How This Filmmaker Goes Beyond Premieres for Conservation Impact – An Interview with Gunjan Menon
The real work begins after the film hits screens. This filmmaker launched an initiative that helps filmmakers create long-term impact for conservation with their films.
Okay, so you put all of this time and energy and love and creativity and money into creating a conservation-focused wildlife film, and then you premiere it…
and then what happens?
What happens to that conservation film after you've premiered it?
Well, that is what Gunjan Menon thinks about all the time.
Menon is an independent wildlife filmmaker based in India, and she specializes in creating mixed-genre conservation-focused films. And what happens after those films are made is where Gunjan loves to focus her energy.
Menon and her husband launched an organization called Beyond Premieres, which connects folks working in conservation efforts on the ground with conservation-focused filmmakers. Beyond Premieres also helps with things like outreach and education, developing capacity building through filmmaking, and there's even a legal team to help assist with policy level changes
Menon talks us today to talk about her own journey from being a child actor in a big city to becoming a wildlife filmmaker, some of the projects that she's worked on that have really changed her and helped guide her work, and what it means for success to have role models in this field.
Episode 086: How This Filmmaker Goes Beyond Premieres for Conservation Impact – An Interview with Gunjan Menon
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
Okay, so you put all of this time and energy and love and creativity and money into creating a conservation-focused wildlife film, and then you premiere it, and then what happens? What happens after you get that in front of audiences, maybe at a festival or a few screenings? What happens to that conservation film after it's completed and you've premiered it? Well, that is what our guest today thinks about all the time, the conservation film itself is one thing, but what you do with it is really what's essential to think about. What happens weeks, months, years after that film is completed. Gunjan Menon is an independent wildlife filmmaker based in India, and she specializes in creating conservation-focused films that have other elements of other genres in them, so they're adventure stories or love stories wrapped up inside of conservation films. She has a really beautiful way of looking at her work and also in looking at the impact that her work can have.
0:01:09.1 JH: Gunjan and her husband launched an organization called Beyond Premieres, and Beyond Premieres connects folks working in conservation efforts on the ground with conservation-focused filmmakers and the organization helps the filmmakers have a bigger impact with their film, so really how do you have tangible conservation impact through the use of your film, and Beyond Premieres also helps the folks who are working inside of the on the ground conservation effort with things like outreach and education, developing these programs with capacity building through filmmaking, there's even a legal team to help assist with policy level changes, so Beyond Premieres truly is about taking a really amazing film and using that as a vehicle for creating really tangible change.
0:01:57.4 JH: Now, not only is Gunjan an award-winning filmmaker with her work appearing on Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Disney+, BBC Earth, the list goes on and on. And not only is she someone who is helping both filmmakers and conservationists make a bigger impact with their work through visual storytelling, but she's also someone who is just leading the way as an inspiring figure for other people wanting to get into the field of wildlife conservation.
0:02:25.8 JH: She is a partner photographer with Girls Who Click, a non-profit that holds workshops for teenage girls who are really excited about getting into the field of wildlife photography and filmmaking, she is a TEDx speaker, she mentors, she teaches, she's incredibly generous with her knowledge and her talent, and she comes to us today to talk about her own journey into wildlife filmmaking, even when she came from a background where she was not around nature very much, there was nobody else around her who was encouraging her to move into anything having to do with nature, let alone filmmaking, how she made her way into the fields, some of the projects that she's worked on that have really changed her and helped guide her work, and she talks about what it means to have role models in this field, not just as visual storytellers, but as conservationists, you are sure to just be delighted by what Gunjan has to say. So let's dive in.
0:03:25.1 JH: Welcome to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch, and if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place, from conservation to creativity, from business to marketing, and everything in between, this podcast is for you, the conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.
0:03:55.2 JH: Gunjan, welcome to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. It is an honor and a joy to have you here, and I know it's very late in the evening for you, where you are, so I really appreciate you hopping on to a call with me.
0:04:08.6 Gunjan Menon: No, thank you so much for having me Jaymi, this is a pleasure and I am very honored to be here.
0:04:15.1 JH: Wonderful. Well, I am so excited to talk with you because you are a photographer and a filmmaker, you've been making waves in wildlife conservation visual storytelling, and to be able to hear your story, I think that you are such an inspiring person for so many younger people who are trying to make their way into this field, to be able to see someone who is just carving out a path for themselves like you are, I think is huge, so I'm really excited to dive in to your story and if you're game, let's start with that. What was your path into this field?
0:04:51.3 GM: I think for me, I always sort of knew that I wanted to work in wildlife. Even when I was a little kid, surprisingly, I remember that when I was very young, I was probably three or four when I had this book about rainforest that my grandfather had gifted, and I was obsessed with that book and recently when my mom asked me to clear out my shelves, and I found these childhood treasures of myriad books about animals, about wildlife, about forests, and even though I didn't remember that they contributed as well, but I think they had a very important role in creating that interest, that initial fascination about wildlife and in school growing up, I wanted to be associated with wildlife when no one around me was talking about these things, so I don't know exactly how that happened because I grew up in a very crowded city, I had no access to forests, but somehow that dream of always going to a forest and using that as a full-time career, just doing something associated with wildlife was always there and I was also a child actor, so that introduced me to the world of filmmaking, and I was very fascinated with people working behind the scenes and I somewhere knew that that is also one of the things that I'm passionate about. So I think when the time came to choose a career for myself, I decided to merge two of my passions and make it into a career full-time.
