Since meeting at university eight years ago, Joya and Lucy instantly formed a creative sisterhood with their shared vision for telling stories, highlighting meaningful human connections to land and sea. Previously inspired by communities from further afield and now, looking closer to home, we find out more about their sustainable practices of using film as a tool for positive change.
Ellie Russell (ER): Your documentaries often focus on communities and what they’re doing to help the people and nature around them – why are these kinds of stories important to you?
Joya Berrow (JB): I think that generally we’ve always been sold this story of the ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ striving for something, but something gets in their way… ‘Will the man get to the holy grail?’ for example. It’s all about machismo and masculinity – but there are so many other ways to tell stories.
If you think about the climate crisis, in terms of how we can holistically move forward, hearing everyone’s perspective, including everyone’s voice, hearing all sides of the argument. It’s about not playing into polarisation, not playing into putting people on pedestals; collective storytelling is a tool for the future, for the world we want to imagine.
ER: Could you tell us a little about how your sustainable process has developed from making your earlier films to films you are working on now?
Lucy Jane (LJ): When we first started making films together, I feel like the actual idea of sustainable filmmaking didn’t really exist. Especially in the short documentary world.
We had this understanding that all the energy and impact (the footprint that you create when you make a film) needed to be justified. If we were going to fly across the other side of the world then we wanted it to feel worthy and our films had to have an impact. Surf Girls Jamaica was the first film where we really set out on the journey of DIY impact filmmaking.
Our decisions have always had a certain element of consciousness and consideration. We’ve always shot on a much smaller camera set-up than others, we never had a massive budget and because we were doing everything ourselves we took a very stripped back approach.
After having made films in Jamaica, Bulgaria and Colombia we were talking and thinking a lot about environmental action and how we can make more sustainable decisions. We began to reflect on ourselves, as filmmakers and our actual filmmaking approach. We started being inspired by stories a lot closer to home, that were on our doorstep, rather than on the other side of the world.
Then we made a film called Eve, about a 9-year-old girl who lives in an off grid community in Somerset. The nature of that film – where the community hadn’t burnt fossil fuels for 25 years, and was completely self-sustainable – was really the main catalyst prompting us to think more seriously about sustainable filmmaking.
"We made what was one of the first carbon neutral short documentaries which has had a massive impact on the way we think about our process."
ER: Could you tell us a little bit about the carbon conscious filmmaking of Eve?
LJ: The beginning of the production process was all very alien to us, but we worked with Doc Society, who commissioned the film. We were able to make the film in the most efficient and least impactful way in terms of its carbon footprint by mitigating our impact in pre-production and throughout filming. At the end of the production, we calculated our carbon footprint and were able to put some budget into offsetting that.
We made what was one of the first carbon neutral short documentaries which has had a massive impact on the way we think about our process. Eve was very much a case study, and there are definitely things we could have done better but we learnt a lot. There’s still work to be done in the film industry (for example there’s still not a massive amount of support, or extra funding for filmmakers to be able to make carbon neutral films); however, this level of consciousness is now something that is on our mind at every decision we make.
ER: Is that momentum shared by other filmmakers do you think?
LJ: Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any individual filmmakers that we know of or look up to who are doing anything that groundbreaking with making films sustainably yet. But there are some amazing organisations out there who really are driving change, giving the movement momentum for sure. Climate Story Labs is one of those organisations who are facilitating environmental filmmakers to get together from different places around the world, enabling people to talk about implementing changes. Other organisations which are doing great things are Think Film, Grain Media and Green Screen. There’s also a certification called the Alberts (We Are Albert), who are a leading organisation on climate change and carbon filmmaking guidelines and work with bigger production companies.
ER: A recent film has been dubbed as the ‘first carbon virtual production film’ with all locations filmed in one studio – what are your thoughts on this approach?
