Posted on November 25, 2013
Written by: Jeff McLoughlin, Director of The Condor’s Shadow
The journey that began with discovery work for a documentary film on the California condor began in 2010. I was drawn to the condor story out of a desire to explore an environmental success. With the relentless pounding of the climate change doom drum we all are subjected to each and every day, I felt there would be value in telling a hopeful environmental story. One that would reaffirm our ability to address the environmental issues ahead and revealing of the commitment required to right an environmental wrong. Based in Santa Barbara California, I had proximity to the origins of quite a number of interesting environmental stories. Some were broader in scope and others more on the conservation end of the spectrum. Having spent many days in Southern California wilderness areas, I had a natural affinity for the latter. I felt like a film on preservation of a natural resource would fit my worldview and would unfold organically. Just forty miles from my front door are the last vestiges of habitat for the California condor. I had hiked and fished in the Sespe, the Sisquoc and Dick Smith Wilderness areas and all of that rugged backcountry terrain had been preserved for the benefit of the California condor. The iconic status of the species added a lot of gravity and the endangered species recovery effort was well known. The story had elements of success, was highly visual, and both the birds and the people were accessible for a documentary. With those components in alignment I moved ahead.
The key element in any documentary film production is access. Based in Ventura California, the recovery program is run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The very first program to be funded and executed after the passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the program has a rich and varied history with its share of controversy. As I researched the backstory on the recovery effort the fundamental dilemma for the condor became clear. So as my collaborators Jessica McLoughlin and Ethan Turpin plied the modern day waters of the condor recovery program and worked on access to the individuals that had lived this story for over thirty years, it began to gel what the film was to be.
The elements that made this story worth telling, that would make for a compelling narrative, are really very human. The species has been around for many thousands if not millions of years. Evolution was not driving the bird to its demise. The dilemma of the condor is entirely human in origin. I could see that the story of the condor was one about rectifying the unintended consequences of human preferences. So the story that would become The Condor’s Shadow was really to be about the challenge of rebuilding a self-sustaining population of this impressively huge scavenger bird. Certainly, this was to be a story of endangered species recovery. Anyway you look at this it’s a remarkable achievement that the 22 California condors remaining on earth in 1982 could be bred into 400+ today. Certainly that’s a win. But while filming an interview with Joseph Brandt, the lead field biologist for the Southern California program, he reflected upon what others have said about the three-decade-long commitment to recover the species:
“People say it’s just a bird. It’s a dinosaur. It should have been extinct a long time ago…”
Joseph is a pretty interesting guy. He’s a bit of a dichotomy when you meet him, with blond dreadlocks that extend down his back and the tan and brown uniform of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At 6’6” he’s physically imposing while at the same time being gregarious and genuine. I had hopes early on that he would become the main character in The Condor’s Shadow. A character-based documentary is generally more engaging than a topic-based film. Initially he was receptive but not overly encouraging to the concept of being the focus of the story. Clearly, a vérité film crew following him around would add yet another distraction to an already tough job. But having worked with condors on and off for nearly a decade he was well aware of one key potential benefit from a film on the program: broader public awareness. Thirty years after the rescue effort commenced, California condors are being reintroduced into an environment that contains the same threats that brought the bird to the edge of extinction in the 1980’s. Raising awareness of the issues would be good for the condor.
For Joseph to be in the position he was in, doing the physically demanding and gritty work of a field biologist, there had to be passion. Driving that passion there needed to be a philosophical commitment that the goal being pursued deserves to be acheived.
In our interview for the film Joseph’s rejoinder to the critics was practiced but sincere:
“The condor is just a bird in the same way the Grand Canyon is just a canyon. The condor is a symbol of American conservation in a lot of respects and it serves us all to protect that resource.”
At the time his comeback seemed a bit contrived and perhaps over-stated. But as the film production progressed and my appreciation for the conservation effort gained depth, the spirit behind Joseph’s sentiment began to resonate. It still resonates with me today.