0:06:31.4 JH: Oh my gosh, I had no idea that you were a child actor. What did you act in?
0:06:37.4 GM: Oh, these were some very silly shows that used to come back then, like children's shows where... About stories, like a grandma would tell us stories, and we'd just listen to those stories, we would sing, we would dance, and it was just a very fun children's show that came on the broadcast. We only had two channels back in India at that time, so it used to come on one of those. [chuckle]
0:07:03.6 JH: That is so awesome. Well, what a great introduction to the whole world of filmmaking, 'cause I know that that can be so overwhelming when people realize how big a production can be and you're like, "Ah, I got this, I've already seen it."
0:07:18.2 GM: Yeah, and also you don't realize that to shoot like a 15-minute episode, it takes eight hours, so I think I got that very early on and that didn't come as a surprise, now that I work on shows.
0:07:31.2 JH: Right, right. Well, so you mentioned that you grew up in a really busy city and nobody else around you was really talking about wildlife, so this is something that was just very core to you as who you are as a person. So first, where did you grow up and how did you, I guess, find motivation to choose your career, even if no one around you was really talking about it or supporting that?
0:07:56.7 GM: I grew up in New Delhi in India. While there were not many wild spaces around where I lived, I used to get fascinated with the urban wildlife around me, much to my mother's dismay, I would bring home squirrels, and once I got home a bat that was grounded and needed help and she was like, "What are you getting to my house?" And then, but somehow I always had that support from my parents even if they didn't like all the creatures I was getting home. They were very supportive of whatever I was passionate about, and I think that played a huge role in choosing whatever I wanted to choose, because when I was pursuing science in high school, everyone around me, either wanted to be an engineer or a doctor, because those were the two big professions back then. But I declared to the world that I want to be a wildlife filmmaker even after pursuing pure science. And my parents didn't have a problem with that. They were just so supportive and they said, "Okay, go for it." And my elder brother also used to always support whenever... He used to vouch for me when I got home these... When I used to rescue all these animals and keep them in my house, so he would convince our parents.
0:09:09.7 GM: So I think all of that played a role, and I also grew up watching a lot of documentaries, so whatever access we had, not a lot at that time, but I grew up watching David Attenborough documentaries, Steve Irwin, Jeff Corwin, and I was mind-blown by that world, and I wanted to be them, I wanted to do what they were doing. That somehow played a major role in deciding that I wanted to be a wildlife filmmaker. Only later, once I actually got into filmmaking, I realized that we can come back to this later also, but that's when I realized that I want to become a conservation filmmaker, and not just a natural history filmmaker. But all these childhood experiences sort of contributed to who I am today.
0:09:58.9 JH: Wonderful. And so you decided to actually go to school for filmmaking. So what was that decision like for going to school for filmmaking and... I mean, you rocked it in school, going through all of your awards that you've won, everything that you really accomplished even while you were in school is inspiring. So what was that like choosing to get a degree in filmmaking, wildlife filmmaking?
0:10:26.2 GM: That's a great question actually, because before I pursued my Masters in Wildlife filmmaking in Bristol, I also did my undergrad in media and communication, which was audio visual filmmaking, and that was a decision I had to take purely because there was no one in India teaching anything even remotely close to wildlife filmmaking or what I wanted to do. So I just had to take the decision, I had to choose whether I'd do zoology and learn filmmaking on my own, and just sort of combine them, or I learned filmmaking and just do the side-reading on my own and combine it. So I decided that, okay, since I have no clue and I'm also very interested in filmmaking, let me learn the art of filmmaking, art of storytelling, and then I will just somehow find a way or hopefully, things will fall into place later and I can combine it. So while pursuing my undergrad, I did a lot of internships with the wildlife NGOs. So even though I was pursuing filmmaking, I went to them and said, "I'm really interested in filmmaking and I want to make videos for you, so can I do this? Can I help you with your communications, can I help you with outreach?"
0:11:41.5 GM: That is how I sort of made those wildlife connections early on, and even though there was no formal education in wildlife filmmaking, I just sort of made it work while I was an undergrad. And then later after that, after working in the industry for three years and working on all sorts of wedding films, music videos, comedy sketches, and really commercial industry, I realized, okay, I can't do this any longer, I can't wait for my dreams to come true, then I heard about this Masters in Wildlife Filmmaking, then I went to Bristol, which was like the hub of wildlife filmmaking, and this was a course in partnership with the BBC Natural History Unit. So this seemed like the perfect fit. And that's when my career just took off because I was finally in a room full of people who were as passionate as I was about wildlife, suddenly, from knowing no one who wanted to do what I wanted to do, I was in a room with 15 others who had the same passion, who had the same dreams, and I think that changed everything. And this is where I am now.
