Into the Blue: Part One
Karina Holden is the director of Blue, one of the Good Pitch Australia documentaries releasing in 2017. A scientist and factual program-maker, this is her first feature length documentary destined for the cinema and it’s like no film about the ocean you’ve ever seen.
I met with Karina before she made the film, and almost a year later—when she had just completed the edit. Blue was one of the few Good Pitch films with significant philanthropic support raised at the 2015 event that hadn’t started shooting. In this first interview, we covered a lot of personal ground, in part because I was interested in how Karina combined science and filmmaking—her point of view on the planet and human beings was clearly influenced by her scientific training and lived experience as a program maker. She wasn’t a filmmaker directing a film about a subject that interested her; she had been educated and worked as a scientist; she cut her teeth as a program maker at the ABC in the Natural History Unit when it was a world class operation and a significant revenue-earner for our public broadcaster; she had lived with the Maasai and worked with spider-training ex-Kamikaze pilots in Japan. For years, she made shows the world wanted to see about nature but until Blue, she hadn’t made a film which challenged the Arcadian visions broadcasters and audiences demand, despite the radically altered reality.
The second interview took place after Karina and her team were completing the edit. In a clattery cafe in Redfern, her forthright questioning of my assumptions and language alerted me not only to how one-sided my own thinking can be but how critically important the role of science is, in a society, professing to value truth, innovation and progress. Science and its methodology corrects our wrongly held assumptions and confirmation biases, or it should. Although climate change deniers and a raft of other beliefs rigorously upheld (e.g. anti-vaxxers) in the face of evidence are proof, ironically, that facts and science are not always successful in changing people’s minds. Feelings are not the point, neither is identifying with other creatures as if they are human nor assessing the value of nature based purely on short term needs. On the evidence so far, with regard to the environment, we carry on as if we are narcissistic gods—dumb, self destructive ones—unaware we survive in relation to nature, not independently of it.
Blue examines the sinister impact of industrialisation and human consumption on the planet’s most precious life force: the ocean. At this point you might want to stick a pointy medieval sword in your eye but don’t—the film hits you BANG in the heart. It’s the shock of truth and, with it, the not-all-is-lost feeling because we meet the ‘ocean guardians’, a new generation who have taken up the fight for the planet. Together with those who have worked invisibly, for decades, they guide us through the darkness and drag us ignorant lard–arses into the light.
One of the film’s achievements, and there are many, is how it makes visible what is dodged in virtually all the natural history and wildlife shows we consume. Blue is poetic and awe-inspiring in cinematic style but avoids the prettification of the watery world that is 70% of our planet. There’s no highly saturated imagery and pristine waters we’ve come to believe is forever; no glittery creatures gliding through Technicolor coral; no cute and adorable animals being cute and adorable, no David Attenborough (a hero regardless) re-assuring us of the wonder that lies beneath, no televisual frame that—by choice—eschews the consequences of human carelessness. The focus is deliberately aimed at what we don’t want to see—also about ourselves.
A small but brutal fact: this year alone, 50 million plastic bags will enter the litter stream from Australia, making our country the second largest waste producer, per person, in the world.
I don’t know about you but this makes me gag with anxiety and shame. I’m as lazy and convenience-orientated as the rest of you planet slum–dwellers but it’s relatively easy to alter behaviours that can make a critical difference—especially if it is done en-masse and yet we seem to struggle with coming to terms with this fact. (More on that in Part 2). There is a snag. As scientists, conservationists and activists remark, we know the facts but we are failing at inspiring people to action.
I saw an early cut of the film and I haven’t eaten tinned tuna since (which totally screwed up my standing at the counter fast–eating regime but I’ve since learned there’s no omega 3’s in canned tuna); I have to restrain myself from making a citizen arrest when I see some idiot drop a plastic water bottle at the beach because she can’t be bothered to walk a few extra yards and put it in a bin; I’ve given up on my much-used micro-plastics filled exfoliator since discovering it fills the bellies of birds and fish who mistake it for food. I mostly resist using plastic bags (and it doesn’t help that I am handed them whenever I buy anything and have to rip off plastic layers in most packaging as if ordinary contents are plutonium).
