Nature on the silver screen

20:50, Aug 27 2013

Following in the footsteps of Sir Peter Jackson, two Kiwi nature films have been scoring some big hits at film festivals around the world. Yet what sets these films apart from our big-budget blockbusters like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is that both have been made on next-to-no-budget and are solo operations, with each filmmaker taking a one-man-band approach to creating them.

Soul in the sea

Amy Taylor has made a deep impression with her film Soul in the Sea - which tells the story of bottlenose dolphin Moko, who spent a couple of summers entertaining holidaymakers and locals off the coast of Mahia near Gisborne, and eventually near Whakatane a few years ago.  

Moko was a "friendly dolphin", an individual who chose to spend his time with people rather than fellow dolphins. For two years, our headlines were full of stories about Moko and his antics, including a few regarding his rambunctious behaviour and possible danger to humans. In any case, for most people Moko was a delight to behold and having had my own brief opportunity to play with Moko at Mahia, far from the crowds, I can see why people were so taken by him.

Filmmaker Amy with her subject and friend, Moko the dolphin (photo: Mike Smith).


Amy joined Moko in the last six months of his life, mostly living in her van, and essentially becoming amphibious, getting in the water with Moko for up to 10 hours a day to record his connection with local dolphin lovers. During this time Amy became close to the lone dolphin, so when his body was found washed up on Matakana Island near Mt Maunganui, it was deeply personal for Amy, who had to continue filming to tell the story.

This is Amy's first feature-length film, but before this she had produced a short film on Hector's dolphins for her Postgraduate Diploma in Natural History Filmmaking at Otago.  

Soul in the Sea premiered last month at the New Zealand International Film Festival, and just one week later, got a nomination for the prestigious Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in the United States. For natural history filmmakers, Jackson Hole is akin to the Oscars, so it is huge that Amy's film has made such an impact and gained international recognition from some of the world's elite wildlife and natural history filmmakers.   

Massive luck to Amy for the festival next month - and keep your eyes peeled for screenings of Soul in the Sea later in the year. For a taste of it, you can watch the trailer here.

River Dog

James Muir's River Dog has been around for a while, scooping up awards when it first came out in 2011. It is a compelling tale of one man's struggle to keep the neighbours' cattle frrom polluting the river on his farm.

River Dog is very much a story of the little guy's determination to protect his piece of the world, and the moody, misty shots of Grant and his dogs as they make their twice-daily march to chase their neighbour's cattle off their block is memorable. River Dog won best film at the Reel Earth Environmental Film Festival in 2011, and screenings of River Dog have been held all over the country to help tell the story of water issues in New Zealand.  

Farmer Grant Muir and his dog Zoro (photo: James Muir).

James and the subject of River Dog, his father Grant Muir, have also been working on a national scale to try to clean up rivers and waterways. Last month they announced their collaboration with Victoria University to get an eye in the sky when it comes to river pollution. Known as River Watch, this campaign uses hi-tech drones to monitor rivers and make sure that regulations are being adhered to.

This month River Dog edged out rival films from the BBC and National Geographic to take the top overall award as well as best environmental film at the Japan Wildlife Film Festival. This is a huge achievement and something that we New Zealanders should be proud of. The Japan award is the 12th award River Dog has received, and it seems that no matter how many times the story is told, it isn't showing any signs of slowing down. Congratulations to James and Grant for this awesome effort.

If you're one of the few people who hasn't seen River Dog yet, check out the trailer below.


Did you know that we were such big-hitters in the natural history filmmaking world? Have you seen Soul in the Sea or River Dog? Got any others that you think are worth a mention? I'd love to hear from you.

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