0:13:00.3 JH: I'm just as... We're on video doing this interview, and I'm just watching your face glow as you talk about finally being around people who are speaking your language, care about the same things as you, are as driven. Do you think that played a role in how driven you've been in your career as well?
0:13:18.3 GM: Yes, definitely, because till then I was still very unsure... I mean, not unsure about what I wanted to do, but still unsure whether this would work as a career, but suddenly when you're around people and especially being mentored by people in the industry who are successfully... Who are doing this for a long time and then that really gives a boost to your confidence and also the way they focused on storytelling and how everyone around me wanted to work on conservation as well, and wasn't very focused on pure natural history storytelling. It was also about follow your dreams, tell the story you want to tell. I think that played a major role in me just setting off and deciding that I'll do it my way, and I'll tell the stories I want to tell.
0:14:13.3 JH: You said something that I would love to dig into, which is, you weren't quite sure if this would actually work as a career, and that question comes up, that concern comes up so often because it is... Conservation filmmaking, conservation photography are really difficult careers to get into and be able to do with a sustainable income source as something that is a full-time job, and so it is kinda scary. So I'm curious about how... What are some of the things that you're doing now that allow you to have this as a full-time career, like what does your workload look like?
0:14:49.8 GM: That's very funny because there are... I'm still a freelancer and I come from a certain privilege that even if I'm not able to make the rent, there are people who can support me, and not a lot of people have that kind of support system, so it is incredibly difficult to support yourself, but I think it took a few years, but finally now I can sustain myself working full-time on wildlife. So I had to constantly keep pitching ideas, I have to constantly keep applying for grants, and it is a full-time job, even if you're not filming. Of course, when you're out in the field you're shooting, it's all exciting, but the boring work is when you're sitting back in your room and you're applying for grants, you're begging people to support your ideas, you're editing for months sitting in a dark room. I think people don't see this other side that is not as glorious, but it's great that after working so hard I'm finally at a place that I don't have to shoot midnight weddings to sustain myself. There was a time when to be able to afford a house, we had to keep doing all sorts of boring, soulless jobs.
0:16:02.8 JH: Yeah, that's familiar. I remember when I finally made the leap to full-time with someone, like when I made the announcement on Facebook, someone who was also a full-timer commented like, "Oh congratulations, you're gonna shoot less than ever now." And it's really chilling. You think, okay, well, I'm gonna get to spend all this time, set my own schedule, be behind the camera all the time and no, there's so much computer work, there's constant pitching, there's constant work that I think can be really difficult and sometimes soul-crushing, so you really have to get through all the noes, keep going, keep trying, and you really having a... It's amazing to watch your career grow, and not only are you working specifically on filmmaking, but you also created Beyond Premieres. Will you tell us about Beyond Premieres?
0:16:55.6 GM: Yeah, so that is something that also came very naturally to me, when I was initially working on the kind of films I was working on and the kind of films I was watching, after a film is released, we're not able to do enough, and I realized I wanted to follow-up, I wanted to do more for the species I was filming and when I worked in The Firefox Guardian, I worked on it three years ago, but I'm still in touch with the organization working at the grassroots. I still try and do as much as I can for red pandas in the wild. I'm currently working on their anti-poaching campaign in Nepal, and I realized that is what brings me real joy, to not abandon films after they're released, but just sort of keep working towards the cause because with conservation filmmaking, just getting the film out there wasn't my goal, ultimate goal, the goal is to be able to contribute in some, whatever possible, tangible way to the species, to the habitats or the people working at the grassroots.
0:18:03.0 GM: So with that in mind, and when I saw the model of The Firefox Guardian working so well, I realized that I wanted to create some space for other filmmakers to be also able to experience this joy. So along with my husband, we started this organization, and it's like a non-profit organization right now, and a very small team, it's usually just the two of us, and sometimes I get in volunteers to help us, but we sort of support filmmakers to connect them to people working at the grassroots, so that whatever message they're giving out through their films, they can actually go forward with it and connect with people who are making a tangible impact on ground. So it's more like, at this stage, we're only helping with education outreach, and recently we've also started helping with policy change and campaigns. So for example, recently we were working on a marine conservation film, working to help someone who was working on a marine conservation film, and we launched a campaign against ghost nets and also these are very realistic campaigns, now that I'm realizing that policy change also will take years and real conservation takes years to create some change, so especially now with policy change, it involves so many other stakeholders and you have to be realistic to be heard. So...
0:19:35.0 GM: And these are the kind of things that filmmakers need support with. So that is the idea behind this. So even if I can connect them to the right people, if I don't have the answers, I can connect them, through my network, to the people who can help them. So that was the idea behind Beyond Premieres, that don't just stop at Premieres, you can do much more with your films. And this is what I teach people I'm mentoring as well, that our medium is so powerful, it's so strong, if we use it wisely, then we can really create change, like waves of change.