The bigger picture (and this isn’t a quarter of it): the loss of half the coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef over the past 30 years and the ongoing threats to its existence; the building of new coal mines along our coastal shoreline when Australia’s emissions are estimated to be higher now than they were in 2000; the over-fishing that threatens the survival of species; the biologists prediction that one in five species on Earth now faces extinction, and that will rise to 50% by the end of the 21st century if we continue to operate as we do.
Wrong, on all counts.
We look to leadership, or the absence of it, in government and business, we hope policy gets it right and that policy is implemented but there is also individual responsibility. We don’t want the plastisphere poisoning and replacing the marine ecosystem? Stop putting plastic into the ocean. We want a strategic, well researched, integrated, global, bi-partisan plan for the future? It can’t be that hard. We need alternatives in long term employment and a healthy environment? We can figure it out…
Blue shows us there is a way forward, we just have to start.
PB: Where did you grow up?
KH: On Paradise Avenue in Avalon.
PB: It’s already like a movie…
KH: It was the halcyon childhood—with a waterfront, surfing and swimming every weekend; leaving Avalon Primary School in bare feet and jumping straight into the ocean. So, water baby upbringing and I had very adventurous parents—we were always off boiling a billy in the bush or sailing down the coast; my parents were very connected to nature. Eventually we moved on to a farm in the Southern highlands.
PB: How was that?
KH: I loved it. I used to do my maths homework on my horse, using his rump as the table… I loved being around animals, being out in nature—that whole wild experience but I also loved English, Drama and Music—I played the violin.
PB: Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do when you were a kid and at school?
KH: I was always very self motivated; if you read my teenage diaries, I had already laid out a plan about everything I was going to achieve: I’d already decided I was going to be a National Geographic filmmaker. By the time I was 14, I knew I wanted to travel, go to Africa, make films, work at the ABC Natural History Unit. I was very motivated – I’d spin the globe as a kid, and put my finger on a country, get out the encyclopaedias and write about that country as if I was a National Geographic explorer of that region. I wanted those experiences….I wanted to get into Journalism or Theatre but by the time I was doing my HSC, I had two conflicting forces acting on me; one was me wanting to do arts and/or journalism and the other was my mother saying that if I wanted to get into arts and those sort of professional fields, I’d be one in a million and wouldn’t have anything distinctive about me and I’d end up as… a prostitute.
PB: Harsh. Although she had the right idea about earning power when it comes to the Arts, Journalism and Humanities… so science wasn’t your first choice?
KH: Not at school but I had a great headmaster at my school (Oxley College, a small independent school); he was a Rhodes Scholar and into the idea of the “whole person”… As the Ancient Greeks thought about it: you have to be a philosopher, artist and scientist. I only had about 24 people in my year and I was the only 3 unit art student so I had a teacher to myself and an entire studio; you could be who you wanted to be. At that point, it wasn’t science although I had done the foundations. It was when I left school that I decided I wanted to study science so I spent my summer bridging and did extra Maths, Physics and Chemistry. I got into Sydney University.
PB: Were you content with what you had chosen? I only ask because my first year at university was discovering what I didn’t want to study.
KH: I hated it! Having come from a small, independent school and the experience of one-on-one with an art teacher in Year 12 to being one of 800 in a biology class at Sydney, it was intimidating and awful.
PB: But you slogged on?
