Issue 27 - 25th November, 2009

Breaking The Silence
The Arctic belt is under threat from an enemy far, far away-the 'Dirty Dozen' pesticides banned the world over are still being illegally manufactured and used. The wind and ocean currents carry these to the Arctic Circle, entering the ecosystem there through the planktons to the seals and whale blubber to finally the polar bears and people. Dutch film maker Jan van den Berg decided to make a film highlighting the issue and exploring the solutions. He was in India to promote the short 14-minute version of his film, which has already been winning accolades in film festivals around the world, and spoke to Team Connect.
When did you first decide on making Silent Snow and why?
I was asked by someone in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a Dutchman, who mentioned that there should be a film on the effect of pesticides, especially the persistent organic pollutants (POPs), also referred to as the Dirty Dozen, the use of which has been banned by the Stockholm Convention in 1993, but are still being manufactured in several parts of the world. The problem is that these contaminants don't degenerate and remain in the ecosystem forever, and go all to the north. They enter the water, are eaten by plankton, enter whale blubber and ultimately end up in polar bears and on the plates of the Eskimos. They even attach themselves to the snow. Greenland and the Arctic belt is just the starting point-if these pesticides are continued to be used, the effect is going to spread to other parts of the world as well. As one Eskimo said to me cynically, "We are the laboratory rats of the world." You might wonder why these Eskimos don't leave where they have always lived and move to places where the water and food are not so polluted. But that is not a solution. This is a major warning call, which the UNEP wanted to present in a film and I decided to take it on.
So, UNEP wanted you to go there and make a film on this?
Well, the UNEP official I met was a 'POP-hunter' and he mentioned how they were trying to clean up in Eastern Europe, where a lot of pesticides were stored as a result of Russian development aid. I have seen images of a sort of cleaning army that looks like astronauts because of the dangers of their work. These pesticides are kept in heaps, even though covered they are still close to children's playgrounds. Then there are people in Africa spraying DDT to ward off malaria mosquitoes.
This whole thing throws up two points. One; that the world is small, with pesticides used at one end reaching the ecosystem at another end. And two, that even so, it is a diverse world, with very different concerns. DDT, for instance, is probably the cheapest way for those African villages to fight malaria.
UNEP initially agreed to finance one half of the film, leaving me to garner the other half in Holland through Greenpeace, various ministries and government departments-which I did. However, there was a change in policy at the UNEP, which led them to withdraw support to the film and I was left with half the budget in my hands. So then I began to pitch to broadcasters and at film festivals to invite more funds. For that I needed to show some part of the film. So I took the camera up north to Greenland and filmed some footage. That is when I met the little Eskimo girls you see in the film and decided to film them. I came back with the footage and the film has been winning awards ever since. This has given a good start to the project and is helping me to raise money to create the actual film.
Why Greenland?
I didn't know where to go initially-there was the entire Arctic Circle to choose from-Siberia, Canada, Alaska, Greenland and more. And then I met this Eskimo gentleman in Amsterdam, Holland-Ole Jorgen Hammeken-and he said Uummannaq was the most beautiful place in the world-and it was. It is a little island in a bay in the north of Greenland. He invited me there to stay with him and so I went. I met his daughter and her friend and made this little film-he also has a small part in it.
What was it in your background that inclined you towards this subject?
I have always tried to choose subjects that I think are important. It could be about a tribunal in Cambodia (Deacon of Death) or the role of women in tango in Argentina (El Gancho, or The Hook). A film means some years of your life, and if you are taking away some years of your life, you should use them to do something important, which makes a difference. I am almost a grandfather now and think about the future, and the climate is an important concern for the future. So after this gentleman from UNEP spoke to me, I was convinced about doing the film.
Is it easier to find patrons for a documentary in the Netherlands?
The Netherlands used to be a paradise for documentary film makers. You could approach the Film Foundation or the Television Foundation or combine the two. But now it is very difficult to get funding from them. My job is easier now, of course, because of the awards the film has won. But it is still difficult because so many people want to make films. With every new film, you start from the bottom. You have to sell your story every time. Of course, with the handy video cameras, everyone can make a film easily. I bought a special HDV camera for Greenland, because I knew it was stable. But it was -20 degrees there and the LCD screen froze. I had to place the camera in a sort of coat with heat packs around it to keep it from freezing. I was lucky it was 'just -20' and not much colder.