0:20:13.2 JH: I get little chills when we start talking about stuff like this because it's so true. So many times we think about the process of creating something, and once it's created, a photo story or a film, it's really exciting, you're like, "Okay, and I'm off to the next thing." But in conservation, we don't have the luxury of that. The film, or the photo story is the very first little thing. It is almost like the engine, but you still need the rest of the car. You need to be able to steer that engine to places where it can actually make an impact. You need a gas pedal, you need brakes, you need the ability to actually make that photo story or that film have the continuous impact, because like you said, it takes years and years and years to actually create the change that your film may intend to create, and so you have to keep using it, you have to think of ways to get it out to audiences, you have to think of other ways, like little mini-films, or strategies, or using it as network connections. There's so many ways to use a film that it has nothing to do with putting it in front of people in a theater. And I love that you are concentrating on that and helping conservation filmmakers to have successes that go far beyond just showing the film once and then moving on. It's so awesome.
0:21:31.2 GM: I love that analogy. I'm gonna use that, the jargon into that film.
0:21:35.0 JH: Awesome, yay.
0:21:37.4 GM: Yes.
0:21:38.1 JH: Well, so you mentioned the Firefox Guardian, and that it was a model that was working really well to help with conservation, can you tell us, what is the Firefox Guardian, and what is that model behind it?
0:21:50.6 GM: Right. So Firefox Guardian is my baby. It's my first big film that set off my career, and something that I'm really fairly passionate about, even though it was the first film I made. That was a part of my Master's project. So when we were pursuing our Master's in Bristol we all had to make a 10-minute film to get our degrees, but all of us, I think were so passionate about our films that they played a way bigger role than just being our degree films. And I have always been fascinated with red pandas. And obviously, before that, I never had access, or money, or even the confidence to go and pursue a story on red pandas myself, and I don't know what clicked that time. I was like, "If not now, then never." And it was very challenging, because even then, a lot of people advised me that, "Are you sure you wanna pick such a difficult subject, because how are you gonna tell a story about red pandas if you can't find them? They're so difficult. Even people living around their natural habitat haven't been able to find them in the wild, why would you attempt something so difficult?" But I don't know what came over me, I just wanted to tell that story. And I started talking to people around me about red pandas and I realized that even some of my closest friends didn't even know what a red panda was. And one of my friends asked me, "Oh, I didn't know pandas came in red."
0:23:29.6 GM: I said, "Oh, okay, so are you imagining like a giant black and white panda in red, or what is happening?" So that's when I realized that how was I going to ask people to save a species, or passionate about a species they don't even know about? So how would they love red pandas, how would they care for red pandas? So that's when I started digging deeper, and I came across this article in a blog post, actually, which was titled Role of Women in Red Panda Conservation, and there was a photograph of some 20 men standing and right in the center there was this young woman beaming, and I don't know, something attracted me towards that photo. And I read about Menuka, who was this first female forest guardian in Nepal, and she had said that... In the article there was a line by her where she had said, "I will protect red pandas at any cost." And I was like, "This is... I need to find this woman. Even though she's across borders, somehow she shares the same passion as I do, and I need to find her."
0:24:39.6 GM: And then I started writing emails to Red Panda Network that, "I'm a student, I really wanna make this film, can we find ways to collaborate?" And they were actually very supportive, and they said, "Sure, come to Nepal, we'll make it work." That's it. It just... Then the rest is history. But then I got there, and the forest... I saw how local communities play such a major role in red panda conservation. I just captured everything the way my eyes saw that I was just a woman... Menuka was even more inspiring in person. And we did not speak the same language, we were using a communicator, but somehow our mutual passion for red pandas just made us bond. And over the course of 15 days I shot the 15-minute film. And it sometimes gives me chills when I watch the film because it's so honest, in a way. I feel that it's so raw, and it was the first experience of the kind that I had. And after that people resonated with Menuka.
0:25:44.8 GM: So even people who weren't interested in wildlife, they resonated with her struggles, because she was a woman in her field, she was the first woman to go against society and pursue what she was doing, and she had her own struggles, but she would just do everything with a smile. So in a way, I really was very inspired by her as well, and that's when I also understood that conservation wasn't black or white, it was so nuanced that like people at the grassroots play such a major role in conservation, communities, poaching isn't... You can't look at poaching as black and white, there are so many reasons why these people are forced to take up hunting because of being so underprivileged and all the forest guardians working there were previously poachers, but they were converted to being panda trackers instead, so they were using their traditional knowledge of hunting for a Panda, but this time they would use it for ecotourism and actually show people... Like they would find a panda, but for tourism, and that was just so beautiful.
0:26:54.9 GM: And I think that whole experience transformed me as a person, made me fall in Red Pandas in several more ways, and even now, I'm a strong advocate for Red Panda Conservation, and I think even eco-feminism, it started a dialogue about how women are so important in conservation, and... There's one story. Sorry, I told you I speak a lot.
0:27:25.4 JH: I love it. Keep it coming.