KH: Yeah and by third year, I’d fallen in with like-minded ecologists and we spent our time going out to the Simpson Desert, Heron Island, and triangulating for frogs, catching snakes or driving around in 4 Wheel drives and drinking beer—it was like getting back to the country. It was falling in love with fieldwork. Then, I went on to do a postgraduate diploma at the University of Queensland—again, it was the same. It was going out to Lady Musgrave Island on the Great Barrier Reef and volunteering on weekends and digging up fossils where they were finding new Kronosaurus species. Being a part of that unfolding story and learning in the field, to contribute towards the knowledge that we have was a great active way of being in the environment. I had a boyfriend at the time who has since become a professor of Ecophysiology and does something weird with reptile metabolisms… We’d go out and catch snakes on weekend, that’s how we spent our time.
PJB: Dating with snakes… I’m terrified of snakes—totally, stupidly terrified and it’s not as if I didn’t see plenty of them growing up but I’ve never got over the irrational fear of them.
KH: That’s the thing though; you move towards the fear. What I didn’t know, I moved toward; why am I scared about it? Why don’t I learn about it?
PJB: Right there, that’s the difference: that’s science talking. Moving towards snakes did not occur to me. But why snakes for you?
KH: I had a great female Herpetology supervisor who wanted me to stay and work with her… There were only two women working in Australia in Herpetology and they were excited: “We have the next generation of snake wranglers in Karina”. They gave me fantastic work. My supervisor Joan Whittier at Queensland University and the curator at the Queensland Museum called Jeanette Covacevich —the two of them took me on and mentored me.
PJB: Your first significant professional mentors were women?
KH: Yes and they were wonderful women. They gave me great opportunities: they paid for me to travel up to Kakadu and do surveys and blood parasitology work: it was technical but interesting, and out-doorsy… but I became very distracted… At that point they were creating a pathway for me and I was getting funding and being paid. We put in for a big grant from The National Foundation of Science in the US to do a study on snakes throughout the Pacific: it was a fantastic opportunity.
PB: But why were you distracted?
KH: I’d had a call from the Natural History Unit of the ABC; they were interested in my work and wanted to feature it in a natural history documentary. After an hour on the phone, I thought: “Shit, I forgot that was what I was supposed to be doing—I was going to be a National Geographic filmmaker and explorer! I managed to worm my way through that conversation into doing some volunteer work for the ABC. In the old days when—
PB: You could do it without signing multiple insurance forms—
KH: Exactly. After I’d been there for about six weeks they said: “Don’t go, stay. We’re going to offer you a full time job”.
PB: What was your job?
PB: Respect! In one of my other sliding doors life, I’d like to have been an animal behaviourist hanging out in trees. So what happened with the snake research and that career track?
KH: I was only at the ABC for a couple of months when a $1million NFS grant came through from the US to fund a big two year research project on snakes in the Pacific. In particular, we were looking at invasive snake species throughout Micronesia, and so I had to make a choice: Do I want to stay in science or have I now found my thing?
PB: That must have been hard because those women had been so supportive to you. What did it come down to?
KH: I hated statistics.
PB: That, I get.
KH: Doing the experimental work was fascinating but having to go back and analyse statistics was deadly—
PB: How much of the work was statistics?
KH: I was trying to avoid that by doing the field work and sending it to the lab but I would have had to be across it. I also thought, Where do I want to be in five and ten years? And I wanted to be exactly where I was. I was there already. I was able to stay and grow the job from being a researcher through to a field producer and Associate Producer and then got to direct a little myself.
PB: Were you there when the famous Dione Gilmour was Head of the ABC Natural History Unit?
KH: Yes, she was incredible. She was there for 35 years or more.
PB: One of the worst things the ABC ever did was get rid of their Natural History Unit—it’s crazy, commercially and culturally, given what the demand for it is in the world and the uniqueness of our environment, history, plants and animals. All that wasted talent and knowledge.
KH: I feel so lucky that I was given the opportunity to be involved during the golden days and that was a golden period.
PB: When was that?
KH: 1994-2000. The ABC was paying the wages of everyone in the unit and the programs that were being made were sold around the world, and shown again and again… the biggest revenue raisers for the ABC at that time were Bananas in Pyjamas and the Natural History Unit. There was a lot of kudos; we were co-producing with the BBC and with Granada and ITV (bringing extra funds and expertise in); there’d be people coming down from Korea and Taiwan to do exchanges so we had this great cultural exchange—nobody knew how to make Natural History like us. Now the BBC comes in and make their shows but at one time we used to co-produce with the BBC, own some of that content and make money for the ABC.
