In collaboration with the 2016 Environmental Film Festival of the Nation's Capital, the Pulitzer Center brought together journalists and filmmakers to share how they incorporated visual storytelling in their reporting projects exploring critical water, environmental and public health issues around the world.
"Global Environmental Storytelling" featured three short documentaries by Steve Elfers, Ian James, Sharron Lovell and Larry C. Price. The evening program on Thursday, March 24, 2016, marked the seventh straight year of the Pulitzer Center's involvement in the festival.
“The issues addressed in the films we’re seeing tonight are diverse—from the global crisis in groundwater depletion to mercury poisoning in Indonesia and the consequences of a massive planned diversion of water south to north in China. What they share is gorgeous videography and, even more important, the art of storytelling," said Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer.
Sawyer also shared remarks from Pure Earth president Rich Fuller, who could not make the event because of travel delays. Fuller's organization has been working to mitigate threats such as mercury poisoning since 1999, with more than 90 clean-up projects helping over 4.2 million people. Mercury-free mining is one way to reduce the health consequences seen in small-scale gold mining.
Following the screening, Sawyer moderated a panel discussion with the journalists and filmmakers, beginning with questions about their investigations and the patience needed to gain access to individuals and communities at the core of their stories.
As part of the Q&A, Sawyer asked Price how he was able to find victims of mercury poisoning. Price said documenting the health defects as well as finding access to these individuals was very challenging because they had to travel deep into the jungle. Price said the individuals' stories were "heartbreaking" yet "the individuals were universally happy" that someone was paying attention to their situations.
Lovell shared a similar experience when telling the story of one family who lived in a state of uncertainty because they did not have details on whether they would be forced to end their fish farm business or relocate again because of water diversion efforts in China.
What began as a local story about groundwater depletion in California, part of James' three-year coverage of the California drought, became a four-continent, five-part series of the common issues of groundwater depletion on a global scale. “The support from the Pulitzer Center was critical, it was a catalyst in organizing the story between the Desert Sun and Steve Elfers at USA Today.”
Elfers is not a stranger to filming in dangerous circumstances having covered military conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia in his nearly 30 years of visual storytelling. So when he and James were confronted by violence when documenting the social concerns over land and water ownership in a farm village in Peru, he kept recording footage: “You have to be mindful of the dangers, but you also get used to noticing the little details...We do have an obligation to show the truth as it unfolds," he said.
Regarding the role of social media in sharing environmental reporting, James suggested, “If we take key findings and present them as shareable facts on social media, these can be used as different entry points into the story.” James and Elfers’ story is one example, offering chapters for each country they reported from, each of which shows the impact of groundwater depletion at a different stage—all at once exhibiting the causes of depletion and results of communities living with less water.
When an audience member asked how they can make a positive impact on the issues seen in these documentaries, Price said, “Consumer awareness is an amazing power.” His global project supported by the Pulitzer Center started out with reporting on child labor in gold mining in the Philippines and in Indonesia. He is now expanding that project to cover health effects of pollution in other industries.
The audience was grateful to the journalists and filmmakers for their courageous accounts noting that there could be no solutions without their reporting of the problems.
Earlier in the week, several of the panelists also shared their reporting projects during sessions at American University and at secondary schools in Washington, DC. They told the festival audience about how students reacted to their work.
Elfers found the students very engaged, asking what these stories mean for the future of the communities. “The students understand the unfairness. Their perception is impressive,” Elfers said. He found that when he shared the story of a young women running into violence while fighting for her town’s right to its groundwater, students identified with her passion and action. “The common thread in this project was to find who is really affected by the dramatic decline of groundwater. We didn’t settle into a place until we found those families to tell the personal stories,” Elfers said.
Lovell was impressed by the variety of questions from students: “Some students asked about the broader issues involved while others were interested in the personal stories of the characters in the film, wanting to know their fate."
Sawyer closed the panel saying, “One thing I hope you’ll take away is the power of collaboration, in telling stories like this."
If you missed the film festival program on Thursday, March 24, 2016, you can view the short documentaries here.