0:27:26.7 GM: So, one of the people who worked at Red Panda Network, they showed this film to their 6-year-old. And this girl wrote to me saying that she saw a role model in Menuka, and she was in Oregon. So this little girl across borders was so inspired by Menuka that her father gifted her a photograph I clicked of Menuka, and they took a photograph of her holding a photograph of Menuka and sent it to Menuka in Nepal and Menuka who was like who... They're quite remote in that village and they're cut off from the whole world, but she got to see that her work in Nepal was creating ripples across the world and making a difference in that little girl's life, and I think that might have inspired her to just keep at it, even though... Despite her struggle. So, I think I love that and I was so emotional that like a little film I made for my degree was creating such a beautiful difference in someone's life. The girl said she wants to be a conservationist like her when she grows up and that just is so beautiful.
0:28:35.4 JH: I love that so much.
0:28:36.7 GM: Yeah. So, I don't know, these little things... Just like one little mail of someone's life being changed because of something you've made, just wants you to keep doing what you're doing.
0:28:52.4 JH: So what are some of the ways that you've used The Firefox Guardian on that ongoing basis because clearly what you've done with the film after making it really is working?
0:29:04.3 GM: So we have screenings online and like before the pandemic in-person screening. So, lot of... We get in touch with lots of schools and young children and encourage them to organize their own fundraiser screenings for Red Panda Network. So, when their... Themselves actively involved in it and they raise like whatever the ticket price they raise, they send it directly to Red Panda Network like we give them that option or educational films. People who are not exposed to Red pandas or wildlife, we take these stories to them and show them that this is also a career option, you could be a wildlife filmmaker, and then I do a lot of talks and awareness campaigns. Some are focused on endangered animals and Red Pandas, and especially in regions where people also live alongside Red Pandas that they are aware of what wildlife is in their backyard and then...
0:30:01.4 GM: And also encouraging people for taking up ecotourism instead and sustainable tourism practices when they go. So, there's also... The film also shows a sustainable ecotourism model instead of the commercial exploitative wildlife tourism that has been on the rise around the world. So I think this is like a nice alternative practice that actually helps with conservation so those... That is on the awareness stage right now, because... Like I said, people aren't aware about Red Pandas right now, but that is one way where the money is directly going to Red Panda Conservation and then I think Red Panda Network often gets in touch with me and says that because of the success of this film, they've also employed a lot of a red panda, female red panda guardians and women in Nepal have been more excited by seeing how Menuka was doing well and the recognition that she got.
0:30:55.0 GM: So there are a lot more women joining now, and yeah, recently I've been helping them with their anti-poaching campaign in Nepal, so it's just... And they've used the footage in their campaign and awareness videos, and we just keep collaborating on different events. They have this... Red Panda marathons that they have like they used the film to raise funds for the organization. So little things like that, it's not... Still not satisfied with where it's going, so I think it's gonna continue till I can actually create a tangible difference, but I think it's a good start.
0:31:37.2 JH: Wow, I'd say that's a phenomenal start, 'cause one of the things that is happening that is so essential, that is easily overlooked, I think that it's not something that is like we're oblivious to, but it's really easily overlooked is that you kinda go into stories or ideas often based on a species or a location or somehow the way that we connect with wilderness or wildlife but really the most powerful way to make a tangible difference is to focus on the human side of that story, and so while your passion for Red Pandas got you started down this road, it was the inspiration that you saw in Menuka and what her role inside of Red Panda Conservation is, has inspired all of these other people to join into conservation. So yes, it started with the importance of conserving a species, but that human side of the story really seems to be such a driving factor in building conservation around that species. I think that's so beautiful.
0:32:40.3 GM: Yeah, I think that's what I mean by cross-genre storytelling as well, because since I come from a training and background in commercial and creating content for the masses, like pure conservation will not work with my audience, so we package the story as a conservation love story, and it really worked and even like some of the other projects I've done, I've packaged them as conservation adventure stories. So, mixing and, mixing matching genres and experimenting really, is needed these days to make these stories work, if you wanna keep working in conservation storytelling because people are not gonna watch depressing conservation stuff, it can't always be doom and gloom, it has to be interesting, it has to be spicy for it to work. And if people aren't gonna watch it like, of course, there's the school of storytelling that comes that you make content for yourself. But the kind of stuff that you're making, you want people, you need people to watch to be able to create behavioral change. So, you have to sort of be experimental with how you create these stories.
0:33:48.8 JH: Yeah, I'm so inspired by that side of conservation is, yes, I love being behind a camera, but really what gets my engine going is thinking about the creative ways to bring known marketing strategies into conservation storytelling so that the stories really dig in, like they really have traction with people, I love thinking about that kind of stuff. So you mentioned that Menuka's role in red panda conservation has inspired other women to get involved because she's kind of like this person leading the way, she's a very unique person and that she decided to go this route, despite the fact that she didn't necessarily have role models but in that she became a role model for other women and that this, she's working inside of a male-dominated field, and you're working inside of a male-dominated field as well, and you've become involved in several organizations that focus in on the fact that there aren't a ton of women, but women are on the rise inside of this field.
