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Tribeca ’09 Interview: “The Burning Season” Director Cathy Henkel

Tribeca '09 Interview: "The Burning Season" Director Cathy Henkel

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of several interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

“The Burning Season”
(World Documentary Feature Competition)
Director: Cathy Henkel
Synopsis: Every year, poor farmers on the Indonesian islands set fire to areas of pristine rainforest to set up palm oil plantations. The smoke chokes up the air of neighboring countries, endangers forest wildlife, and emits vast tons of carbon (Indonesia is now the third largest carbon emitter behind the United States and China). Henkel bridges three stories affected by these fires. Dorjee Sun, an Australian entrepreneur, believes there’s money to be made from saving rainforests in Indonesia and sets out to find investors for his carbon-trading plan. Meanwhile, a Danish expat cares for displaced orangutans. And on the other end, a small-scale farmer wrestles with the dilemma of contributing to climate change and needing to feed his family. [Synopsis courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival]

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Cathy Henkel and I am a documentary director and producer from Australia. I attended the Tribeca Film Festival in 2004 and was a co-winner of the Best Feature Documentary prize for my very personal film “The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face” (www.themanwhostolemymothersface.com). I am returning this year with “The Burning Season”, an inspiring, uplifting story about saving forests and stopping climate change and how one person can make a difference (www.theburningseasonmovie.com).

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

My father was a very fine editor and director in South Africa where I grew up. I used to watch him working and spent time as a child on film sets. I think I absorbed a lot more than i realised. I left South Africa at the age of 18 and worked and travelled in Europe before settling in Australia. I started in theatre and then as a film editor but crossed over to producing and directing documentaries because of my insatiable curiosity and deep concern about the state of the world. There are so many big issues I want to explore, and documentary seems to me the ideal medium.

What prompted the idea for your film?

In October 2006 I saw images of the massive smoke plume from Indonesia’s burning season that stretched right across South East Asia. I had just seen Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth”, and when I saw those images, I just knew it had to be bad for the world’s climate. I also saw pictures of orangutans being rescued from the fires and found out that they are on the verge of extinction. Soon after that, a report was released saying that deforestation contributes 20% of global carbon emissions. At that point, I just knew my next film would be about this. Then by sheer coincidence I met Dorjee Sun (the film’s main character) at a Christmas party in Sydney and when I told him about my idea, he said – “you’ll need to find a solution or no-one will watch it. And by the way, I think I may have a solution”. At the time I thought he was either a genius or a lunatic. He was talking about carbon trading, which I knew nothing about, and he said that Arnold Schwarzenegger would play a role in saving the forests. But there was something about him that really intrigued me. So I decided to follow him. In Bali I watched him convince three Indonesian governors to sign over their forests to his company, and I became more intrigued. For the next seven months I followed him across four continents and filmed him pull off the carbon trading deal of the decade. Turns out he may well be a genius.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

This film was a leap of faith from the start. I took a gamble on the young central character of the film, Dorjee Sun, and just hoped that he would deliver on his promise of a solution. His goal was to find a big company to buy his carbon credits in order to save the forests of Indonesia, and that Arnold Schwarzenegger would somehow play a role. It was an audacious plan and at times seemed impossible. But I kept following him, increasingly becoming convinced that there was something about him and his concept that should be taken seriously. When he got interest from a major bank in London, we were all jubilant, but there were still major obstacles ahead. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali, 180 countries had to all agree on a roadmap forward to tackle climate change AND include forests in future carbon markets. Again we went along hoping and trusting that the story would have an uplifting ending. The fact that Dorjee achieved all he promised and even got Arnold Schwarzenegger into the story is still a source of wonder to me. The story of the farmer who sets fire to his land to clear it for palm oil was also a case of following and hoping. I actually hoped he would decide not to burn, but he went ahead anyway. His reasons are clearly explained in the film, and I think people will relate to him. But when he breaks down after the fire and sobs in anguish, I think everyone will feel sympathy for him. His growth in awareness and development as a character is one of the big surprises and joys for me as a filmmaker. The story covers two years and includes the Wall Street collapse and the US change of government. My approach throughout was observational interspersed with moments when the characters talk directly to camera. I also asked Hugh Jackman to help out as narrator to clarify story points and place the characters in a larger global context. The Indonesian shadow puppets are a beautiful addition to help explain the potentially baffling concept of carbon trading and how it can be used to save the remaining forests of the world.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

Aside from the usual challenges of raising enough money to film for over a year across four continents, and managing the various partners who had invested in the project, I think a major challenge was managing cash flow. The project was financed by July 2007 but the money didn’t get through to us until December. My business partner and I had to run up 6 credit cards to keep going, and then borrowed some money from wealthy friends, just hoping and trusting that the finance would all come through. That kind of uncertainty is very stressful. And frustrating, because I think it could be avoided. It was legal checks and balances and bureaucracy within the big broadcasters and funding agencies that held up the money. Our small company was the most vulnerable financially and we had to bear the full financial burden of the delays. This is what I’d describe as a structural flaw in our film finance system. The other challenges were of course related to the story. Not knowing whether Dorjee would be able to pull off a deal and how the film would end if he didn’t succeed. The challenges he faced, and in fact the entire planet faced in Bali, were enormous. When the US negotiators spoke out against the Bali roadmap, there was a real moment of dread that everything would fall over and Dorjee’s deal would collapse.

Other challenges included the language and cultural barriers in Indonesia and learning to understand the harsh realities of life for the palm oil farmer and his family. I realised pretty early on that he wasn’t the ‘bad guy’ and the challenge was to make sure that I had the footage to convey that to the audience. And of course capturing the orangutan story presented enormous challenges. They are the heart and soul of the film for me, and the life of the forests, and I needed the right images to convey the beauty, charm, sadness and hope of their story.

How do you define success as a filmmaker?

Success for me will be getting the widest possible audience to see this film. Saving our remaining forests has become a matter of global urgency, and I believe the film will help people understand why they are important and that there are solutions. If audiences are inspired and motivated by the film and decide to invest their own energy in making changes, that would be a real success to me. I want the film to remind people how much can be achieved with courage, vision and perseverance. I have a profound belief in the mantra of “Yes we can”. My work over the past two years will be rewarded, and my vision achieved, if people leave the cinema inspired, uplifted and asking themselves what they can do to help keep this planet habitable for us all.

What are your future projects?

I will spend at least the next six months on the global distribution of “The Burning Season”. We have a cinema release coming up in Australia, and the film is also being translated for release in China, Indonesia and Brazil. We are talking to potential distribution partners in the US and Europe. Getting this film to the widest possible audience will take up all my energies for a while. My producing partner, Trish Lake and I have a very ambitious distribution plan that involves retaining control of rights and distribution mechanisms. We are focusing on target and niche audiences and connecting with them through their communities, both geographically and online. Once the communities of interest get behind a documentary, they become the best and most effective marketing voice for the film.

I have a wonderful feature documentary in development about Australian master cinematographer Don McAlpine. I had the enormous privilege and pleasure of filming him at work on his 50th film, which was “Wolverine”. Called “Show me the Magic”, I hope this film will be released by the end of the year. I also have a feature film in development called “Dance for Me’, based on “The Man Who Stole My Mother’s Face”, my award-winning documentary that I brought to Tribeca in 2004.

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