In truth the condor really is just a bird. But really, is that not enough? The responsibility for the condor’s near-demise is our own. There is nothing about the bird’s dilemma that is not human induced. The responsibility for pulling it back from the brink is ours as well.
The good news is that we’ve made progress. Ultimately, as it turns out, the number one threat to the bird’s continuing survival is spent lead ammunition. It’s a fact that was suspected in the 1980’s and studied extensively but not clearly articulated until Myra Finkelstein’s peer-reviewed study was published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012. Her work demonstrated with a high degree of certainty that if lead continues to occur in the scavenged food sources of the California condor the species will forever be conservation program dependent. All things being equal, remove the lead and the condor will thrive.
Despite the powerful gun industry lobby, legislation to control the introduction of lead ammunition into the environment through any hunting activity has become law in California. This treads into a terrain of stiff cultural resistance that will take years to overcome but in the end I’m optimistic that reason will prevail.
So the California condor may well be “just a bird,“ but the condor is a survivor in an age when species are disappearing at an alarming rate. The recovery of this species demonstrates what can be done by those who appreciate the intrinsic value of “…it’s just a bird” and respond to the obligation that this creates.
Ultimately, the value of The Condor’s Shadow lies in the portrayal of that response by Joseph Brandt and dozens of others who play a role in the condor’s recovery with passion and recognition of the value of all species on earth. It’s an emotionally evocative story and one with several dimensions we can learn from. For the bird-lover, the aspiring wildlife biologist, the conservationist and those with a concern for endangered species there is a lot here to appreciate. It’s a story that works on many different levels and always provokes conversation.
The Condor’s Shadow will broadcast on PBS affiliates in California beginning in December of 2013.
Here’s the current event schedule for the film:
December 7, 2013 at 8:00PM and December 8, 2013 at 5:00AM
PBS SoCal KOCE
Underwritten by Audubon California
Additional air dates TBD
Cox Cable, Time Warner Cable, Verizon Fios, Charter, and over the air
Sunday, December 1, 2013
Grand Canyon Village
South Rim of the Grand Canyon
Screening and talk by Vince Gerwe of the Friends of the California Condor
Monday Dec. 2, 2013 – 7:30 PM
Conejo Valley Audubon
Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
Post-Screening Q&A with USFWS Biologist Joseph Brandt of the California Condor Recovery Program & Filmmaker Jeff McLoughlin
Thursday, January 23, 2014 – 7:00pm
Kern Audubon sponsored in a screening for Bakersfield High School Students
Garces High School 2800 Loma Linda Dr. Bakersfield, CA 93305
Post-Screening Q&A with USFWS Biologist Joseph Brandt of the California Condor Recovery Program & Filmmaker Jeff McLoughlin
Posted on October 29, 2013
Zev Robinson’s film, Arribes:Everything Else is Noise screened at the Marbella International Film Festival on October 5th.
The filmmaker recently interviewed with 3 Quark Daily. Click here to read Elatia Harris’s article about the film and Zev’s work both as a painter and filmmaker. Historian and food writer Rachel Lauden also discusses the film and the issue of sustainability on her blog.
Posted on October 13, 2013
Written by: Steve Keller, Director of Invisible Young
In researching topics for a new film a couple of years ago, I found a list of non-profit agencies in Seattle, Washington, where I call home. One that caught my eye was called YouthCare. YouthCare is an agency that works expressly with homeless youth. Reading about their mission – to provide support and services to homeless youth – made me stop and wonder. Who are these kids, teenagers, who are homeless in Seattle? How can it be that in the city home to Microsoft and Boeing, children are sleeping on the streets and in alleys?
After approaching the agency to discuss the documentary film possibilities, it was suggested that I read a book called Street Child, by Justin Reed Early. Street Child is an autobiography, Justin was homeless in Seattle at the age of 14, and spent nearly a decade on the streets. The book was absolutely gripping, and as soon as I got into it I knew I had to find a way make a film about this subject.