0:34:54.9 JH: So you're part of Girls Who Click, which is an organization run by Suzi Eszterhas, or founded by Suzi Eszterhas, that focuses in on workshops, so professional women in the field lead workshops for teen girls in the field to kind of inspire and show them how they can potentially do this as a passionate hobby or even a career, you're part of Her Wild Vision Initiative, which is a directory, [laughter] which is a directory of women working in this field professionally, so semi professionally or professionally, so that editors, producers, companies can find and hire women inside the field. You're part of NEWF's Wild Women Media Lab, what is the importance of organizations like this for you in your career, because it can be really easy to feel dismissed, to feel underestimated, and yet look at what a powerhouse you are, so what do these organizations... What role do they play for you in your career?
0:35:56.0 GM: So yeah, it's funny you're calling me a powerhouse because I constantly deal with impostor syndrome, and I have to talk myself out of it. So, organizations like these really help, and I'll tell you how, because growing up, I did not see any representation on screen or even behind the screen, and no one who looked like me or talked like me was part of the industry at the scale that could reach me at that point. And there were no women who I could call role models when I was growing up, I was only introduced to them later when I was in Bristol, right. So I realized that there are women in the field, I just never knew about them. And this is exactly how platforms like your Her Wild Vision really helped, because the next generation now, for them, they will not face the problems I had. This is this whole repository of people who are like them, who they can call role models, with Her Wild Vision, there are people who I relate to, there are people I can learn from, and there are people I can get inspired by.
0:37:03.6 GM: And when I was starting out, it was a heavily male-dominated industry, but I don't feel that's the case anymore, at least in India, because women in higher positions now are a reason for making this change, because there are women who could rise up and because of the support system they found through organizations like these, that now the women coming up in the new generation will not have to face the same problems and there are so many more opportunities now, and earlier, like you said, it was so easy for us to get dismissed because the Alpha males would just say that... Just dismiss it as saying that we're either not experienced enough or the field is not safe for us, and I would often get offered only desk jobs, and I was not someone who could sit down on a desk and work. And instead of finding ways to make the environment safer for me or instead of, you know, if everyone says you don't have enough experience, who is the first person to actually give us that experience or give us that training? So instead of crossing those barriers that always was a barrier 'til we found a way to overcome it ourselves.
0:38:20.0 GM: And I am so happy and proud that that is not the case anymore for people coming up, because there are these opportunities like Girls Who Click and your Wild Women Media Lab, for both of them, I was a mentor and I got to share the experiences and the problems I faced, so that they don't have to face them anymore. And there is strength in numbers. So the more women who join, the more women who succeed mid-level and high level career women are the ones who are gonna help newcomers coming in and they will not be facing the same problems anymore, and I love what Her Wild Vision also does because there's no excuse anymore to not hire women, right, there's this whole database of women to choose from, who are highly skilled, highly talented. I love it when you say that, no more excuses. Just hire right now.
0:39:15.9 GM: So I think through such initiatives it's... This space has become way more diverse and what I've realized after interacting with so many women in this space with these communities, is that... I'm not the only one feeling imposters a lot of other women feel like they're not good enough or they're not getting work for the right reasons. And it's great to share and communicate because then you realize that, "Okay, it's all in your head," and you can... Move forward, move past that. And this new generation, what I love about people coming in now is that there is like there's this unstoppable force and we can no longer be put aside, so I love that.
0:40:02.3 JH: I love that too, and I think it's really amazing to see the industry change in part because, as women are finding success in this, they don't just charge forward with their own career. So many of them are kind of turning around looking behind them and saying, "How can I bring more women along with me in this journey? How can I give back? How can I mentor? How can I make it easier for other people?" And I think one of the big issues has been, one of the big reasons why Morgan Heim and I created Her Wild Vision Initiative is because you had mentioned earlier like, "Well, there weren't people who looked like me or talked like me. I didn't think that there were women doing, like me, doing what I'm doing inside of this career. There are... I just didn't know about them." And one of the things that we heard from editors when we launched this directory is like, "Yeah, I'd love to hire more women, they're just not out there. I can't find them." And it's like, "No, we're gonna make it so that you can. "
0:40:57.7 JH: Because so many of us are out there, but there is a barrier to being seen and recognized and found and hired. And it's wonderful that you're also recognizing that the field is totally changing and the make-up of the field is totally changing. And that has the potential to change the stories that are being told, which I think is so incredible. And I would love to ask you what your thoughts are about this field in maybe the next 5 or 10 years, what do you see happening or what do you hope might happen for this field?
0:41:34.5 GM: So one of my mentors and a really good friend, the founder of NEWF Noel Kok often says that, "When you change the story teller, the stories change." I mean I messed up his quote, but that was the essence, that you need to change the story teller. And that really hits hard because they are... The same people have been telling stories for decades, and now that there's more diversity, people will tell stories from their own experience. Women can tell stories the way they see it... And I feel it might be a stereotype that we do see stories differently, and... When I've gone on the field, I've noticed that communities open up more to me than say if my husband was taking the interview. So, that is a different way... I don't know, I mean both... I'm not saying that women are better at it, I'm saying we're just different at it. And for a different view point, because how many times will you tell the same story in the same way? There are so many more perspectives that we need to hear. There's this traditional White male gaze that we've been looking at stories from, so I think that eventually has to change.