PB: You were the commissioning editor of Science at the ABC?
KH: That was much later – in 2010 – and when I returned, after working for ten years as an independent producer, mostly overseas. The Natural History Unit had been shut down. In its place, they made a commitment to making ten hours a year—it was distressing.
PB: What did you do in the ten years you worked as an independent?
KH: I was mainly making films for National Geographic, there was a lot of commissioning happening out of Singapore so I was making shows there and also in Japan and Thailand, because I couldn’t get anything up in the Australian market. I made sixteen films and it was usually me and cameraman; if I was lucky, I had a sound recordist and 3-8 weeks to make a show and I’d do everything: washing the socks of the crew, having to find food to eat for us when were in a jungle, having to negotiate with the Thai railways to allow monkeys on a train… I could never write a job description of what I was actually doing.
PJB: Sounds like producing feature films—
KH: I never got stuck in a rut, every day was different and a different set of challenges: you’re a problem solver, you’re a negotiator. I was blooded in the wildest and most exotic environment I could construct.
PJB: And you would have had to deal with languages as well—
KH: All the time but that was part of my cone; I could have an English speaking crew and do what I needed to do: If I had a translator that was a shield I enjoyed.
PJB: Tell me.
KH: In Japan, I had a cameraman and sound recordist who were male and I was dealing with a group of spider wrestlers: people who would wrestle spiders for an annual wrestling event and they were all 80-something ex-Kamikaze pilots.
PB: Are they big spiders? I like spiders…
KH: … They are huge golden orb spiders and they had 80 of them in the corners of their houses…
PB: .. maybe don’t like spiders that much…
KH: And they all had names and the trainers knew all their skills—this one waits and then pounces, this is the one that has the high silk ratio. It was so bizarre but fantastic. When I first met with them, they couldn’t understand why a woman was telling them what to do and telling a crew what to do; they’d ask, Why isn’t that man in charge, why is he letting a woman tell him what to do? By the end, they were saying to me: We didn’t know who you were at first; by the time you go home your husband would have left you because no man can tolerate his wife working and being away—
KH: … But we love you so much that one of us will marry you when you come back here and are single…
PJB: Yeah because it would be better to be married to a former kamikaze pilot with 80 spiders in his house than a single woman adventurer having a blast… Sweet.
KH: They were different people with me than they would have been with a man. I had spent a lot of time with Maasai warriors—young men—lion-killing, blood-drinking warriors who could kill something with their bare hands and they were like: Why are we hanging out with this 38-year-old woman? But we had this weird and great and different relationship that meant I got this warmth out of them that I might not have got out of them if I was a macho guy.
PJB: They weren’t competing.
KH: And I was in the second trimester of my pregnancy climbing Mount Kenya with a group of warriors and they could barely keep up—
PJB: (admiring) How did you do that?
KH: Hormones, baby, hormones.
PJB: Did it make a difference that you were a blue-eyed, blonde-haired westerner?
KH: Because I was a westerner, I was treated as if I wasn’t a man or a woman, I was something separate—I wasn’t a black woman or a white man, I was in-between.
PJB: You were other, to them…
PJB: How long did you spend with the Maasai?
KH: I did a couple of projects. Before I met my husband, I’d travelled through Africa and had been in the Maasai Mara one night, at a campfire, and there was this incredible young warrior called James Leopard who was telling stories about animals that as a biologist, I’d never heard before. They were talking about how they relate to animals and their knowledge was so lived: If an elephant charges at you, these are the signs, this is how you react…. I became obsessed with telling authentic stories from the Maasai point of view, instead of having them as a background character. So, I wanted to do ‘The Maasai Guide to Staying Alive’. I held on this for about ten years. I had this really faded photograph and gave it to a producer (Tim Toni) and told him that I wanted to find this Maasai, James Leopard—he said, Great, Let’s do it. He got permission when we were at Southern Star working together and set off to Kenya, having never been to Africa in his life, with my photograph (I was finishing another film) and went to the Maasai Mara asking if anyone knew James Leopard. On the second day, he found him.