The first obvious problem was that I had no access to any characters. I would need to meet homeless kids and hopefully be able to get them to open up to me and talk about their experiences. I could roam the streets and alleys of Seattle and try to meet kids, but this seemed daunting (and a bit dangerous). Or, I could go to YouthCare and some of the other agencies in town that work with homeless youth and see if they could set me up meeting some of the young people in their programs. This eventually proved the way to go, as I found three of the four main characters in Invisible Young through their counselors.
Their stories were gripping, as I had expected. But the next problem became quickly apparent. By the time a young person is willing to share their lives, they are usually at a place where they are in the process of getting off the streets. But if one wants to know how they got there, one has to go back in time and learn about the lives they left behind as children under their parents’ wings. In film, retrospective stories need visuals. How could I come up with visuals for stories about the past? Typical solutions to this in documentary film are stills from a family photo album, re-enactments, or abstract/suggestive b-roll. The first was out because these kids are estranged from their families, the second was out due to budgetary restraints, so that left the third.
But if these characters were off the streets, I still needed to show scenes of life on the streets, which meant I would have to get out there and meet homeless kids and recruit their help in the film. Not surprisingly, these kids in general are quite camera shy so I knew this would be difficult. In fact, this turned out to be an amazing experience for me. I began by going to some of the local shelters and drop-in centers and hanging out, without my camera gear or crew. I also went out regularly with one local agencies that takes food to kids on the streets. I did this for three months before I even started bringing my camera along. After a while I started asking for recruits. I was still met with mostly skepticism, the kids were not getting upset with my asking, which was progress, but mostly not helping either.
Then one day I met a young man named Indy (his street name). Indy was 24 and was, I had been told, a local legend on the streets. He too was at that place where he wanted to get off the streets and saw the film as a great thing. He was charismatic, smart, and loyal to his friends, and the street kids all looked up to and respected him. Once Indy started spreading the word that I was “cool,” it was like a switch had been flipped. I had instant street cred and the no’s turned to yeses.
I was in production with Invisible Young for nearly two years. I met many amazing people along the way. People often ask if I keep in touch with the kids, and the answer is yes and no. I no longer go out regularly and hang out in drop-ins, so it’s not easy to keep in touch. These kids come and go on a whim. But I have kept up with many of the characters and these relationships have been extremely rewarding to me.
Posted on September 12, 2013
Written by: Maryanne Galvin, Director of Urban Odyssey
Although I grew up as a “city kid,” it didn’t take me long to identify favorite places to bike, play hide and seek or catch, chase butterflies in an empty city lot—some way to answer the call of the wild!
The “wild” is Henry David Thoreau’s term for the animating spirit of nature or life. It is a tenacious, fragile, aggressive and hopeful tendency. I found it in the dogged crabgrass inching through the concrete cracks of our city streets; watching rats sneak along the subway track or raccoons and skunks tipping over trash cans in the alley. A lot of sensitive and creative people I know also grew up enduring the sensory assaults of our cities’ asphalt canyon and sought the same solace as I did on a shaded side street, peaceful public library or museum. Continue reading…
Posted on August 4, 2013
In the post below, filmmaker Rick Minnich reflects on the motivation behind his deeply personal award-winning documentary, Forgetting Dad.
“If your father no longer remembers you, does he stop being your father?” This is the central question that compelled me to make the film “Forgetting Dad.”
In 1990, my father Richard was rear-ended while turning into a parking lot in Sacramento, California. He appeared to be uninjured. But one week later, he woke up with total amnesia. He didn’t recognize himself in the mirror and found himself surrounded by complete strangers, including his wife and five children. He was 45 years old.
When we met at the airport six months later, my father gave me an awkward hug and said: “You must be my son Rick. Loretta [his wife] showed me a picture of you.” I desperately tried to hide my discomfort, and slipped behind my camera. Somehow it was less painful to view my father through the lens than face to face. Continue reading…