0:42:52.2 GM: And well, it is changing right now, and in the next 5-10 years, I think since so many opportunities are being given to the next generation of filmmakers, if we manage to extend that as access to get, access to showcasing their stories on a platform, then we'll see so many new stories as well. Like stories that we can't search for on Google. Stories that are happening in people's backyards. Experiences that people are going through. There's stories of conflict and co-existence. I think there is such a beautiful, untapped space for new stories that are told by people themselves. And there's this wonderful initiative in India that one of my mentors runs, it's called Green Hub Fellowship by Rita Banerji. And she is training the next generation of filmmakers from marginalized communities, youth from local communities, so that they can go back to their communities and tell their stories. And I think that works wonderfully, because those are the stories you and I would never get access to or like even hear about. So I think in the coming years, if there's a rise in such people central, community central story telling, it would be wonderful for the industry and we would all rise together. And it would mean a lot for the whole industry to transform towards this beautiful world of new stories and new perspectives.
0:44:33.3 JH: That's lovely, that's lovely... Access is a huge thing, access to training as well as access to equipment. This is not a cheap field to get into. The ability to actually get equipment to do visual storytelling is really difficult. And I know the fundraising for so many organizations who are trying to train people to be able to tell their own stories. That's a big issue, trying to get funds to them to be able to put equipment in the hands of people who are learning how to tell their own stories is... There's so many things to overcome. But I love that there are people out there like you as well, who are mentoring, teaching, helping other people dive into telling their own stories... The way that they see it. And as we said earlier, that human component, the human side, the way that we connect with other people is such a driving force. That to hear more stories about other people that we would never hear from, that could end up being a massive driving factor in conservation of species and places, so... Very, very hopeful.
0:45:35.3 GM: Yeah, I love that. [chuckle]
0:45:37.7 JH: Well, so there's one thing, I kinda wanna take a little tangent, a little detour, if you don't mind. You mentioned something earlier that kind of sparked for me that I would love to dig into a little bit deeper, which is that one of the things that your film is doing for red pandas is through fundraiser film screenings, is helping to fund an organization that's doing the on-the-ground conservation work, which is a very different thing than ecotourism, which is something that's on the rise. What are your thoughts about ecotourism and the pros and cons of that, especially when it comes to photography, like getting photographers who are interested in taking tours or workshops in these other places and using ecotourism in that way, but the pros and cons of that and how we could have a different model by doing things like fundraiser film screenings to more empower on the ground conservation organizations?
0:46:32.3 GM: I think ecotourism if done in the right manner is very powerful, but then the rules and ethics have to be very carefully considered that the number of people, the group size of the people visiting the place, so that the animal isn't stressed and where are they eating, is it like a luxury eco-tourism camp, then it doesn't serve the purpose. If you're putting money back into the communities, then that gives an incentive, it gives them an incentive to work towards conservation. And most of the cases, they are already the custodians of their forest, so they don't need an incentive to save their forest, but if the financial situation is bad, then this obviously comes as a great incentive that instead of killing animals in your backyard, you work to keep them alive because that is what is bringing you an alternate source of income.
0:47:28.8 GM: So like homestays, or teaching the communities how to run successful homestays, if that is a part of ecotourism, and the communities are involved in the communication of conservation and they're not kept out of it, like policies can be made sitting in one room in a city, they have to include the people whose livelihoods are at stake. So I think if done properly keeping all these factors in mind then ecotourism is a wonderful way forward for photographers and people who don't have access to wildlife to actually experience it in a way that is not harming the wildlife, and so I love that. Cons I think would just be that ones the stakes of like any other tourism industry, this could put a lot of pressure on the local communities and wildlife if it's not done from an ethical perspective.
0:48:32.0 JH: That makes a lot of sense.
0:48:33.9 GM: Your other question about screenings. I strongly believe that people who will live alongside the wildlife where the film is shot, they should always get access to the film. So whenever, no matter how big a screen you're releasing your film on, like if it's a big-budget MX film, if it doesn't go back to the people who helped make the film, or it doesn't go back to the villages living alongside the species you've shot with, then it's not really solving the purpose that it was made for, so I think screenings that way, when filmmakers are thinking of distribution, they should always have this little budget set aside for taking the film back to where it came from. That would just make a lot more sense because these community sometimes they don't... I was reading about it, in India and also in Africa, people don't have access to national parks sometimes because it's so expensive, and if that barrier also is just overcome and they never get to see the multimillion budget films that are made in their villages or their forest so I think that way the screenings can be more effective. I don't know if this was your question or not, but.
0:49:50.3 JH: No, I mean, that is a really interesting thought line to follow though, because it reminds us that a lot of times when people from outside of an area go into an area to create a film, there can be a lot of distress, because the people... And especially if it's a popular area where a lot of photographers and filmmakers come to make things, but the people who live there never get to see that, and so it feels really like, "Well, what are you doing with this? How are you positioning us? You're always coming in and taking from us and using us, and we never get to even see what it is that you're making, why should we trust you to come back again?" And so the idea that a filmmaker comes in and is like, "I'm gonna do this thing," and then comes back and says, "Here's what we made together. Here's what you are doing for other people outside of this, but also thank you for being part of this, and here's why it was created," that's huge. So thank you so much for mentioning that aspect of screenings.