PJB: That’s thrilling—
KH: Except that in the intervening ten years, James had become a fat, dumpy, urbanised Maasai and he was not going to make any show—my warrior had turned into a couch potato…
PJB: (Incredulous, another myth destroyed). That happens?
KH: (Nods) But Tim met with filmmakers there who did casting and offered to help find somebody. They found an incredible Sambaru warrior called Loyapan Lemarti who became the central character in a show we did for Animal Planet; then we went on and did a series with him and his best friend for National Geographic.
PJB: How did that work?
PJB: That would be a film in itself—
KH: It was: the cross-eyes, the vampire teeth, stories about the time the elephant broke into their house. Discovery Channel had commissioned us to do a ten-hour show set in a village in the Maasai culture so we were actually casting for a whole reality show and… then they pulled the plug.
PB: Ugh. I feel sick. What did you do?
KH: I think I hyperventilated forever. We’d done six months of pre-production. I’d laid down the cowpats for the first house and planned out the village’s construction. Families had re-located from other regions. I was on a plane flying to Africa, I’d sold my car, rented my apartment and Discovery changed their minds. If I’d gone back there, it could have been very dangerous. I had to send people in to explain; it was terrible. So I think having seen how brutal production can be, I’m pretty robust now. I thought it unconscionable for the executives to do that, also the impact on those very vulnerable people.
PJB: I think too because you value lived experience and you’re out in the field—as a scientist and a filmmaker— you don’t separate your life from your work which isn’t to say you don’t have a life but you’re living your work.
KH: I live in Lalaland according to my family: I’m a fantasist and I don’t have a real life.
PJB: I beg to differ. The reason why it’s relevant to the decision-making process and why people can pull a pin is because they’re picking up coffees, getting in their cars, sitting in an air-conditioned office in LA or Sydney looking at a spread sheet, computer screen or white board. They are disconnected from the experience. What you are doing with those people, isn’t reality—to them—it’s a television show and numbers. The way you live and work is an entirely different way of being.
KH: I think ultimately my aim was to do something with my life that even if I wasn’t being paid, it’s what I’d choose to do—not I want a job that’s going to pay so I can do this; it was more: This is what am I going to do and I will make that my life and it will be my work and that’s why there isn’t a price on it because it’s what I choose.
PJB: And you share lives and experiences with these people and others who watch.
KH: Everyone I’ve ever made a film about is a friend or a colleague or a contact—I made a stem cell film in 2006 with people who were going through dangerous operations for spinal injuries, brain trauma and heart complications using the first stem cell technologies. This lovely couple, who I hadn’t seen for ten years called the other day to say they are coming out from Los Angeles and we’re having lunch next week… Last time we were together, David had just undergone life-changing surgery. I guess I became part of their family because I shared that intense time with them both… I’ve always worked in factual, I don’t know what it’s like in drama—
PJB: In features, I call it the “bubble”. People come together to create a constructed fantasy, mostly share an intense and binding experience, and then it’s over. People get withdrawals, miss people, and then move on. Of course, there are friendships forged that last beyond the shoot but while it’s on, it is all consuming and much like a love affair—there’s also break ups, blow ups, marriage and divorce, unless you keep a distance. What you’re describing is very different—
PJB: I hadn’t thought about it in that way. Sometimes I think documentaries are my favourite films to watch but as a maker they terrify me because in fiction you know what happens in every scene, and how it ends but that’s not the case with documentaries. Then again the best filmmakers always allow for possibility and experiments—aesthetic and performance particularly—they work within a structure but things happen within that that is unpredictable; the magic and the space they occupy psychically are the same in documentaries. There’s a freedom and open-ness good directors create that allow things to happen they hadn’t planned.
