological awareness is at a nascent stage in India. If even a fraction of corporate spending were directed towards wildlife, it would make a big difference. "In the West companies increasingly want to be seen as socially responsible because their customers demand it. Unfortunately, we're on the upward curve of consumerism and people are not yet aware enough to raise questions about environmental degradation and corporate responsibility," he says.
But can wildlife and conservation films really make a difference? "I can give examples of powerful films that were shown to people and decision makers in the Government that had positive results. But a better example is a mail I received from a friend whose seven-year-old daughter had been profoundly moved by my film `Nagarahole: Tales of an Indian Jungle'. The mother wrote: `If we leave an unnecessary light on or do not close a tap, we are reprimanded. Your short film had more impact than all the explanations we give a child.' To me, that shows the power of the moving image," says Dattatri, whose involvement with filmmaking began at the age of 21.
Starting with "Snakebite", a half-an-hour docu-drama, Dattatri has, over 20 years, followed the behavioural patterns of various creatures with his camera and made films on the country's conservation efforts, national parks and sanctuaries. Films such as "Silent Valley: An Indian Rainforest" (1990) and "Nagarahole: Tales from an Indian Jungle" (1997), "Mindless Mining: the tragedy of Kudremukh" (2001), "The Ridley's Last Stand", (2002) and "The Killing Fields" (2003) confront pressing conservation issues head on. "I believe in making films that identify the problem and offer practical solutions," he says. There can be no quick-fix solutions because a shortsighted decision today spawns a problem 20 years later. Science has to become an integral part of conservation, he says.
He says the polarisation between "conservation" and "development" has to end. He explains how the Silent Valley campaign in the 1970s was inadvertently centred on the lion-tailed-macaque. "This led the people behind the project to ask is man or monkey more important?" Protecting areas like Silent Valley involves much more than just saving an endangered species. Forests are catchments for water, oxygen generators, sources of innumerable rivers and home to medicinal plants, some of which we have not even discovered yet. So reducing conservation to a man or monkey issue is a very simplistic way of looking at it and creates a debate that should not exist.
Development and environment
What about the Kudremukh shola-grassland in Karnataka?
"We cannot reject development, but we have to realise that human development is dependent on the environment." A middle path that allows for development with least impact on natural resources has to be followed. Most people see conservation as an elitist fad. "But in any disaster, the poor are the first to be affected. Conservation should not be seen as a pastime for the rich, but as a way of life for everyone like it was in ancient India." But a return to that ethos requires people to be more proactive."
Despite the many practical and rational reasons Dattatri gives for protecting forests, there is no better reason than his "simplest and most important" one. "Because of what forests do for the human soul. Anyone who has spent time in the forest comes back feeling rejuvenated and alive."
The hordes of whistling, shrieking tourists have packed themselves back into their buses for the next stop on their itinerary. For the first time you can hear the buzzing concerto created by the calls of the hundreds of birds.
"We have been blessed with so much natural wealth," he says, looking out across the lake. "But if we want to hang on to what's left, we need to rid ourselves of complacency and indifference and take an informed stand. Preserving nature is not about altruism. Tigers don't care if they exist or go extinct, a stream doesn't care if it flows or goes dry. Ultimately, it is for humanity that we conserve."
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