0:50:44.4 GM: Yeah. No, you summed it up perfectly, that's exactly what I meant with it just creates that trust.
0:50:52.7 JH: And like you said, the impact. You mentioned that that can build a desire to conserve, a desire to be part of that.
0:51:01.8 GM: Yeah, we often go to a place thinking that, "Okay, we need to save wildlife. We need to save the people." Wildlife, it just needs to be like the people are doing a good enough job, we just need to not disrupt what's already there, and these people live alongside the forest, they've been depending on the forest for centuries, and they don't need lectures from us on how to save wildlife, they just need to have a voice, and I think that's really important.
0:51:31.9 JH: So this has been such an inspiring conversation, but before I let you go, can we talk a little bit about other projects that you have worked on or are working on that you're super passionate about?
0:51:43.6 GM: Yeah, I'm actually working on two projects at the moment. We've finished filming for both so we're in a long editing spell right now. One of them, I got a National Geographic grant for making a film about freshwater turtle conservation, and we actually... Sorry, when is this podcast coming out, I don't know.
0:52:05.4 JH: Oh, it will be out. I can pull that up right now...
0:52:09.2 GM: So that I know if that'll be before, I don't know if I'm allowed to make the...
0:52:14.3 JH: Make the announcement?
0:52:15.3 GM: Mm-hmm.
0:52:16.1 JH: It is gonna be published on October 26th.
0:52:20.0 GM: Okay, then it's fine. I can just say something. Yeah, I think I would have announced it by then. Yeah, okay. So one of them is a National Geographic grant that I got and now we are filming a species that is critically endangered, and when we were filming they were considered to be extinct in the wild. And we managed to find them in the wild and not just capture them, but we also film some amazing behavior that has never been seen before, and even the biologist who was with us had never seen some of the behavior in the wild, and they were extremely, extremely rare species of freshwater turtles. And again, that was packaged like an adventure story that a filmmaker, a biologist and a photographer, we go on an expedition to find this turtle.
0:53:07.3 GM: And I think that also talks about the fishermen who are the first stakeholders in conservation, it talks about the community, then it also talks about how in... It also talks about the cultural aspect of the story, because these turtles are revered in the state of Assam, so every time a baby is born or every time someone finds a turtle hatchling they release it into the temple pond, but the problem is that in those temple ponds the conditions are really bad, the turtles are addicted to junk food, people feed them rice puffs and whatnot. And because these turtles don't have protected status in India because they were considered to be extinct in the wild, there are no real rules of how they are kept in captivity. So we are just trying to sort of use this film to strengthen the conservation policies that this turtle has and further inspire the people of Assam to still hold on to their faith, but instead of releasing turtles in the temple ponds they can release it in the wild. And that thought... We need to sensitively do this and say that religion and conservation don't always need to be, you know, enemies, so if we work together, we both end up saving a species that we love. So that is the idea behind that film.
0:54:30.5 GM: And there's another project that was happening right in my backyard, there was this extremely cute, rusty-spotted cat, kitten that was being raised very close to where I live, there was no funding because commissioning takes years. I mean, not years but it takes a really long time for a story to get commissioned, but this was happening right next to me, this kitten was being raised and it was being released for the first time successfully, like a cat raised in captivity was being released, so I just started filming the story and we just... It was magical how this beautiful kitten grew up into a feisty wildcat, and even though it was raised in captivity, it is so ready to be wild, and we just filmed the entire process and that too is a beautiful story about how conservationists and people have worked really hard to send this cat back to the wild instead of sending it to a zoo. So, those are the two stories that I'm working on right now and I'm really excited to share them with the world. We just don't know...
0:55:39.0 JH: Those are such optimistic stories, like those are... The way that you framed both of those are so uplifting and hope-filled, that's something that I think you're definitely going that route that you mentioned before, that everything can't be doom and gloom, we have to talk about stories of hope and things that inspire other people, and those are so beautiful.
0:56:03.1 GM: Thank you. I'm really excited about these two, we will start looking for commissioners and broadcasters from next month, and it's a very exciting phase and difficult, but it's going to be super fun.
0:56:16.6 JH: I can't wait to see what you do with that and potentially what happens with conservation of these species during Beyond Premieres. One thing I wanted to double-check with you really quick was what species of wildcat was that?
0:56:29.3 GM: A rusty-spotted cat.
0:56:31.0 JH: That's what I thought. I'd never heard of that species before. Well, thank you so much for the energy that you pour into conservation filmmaking, everything that you've done so far is amazing, but it also makes me really excited to watch what you create moving forward. And like I said before, you are a powerhouse, so impostor syndrome or not... You are doing really incredible things, and you're such a role model for other women. So thank you for everything that you do in this field and for conservation.
0:57:02.3 GM: Well, thank you so much for inviting me. I was so excited when you asked me to be on the show, so thank you so much, it means a lot that you're having this conversation with me.
0:57:12.2 JH: It's a joy.