What stories are you drawn to?
KH: I’ve always gravitated towards stories that are about the hero, no matter the adversity or challenge: it’s about what they have to overcome, what they’re journeying towards and what they want to achieve is what propels the story. I want to tell a story from that space—Hitchcock says: Your film is only as good as your villain and I think, Who’s my villain? I’ve never come from that head space or been good or that interested in the villain, who’s the villain?
PJB: In Blue, it’s lazy humanity and possibly greed or certainly a lack of understanding about consequences?
KH: I have to make the villain the carelessness within human nature: we forgot to look after what is fundamental to the planet’s survival… there’s all different kinds of filmmaking isn’t there?
PJB: There is but I think you’ve answered my question about why I felt so moved and disturbed watching the Blue trailer. It’s about the apathy and carelessness of all of us that is fucking up the planet, and that’s so much worse than some slothful individual or faceless corporation doing it because they make vast profits—that’s easy because you can point the finger; you don’t have to take any responsibility. I’ve never had a problem with people who are cut-throat and ruthless and honest about it; you know what you are dealing with. The people I mistrust are those who think they’re great people and really they’re not. In this case, that could be most of us.
Here’s the other question: what do you think is behind making beautiful nature documentaries that dodge the ugliness?
PJB: I really struggle to find programs on television I want to watch—especially Australian ones. There’s not enough bold or smart or quality programming. It’s all very same-y and in the middle. Do you think that’s the audiences or the broadcasters deciding what the audiences want?
PJB: In my case, it’s working—
KH: My mum called me yesterday, she’s at Jindabyne, and said: “The brown snakes are attacking—nature has turned.” I replied, “Snakes are defensive animals, they’re not attacking animals and nature is not turning.” Apparently she’d read something in the local newspaper and this myth was being perpetuated. This is hype we will continue to get as we disassociate ourselves from nature. We have become a sanitised society—we’re not walking in bare feet or walking in the wild.
PJB: There’s separation from the natural world but then there’s fearing nature because of what we’re doing to it—
KH: And it’s too big of a problem to face.
PJB: This is your first feature, how does it differ from making a commissioned television program?
KH: I can make the film I want to make. Of course, what’s set out in front of us are a set of objectives to serve the impact partners and to speak to Australia but I want to make something that speaks directly to the audience without the constraints of television.
PJB: You have a full time job in a production company that makes natural history programs, among other non-fiction work, it’s a big job directing a feature at the same time.
KH: I’m lucky that I have a full time job but to make Blue, I work into the night and 6 days a week—and I have a supportive boss who contributed personally. He gets it. It was the opportunity of Good Pitch, and philanthropists who supported Blue as an idea that made making the film a reality; I didn’t know the opportunity existed.
PJB: We met at the Shark Island Institute, in Kangaroo Valley, on the pitch preparation weekend, and only a few days before you and Sarah Beard (impact producer for the film) presented Blue at the Opera House in front of that full room of people. I remember being struck by how complete your vision was… you were passionate but more than that, it felt like you’d already made the film. It wasn’t until the second day of that weekend, and we were into the refining stage, that I realized you hadn’t. The idea was so alive in you.
KH: The first time I was at the workshop in Kangaroo Valley (Shark Island Institute), I spent a lot of time feeling emotional—my parents had lived on the opposite side of the escarpment for 20 years and that had been my spiritual home to escape from a desk job and being a single mum living in a tiny apartment in the middle of the city; they had moved out literally 2 weeks before the workshop and I lay there listening to the frogs feeling: “I’m home again.” I was emotional too because I was thinking how did this alchemy happen? How is it that I’m here, in this space, with this film, all this support and this opportunity? I’m here, 20 years of work, and I’ve arrived—
PJB: It’s all come together.
KH: Beautifully. But now I have to make the film…