Is the problem being experienced in Greenland part of a larger problem?
In the film you will see the various countries the pesticide-ridden wind and currents pass before reaching Greenland. The title of the film comes from a book of the same name by Marla Cone. In 1962, a book called Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, was published, which was said to launch the environmental movement against these dangerous pesticides. It took 30 years from then to reach to the Stockholm Convention, which was when these pesticides were finally forbidden. They are, however, still being produced and lands up in the Arctic belt after traveling through the wind currents.
I went through Marla Cone's book and was allowed to use the title (the book will be promoted again when the film is ready). The book is about the entire Arctic belt and how there are traces of POPs in the food all across. With the limited budget I had, I had to choose. But the problem really is all across the Arctic Circle.
Could you tell us a bit about the structure of the film? I understand you would be covering two or three places, including India.
In the film, an Eskimo will travel around the world to look for the sources of this pollution as well as the possible solutions to help people deal with the pesticides. One of the places where DDT is still made is India, so I decided to go there. In Kerala, I found a river-keeper trying to fight the pesticide factory, but at the same time, the people in the village work there. So the situation is a little complicated. It is a beautiful and green place, but an invisible danger lurks there. The river-keeper now buys his fish further upstream because he has a motorbike. Others don't. As a film-maker I always look for people who fight for what is right, who take the tough road, and this river-keeper is one of them. Another gentleman I just met is Prof. Rooplal, a zoology professor in the Delhi University. He is experimenting-I am told with some success-on bacteria eating lindane, one of the dangerous pesticides, which is illegally dumped. In the film, the Eskimo will go to the professor's laboratory.
I will also shoot in Africa, where DDT is being used. In Uganda there is ecological cotton farming, and there is a good market for it. However, to ward off malaria, the government started spraying DDT in the surrounding villages. So the cotton can't be sold as ecological cotton anymore! There is a contradiction in the same place, which makes for good journalistic material and interesting interviews.
All the preliminary visits have been done by me personally. I am also tying up with local film-makers. For instance, I tied up with an Indian film maker, Nina Subramani, and Viraj Singh, who is a great cameraman. They and soundman Radhakrishnan Sivarajan are very dedicated to the cause. There was also a line producer, Subrato Sengupta who helped a lot. I found all the people I tied up with were quite professional. The soundman spoke the local language, which was obviously an advantage. I am looking for more examples of a solutions story from India. If you know of one, let me know!
At what stage is the film right now?
I've reached half way. I have almost finished the preliminary research. In February I will go to Greenland again because I need the same beautiful light that I got last February. It will be twilight there for the whole day, which is wonderful for photography. Normally the sun comes above the mountains for the first time on fourth of February. I reached on the second and the sun was already coming up-because the mountains of ice have melted a little and therefore lowered.
Apart from what is happening in the Arctic Circle, the film is really about people's attitude to the environment. Instead of just going on about how bad the situation is, we should also look for solutions. I don't like all the fatalistic films that are being made on the environment. They just create panic. There have to be solutions and then the film should be screened on televisions all over the world-in my dream, at the same time!
Please tell us something about the other people and institutions involved in the project and the film.
Jan Betlem was the Dutchman in UNEP who started me on the idea. He works in Nairobi and answers any questions I have immediately. The President of IHPA John Vijgen has been very important. There is a Dutch millionaire, Jacob Gelt Dekker, who went with me to Greenland and became a strong supporter of the film. Greenpeace Netherlands is also important, as are lots of broadcasters. Film festivals are playing a major role in promoting the film. And, of course, all the local film makers who I am collaborating with.
Have you been to India before? What does India mean to you?
Ten years ago, India formed a part of a film I made on Tibetan refugees and that was a wonderful experience. My neighbour in Holland is a Tibetan singer and she wanted this film to be made. She used to go every year to Dharamsala, finding stories and songs among refugees coming there from Tibet. The film is called Seven Dreams.
This time around, the purpose was not so nice, with this DDT factory. But even so, it has been great to come across these people who care so much about nature, like the river-keeper in Kerala and the zoology professor.
Kerala is exquisite. I have never seen such a beautiful place in my life, with its images of greenery and the Chinese nets hanging above water.

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