Conservation Leadership Programme alumnus wins prestigious film-making award

Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) alumnus Anirban Dutta Gupta has won a prestigious Panda Award for his documentary film Ganga: Ribbon of Life at this year’s Wildscreen Festival –internationally renowned as one of the most influential events in the wildlife and environmental film-making industry.

Ganga: Ribbon of Life looks at the magnitude and repercussions of pollution in the River Ganges, which has the most heavily populated river basin in the world, home to over 400 million people.

In addition to its Wildscreen showing, the film was broadcast on National Geographic India and Fox History, and had one of the highest ratings of all documentaries shown during that period.

Anirban accepts his award. Credit: Wildscreen Festival.

Anirban accepts his award. Credit: Wildscreen Festival.

It was also shown to ministers as part of their review of the Ganga Action Plan, and is thought to have played a part in the final decision to revamp the action plan and temporarily stop construction of dams in the first 200km of the river.

A powerful medium

Growing up on a healthy dose of David Attenborough, Gerald Durrell and Jane Goodall from early childhood, Anirban has always had an interest in both the natural world and the art of communicating about it.

Anirban meets one of his childhood heroes, Sir David Attenborough, at the Wildscreen Festival. Credit: Anirban Duttagupta.

Anirban meets one of his childhood heroes, Sir David Attenborough, at the Wildscreen Festival. Credit: Anirban Duttagupta.

After studying zoology at the University of Delhi, he began looking for a way to combine these two interests. As a result, he took a 4-year course in design (specialising in film-making) at the National Institute of Design and worked at Madras Crocodile Bank, Chennai and the Centre for Ecological Science in Bangalore during the summers.

Today, Anirban’s work focuses on both conservation and natural history film-making, and he is currently working on a CLP-funded project that aims to influence community perceptions about the lesser florican (a member of the bustard family) and the grassland habitat it relies on during the breeding season.

Anirban’s experience has proved invaluable for this project, and the team has produced a number of films (both long and short) that have attempted to communicate the importance of species conservation in an entertaining and engaging manner.

According to Anirban: “In India, people have a strange fascination for the film medium which makes it a powerful tool for addressing complex and sensitive issues like conservation.

“Our films for the CLP project draw on the same principles as other documentaries I make, namely: a strong story, beautiful imagery, and a relevant, simple message communicated in a language and culture that the target audience understands.”

Challenges and compromises

But making an award-winning film takes time and dedication. The production of Ganga: Ribbon of Life (from scripting to final edits) took about a year and a half, including around 60 days of filming over two seasons, often in uncomfortable conditions.

“Filming took us from inside a tannery in Kanpur to the mangroves of Sundarban where we were thigh deep in mud, and from Benaras where we were surrounded by floating bodies to the freezing cold of the high Himalayas,” says Anirban.

Filming Ganga: Ribbon of Life. Credit: Anirban Duttagupta.

Footage for Ganga: Ribbon of Life was shot along the river's 2,500km course, from its source in the Himalayas to its outlet in the Bay of Bengal. Credit: Anirban Duttagupta.

One of the most challenging aspects for Anirban was switching perspectives between subject expert and common viewer. Every piece of information had to be made visually appealing and connected logically so that a simple narrative could be woven around it.

“Many of the stories we shot – like the spraying of DDT to stop the spread of Leishmaniasis – could not be shown because we lacked the footage to make an exciting sequence out of it. Many times I was torn between showing a fact and telling a story, but in the end the story won,” he explains.

Another challenge was balancing the needs of the various stakeholders: the government, the channels, the experts, the various organisations and the audience. Each had their own agenda, and Anirban had to walk a fairly thin and delicate line between all of them.

Broadcast regulations also toned down the tenor of the film. For example, Anirban was not allowed to show dead bodies in the water, or some of the more powerful images of cremation.

In his words, “The choice was between including the footage and the film being pushed to a midnight slot, or not including it and reaching a wider audience during the 8pm slot. I chose the latter, as reaching a larger audience was more important.”

The film’s production cost about £5,000 (approx. US$8,000 or INR430,000) – a miniscule budget in film-making terms, according to Anirban.

“Looking back, I wonder how we ever pulled it off,” he says.

Top tips

For budding environmental film-makers aiming to influence the largest audience possible, Anirban offers these four tips:

  1. Find the story. Just stating facts is not appealing enough – these need to be woven into a story with a history, characters, plots, and a solid beginning, middle and end.
  2. Clearly state the question you want to answer early on (within the first 2 to 3 minutes). The rest of the film is about trying to find an answer to this question, so the simpler and clearer the question, the more gripping and easier to follow will be the story.
  3. Be honest to the subject – this is an ethical issue. The footprint of the filmmaker has to be kept to a minimum so that you have as little influence on human and animal subjects as possible. This is particularly true when filming wildlife, as you need to be careful not to stress the animal or provoke it in order to get specific behaviours.
  4. Be patient, and have the tenacity of a leech!

About the Conservation Leadership Programme

The Conservation Leadership Programme is a partnership between Fauna & Flora International, Conservation International, Birdlife International and the Wildlife Conservation Society that promotes the development of future conservation leaders, ensuring that they have the skills and knowledge required to address today’s most pressing conservation issues.

For more clips from Ganga: Ribbon of Life and other Panda Award winners, visit Wildscreen Festival’s YouTube channel.