Interview of the Week: Neil Gelinas, National Geographic

Neil Gelinas is an award-winning National Geographic documentary filmmaker,  whose most recent work was “Into the Okavango.”

ODP: Nature is a beautiful subject, but it cannot talk.  How hard is it to make wildlife documentaries as a result? 

NG:  I wouldn’t say I make wildlife documentaries. I make conservation documentaries in which people are the main subjects, not wildlife. The story is about their journey and what they’re trying to accomplish. I don’t make things like Planet Earth. Sure, there are going to be some beautiful wildlife shots, buts there’s rarely even a behavioral animal sequence. The narrative lies within the people.  

ODP: You have made many films about ocean conservation, which is even more difficult because much of the action takes place underwater.  How have you overcome this challenge?

NG:  I rely on the beautiful underwater cinematography of Manu San Felix. Manu creates a visual language that can stand up on its own and be a bit quieter or more meditative. Few people get to experience where we go underwater, so it’s really great to just shut up and let the audience take it in for a moment.

ODP: Last year, you made a fantastic and very well-received documentary film called “Into the Okavango” about one of the largest river deltas in the world.  What drew you to the Okavango as a subject? 

NG:  Thank you. I got drawn to the subject in 2011 when most of my work was dedicated to television shows supporting the very successful Pristine Seas program, an ocean conservation effort led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala. Enric was helping to create large scale no-take marine reserves, and I was the guy who made his films. Enric has this incredibly successful model of combining science, exploration, and media to convince decision-makers to protect their oceans. At the time, I had just finished a film with Enric and there was a bit of down period. That’s when I met Steve Boyes, a National Geographic grantee who was working on a conservation project of his own in the Eastern Cape of South Africa dedicated to saving the critically endangered Cape Parrot. While during the day, we chased around birds in the sleepy little town of Hogsback, at night Steve talked about the Okavango and he made it sound like the most incredible place on earth. I had to see it for myself, so in February, of 2012, I went over with Steve and his brother Chris. If it’s not the most incredible place on earth, it’s certainly one of them. And I saw so many similarities between what Steve was trying to do and with what Enric Sala had already been successfully doing with Pristine Seas. I basically made the decision to really start investing myself in a film that would help serve with the conservation of this incredible place.

ODP:  You had to make the film in rugged places that had never been mapped, and sometimes in areas that were still feeling the effects of the civil war in Angola.  It took determination and there was lots of hardship.  What kept you going?

NG:  We didn’t have a choice. Give up, and go where? We were stuck out there. Also was the fact that we convinced so many people, especially National Geographic, to let us do this thing. For the sake of our careers, for the sake of our survival, we couldn’t quit.

ODP: I know you are involved in National Geographic’s work on the Campaign For Nature.  What are you working on now in support of that effort? 

NG:  Part of what we’re trying to do with the Campaign for Nature is to raise awareness and understanding of the threats facing our natural world. As of right now, my team and I are supporting the effort with media and compelling storytelling that showcases what’s at risk and why we need to protect it. Protecting more of our planet — specifically securing 30% of land and sea by 2030 — is such an important goal, our team is working to support whatever the campaign needs to accomplish it.

ODP: You have already had huge success in the competitive field of documentary films.  What advice do you have for young filmmakers? 

NG: Patience and determination. And don’t hesitate to make your own path. Just because you don’t know a filmmaker who is trying to do what you’re trying to do, doesn’t mean there’s not a path there. You just have to chop through a bit more brush to see it. I’m not saying I was only able to make films because I was so determined. I admit I’ve had a lot of things work out that were totally out of my control, and that’s where the patience comes in. At some point, there will be a sliver of a window, and you got to be ready to jump through it.

Thanks so much, Neil.  We highly recommend “Into the Okavango” — the Delta is absolutely one of the most special places on Earth!

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