LJ: I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how different people respond to this need to change the process of filmmaking. I love the fact that it’s almost going to push people to be more creative in the same way that Covid did – it’s really positive. If everyone had to be carbon conscious and had a limitation of the impact they could have it would level out the playing field. That’s what art is to me – people making something from nothing.
ER: How likely is it that carbon neutral films will become the norm as viewers see value/interest in how a film was made?
LJ: That’s what we’re all asking ourselves, right? Hopefully a lot more because it’s increasingly being spoken about. Even outside of filmmaking I feel like we have a rising consciousness, in terms of the planet and how we can all make better daily decisions for the future. So naturally, that will hopefully trickle into filmmaking as well. I think it’s already happening in documentaries and smaller scale films.
JB: People aren’t thinking about it enough but I think it will become more and more important as we try and approach things holistically. We’ll start to value what happens behind the camera just as much as what’s in front of it.
ER: Do you have sustainability goals or principles for each film and do these change depending on who you’re working with?
JB: Not specifically, we’ll try to get to the same place and share a lift, or think of the best way to travel. If it’s in the summer we’d camp, and buy local food from a farm shop, reflecting how we habitually live and bringing that into a small framework for a filmmaking day.
LJ: It’s a challenge and we are doing what we can. We’re trying to change an industry whose way of working is nearly 100 years old – stuck in all these bad habits. The more people feel empowered and motivated to live more sustainably in their own lives, the more that will filter through into their own work as well. Sometimes that’s all that me and Joya can do, if we take a more holistic approach to living more sustainably then that filters into our filmmaking process.
"what power you choose to put in different places – that’s all sustainability as well"
ER: What has been the hardest part of making a film in a sustainable way?
JB: Maybe not for us, but for people who would have a shoot in LA, Berlin, Tokyo, New York, whatever it is, is to think about how you could hire crews local to that place or you could just direct it over Zoom which is what a lot of people had to do because of Covid. I think you really need to ask yourself – do I really need to get on that plane in order to do this job? Because I think productions can be made just as well by using a director local to that area.
LJ: It’s quite easy to say what the biggest challenge is: budget and limited time. Sometimes you can completely turn that on its head though and say ‘well you can save budget and time by being more efficient’ and that’s the case with a lot of industries and sometimes the most environmental option is actually the most efficient and money saving option. This can highlight the main problem which is old schools of thought and they are always the hardest thing to break through. It’s a habit and habit can become complete structures which it definitely has become with filmmaking. It’s more about us as filmmakers recognising that we all have responsibility to keep spreading the message of working more sustainably.
ER: What, in your eyes, makes a film sustainable?
JB: Something we haven’t spoken about so much is the social justice side of it. Sustainability isn’t just about carbon emissions but I think it’s also about ethics. Working with local people, paying people properly. Staying at local hotels, rather than sending your money to AirBnB. You need to look at it through a multifaceted prism, not just sustainability but where the money goes, what power you choose to put in different places – that’s all sustainability as well. I think it’s about making the film world a more inclusive, representative and socially just place.
LJ: It’s about weighing up the actual footprint of the film and actual impact of the film versus the positive change you can make with it. So that’s what we would probably think of as a sustainable film, one where the filmmakers have considered the impact, the change they can make and what it’s going to cost the earth.
"It feels a whole lot damn better at the end when you feel like you’ve made a film in the most sustainable way you can."
ER: What would you say to any filmmakers wanting to make their practice more sustainable?
JB: You can do it both in your professional life and in your personal life, the two are not disconnected.
LJ: It’s extremely self-fulfilling and gratifying, and to not feel afraid. We’re all learning so it’s just about doing what you can. There are so many resources out there (go to the Green Protocol List available on the Doc Society website!) and it’s really great to be a part of the conversation because you’re becoming part of a community of people who are working towards a better planet.
And it’s fun! Don’t shy away from the challenge. It feels a whole lot damn better at the end when you feel like you’ve made a film in the most sustainable way you can.
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