2013 Bushwick Film Festival Filmmaker Profile: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee (Co-Director – ‘ELEMENTAL’)

‘Elemental’ tells the story of three individuals united by their deep connection with nature and driven to confront some of the most pressing ecological challenges of our time.

The film follows Rajendra Singh, an Indian government official gone rogue, on a 40-day pilgrimage down India’s once pristine Ganges river, now polluted and dying.  Across the globe in northern Canada, Eriel Deranger mounts her own “David and Goliath” struggle against the world’s largest industrial development, the Tar Sands, an oil deposit larger than the state of Florida.   And in Australia, inventor and entrepreneur Jay Harman searches for investors willing to risk millions on his conviction that nature’s own systems hold the key to our world’s ecological problems. Harman finds his inspiration in the natural world’s profound architecture and creates a revolutionary device that he believes can slow down global warming, but will it work?

Anticipating the 2013 Bushwick Film Festival screening of ‘ELEMENTAL‘ we profile the films Co-Director Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee. ’ELEMENTAL‘ screens on Sunday, October 6, 2013 (6:00pm)at Light Space Studio in Brooklyn, NY.

Purchase Tickets for ‘ELEMENTAL’ at the 2013 Bushwick Film Festival – HERE

What initially interested you in the types of environmental issues explored in the film? What is your own background in environmentalism?
I have been interested and involved in environmental issues for a long time.   I was raised in a very eco conscious family and from a young age loved nature and wild places.   My background as an environmentalist comes from that love of wild and untouched nature.  As a filmmaker I wanted to explore why we’ve become so separated from the natural world and the effects this is having.  Each one of the environmental issues in ‘Elemental’ explores this meta theme through our subjects stories.

ElementalThe film’s specific subjects are Rajendra Singh’s efforts to de-pollute the Ganges River in India, Eriel Deranger’s efforts to fight the Tar Sands oil deposit in Canada, and Jay Harman’s efforts to combat global warming in Australia. Why did you choose these three subjects in particular? Taken together, what do they tell us about environmental crises throughout the world?
We chose our subjects based on the following:  they each have a deeply personal and emotional connection to the natural world, they are all “outliers”, their stories are connected by water and climate change, they each had a timely story we could follow.   Also, we wanted to feature stories that showed both the “problem” as seen dramatically through Rajendra and Eriel’s story and possible solutions as seen through Jay’s ideas.

Taken together I think the three stories in the film underline the fact that these issues are connected.  It’s impossible to separate what’s happening in India to what’s happening in Canada and elsewhere in the world.  On the positive side it also shows how the efforts of those trying to address these issues are connected, and how their part of a global movement of people trying to turn the tide of environmental destruction..

How did you go about finding your interview subjects? And what were some of the difficulties involved in shooting a multicontinental documentary with multiple subjects?
We spent six months researching potential subjects before settling on Jay, Eriel and Rajendra.  We knew following subjects in different parts of the world would be difficult, but figured we were up for the challenge.  It wasn’t until we were a few months into production did we realize how logistically overwhelming it would be.  Being on one continent with Rajendra while having to scramble a shooter to cover a development with Eriel or Jay’s story was tough.  It was definitely an intense year and a half of production with many obstacles that you wouldn’t find if you’re subjects were in one place!

ElementalHow have people reacted to your film at festivals so far? What universal messages you would like people to take from the film? And what concrete actions would you like them to take?
So far audience responses at festivals and during our theatrical release this spring has been great.  I think the fact that we portrayed the human side of our subjects–their flaws and failings as well as their victories–allowed people to connect with them as people regardless of whether they were interested in the environmental issues.

From the outset we didn’t want to create a film with a simple concrete takeaway.  No ten things, change your lightblub, drive a prius etc.  We were more interested in offering a more philosophical look at our relationship to the natural world and the challenges and opportunities present in this time of environmental crisis.  We hope the film is able to offer viewers a chance to reflect on their own relationship to nature, what that means, and what they want it to be.

Your film makes use of expansive shots—sometimes aerial ones—of both pristine natural images and acts of pollution. When it came to presenting nature and pollution, what were your visual goals? What messages were you and DP Emily Topper trying to convey through cinematography?
One of our major visual goals was to shoot our stories in a way that captured both the beauty of nature, our subject’s intimate relationship to their environments (especially with Jay) and the despair and pain of the destruction and pollution.  We wanted it to be emotional, to connect the viewer to as Jay describes it “the sanity of nature” as well as the suffering Rajendra feels when seeing the awful state of the Ganges.  We wanted the images to carry the weight, to bring you into our subjects worlds and understand where their motivation to do what they do comes from.

– Interview prepared by David Teich


Facebook: /elementalfilm
Twitter: @ElementalFilm



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