Every year deliberately lit fires rage across Indonesia. They destroy pristine rainforest, endanger orangutans and contribute to climate change. A young carbon trading entrepreneur goes in search of a solution.
1) Why did you decide to make this film?
My interest in the forests of Indonesia and the plight of the orangutans began in late 2006 when I discovered that over 4,000 orangutans had been killed by deliberately lit fires in Borneo that year. I was also deeply disturbed by the smoke plume I saw spread right across South East Asia. Apart from the heath factors, I figured this had to be bad for the planet. At about this time, new scientific evidence emerged showing that the destruction and burning of the world’s forests was contributing around 20% of global carbon emissions. The story of what was happening to the orangutans and the forests was also a climate change story.
In December 2006, coincidentally, I met a young man who had achieved considerable success in building online communities. By chance he happened to mention that he was also looking at the problem of deforestation in Indonesia and was setting up a small carbon trading company as part of his proposed solution. His idea involved selling the carbon credits represented by large forest areas to big corporations in the West. He also mentioned that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger figured in his plan. I asked him if I could follow his progress, and so my year-long journey of tracking Dorjee Sun and his quest for a solution began.
2) How did the shooting take place - and difficulties and/or surprises did you encounter?
Sometimes on my own, sometimes with a small crew of 3 or 4 people, I tracked Dorjee across four continents as he attempted to find buyers for his forest carbon credits on the international carbon market. We also traveled to the province of Aceh to spend time with Governor Irwandi Yusuf and to visit the forests in his province that he was determined to protect. We spent time with Achmadi, a small-scale palm oil farmer in the province of Jambi and filmed his preparations and dilemmas in the lead up to the next burning season. And proably the most emotional, beautiful and sad part of the journey was spending time with Lone Droscher Nielsen, a Danish ex-flight attendant at her orangutan rehabilitation centre in the middle of Borneo.
The story led us to the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali where global leaders held the future of the planet in their hands, and the success of Dorjee’s scheme depended on their decisions. I was in New York in September 2009 during the global financial melt-down and filmed the implications for our characters and the deal Dorjee had negotiated. Two months later, Dorjee and Governor Irwandi met with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign a commitment to protect the remaining forests of the world. By this time, America had elected a new president, and the winds of change were blowing through the USA.
3) How has the film been received?
The Burning Season has been on a remarkable journey since its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. The film’s action website ‘www.tenthingsyoucando.com’, was launched at the start of the Australian cinema release. This has spearheaded the educational program, many community and corporate screenings and now the start of the international release. Along the way, The Burning Season has attracted an engaged and passionate audience, many of whom have become inspired to take action on climate change vis the 'ten things website. 37% of the audience who have seen the film have visited the site to see how they can make a difference.
The Burning Season is about to begin its international release. The film will screen in October 2009 at the Hawaii International Film Festival and St. Tropez Film Festival. It will also screen in Paris at the Australian Embassy. It has been translated into Indonesian and French, and the producers have been approached by over 25 major international festivals. With the Copenhagen UN Climate Change conference only a few months away and the surging effects of climate change becoming more evident every day, the messages of the film are now more urgent than ever. The film exposes the pressing and serious problem of mass deforestation, but also offers hope for a solution and inspires people to take action themselves.
In early October, Dorjee Sun was named as one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment. In outlining why Sun is included in this esteemed list, Bryan Walsh writes: “If scientists could tap whatever source of energy it is that powers Dorjee Sun, we wouldn’t have a climate crisis”.
The film is narrated by Hugh Jackman who also made news recently in the climate change debate when he addressed the United National Climate Summit in New York alongside UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and former British prime minister Tony Blair. Jackman says of his involvement with The Burning Season: “why I wanted to get involved and tell the story of this young Australian, is that Dorjee Sun, the real hero of this movie has found a way to find a solution to the problem [of the forest]. I think you are going to find this story very inspiring - I did - and I hope it inspires everyone who sees it to continue the fight against climate change and to continue doing everything we can to save our planet.”
The most gratifying aspect of this film for me is the response we get from audiences. After seeing the film, some people have been motivated to hold their own community and corporate screenings. One of these, organised by a staff member from Goldman Sachs JBWere, raised $20,000 for Orangutan Outreach. These types of screenings have been an inspirational highlight of the film’s release to date and will continue into 2010. Direct fundraising from events associated with the film to date has exceeded $87,000. This money has gone largely to the Orangutan Sanctuary in Kalimantan run by one of the characters in the film, Lone Droscher-Nielsen. The Burning Season has also attracted significant interest and discussion in the education sector.
For me, the widest possible audience for this film is a matter of urgency. My hope is that it will help people understand why forests need to be saved, and remind us that change is possible and we mustn’t give up. I want the film to remind people how much can be achieved with courage, vision and perseverance. This film is an anthem to optimism and a call to action. It reflects my profound belief in the mantra of “Yes We Can”. The work of the past three years will be rewarded and my vision achieved if audiences leave the cinema inspired, uplifted and asking themselves: what can I do to keep this planet habitable for us all?
For more information about the film and actions you can take to stop climage change, go to www.tenthingsyoucando.com
FULL DIRECTOR'S STATEMENT
My interest in the forests of Indonesia and the plight of the orangutan began in late 2006 when I discovered that over 4,000 orangutans had been killed by deliberately lit fires in Borneo that year. My partner Jeff Canin was doing some work for GRASP (Great Ape Survival Project) and showed me sad and horrific pictures of orangutans who had been injured and orphaned by the fires. At about this time, new scientific evidence also emerged showing that the destruction and burning of the world’s forests was contributing around 20% of global carbon emissions. In fact, during the extreme fires of 1997, they had contributed as much as 40% of global emissions.
The burning season has become an annual event in Indonesia. My research also showed that the amount of clearing and burning was likely to double over the next decade because of the growing global demand for palm oil. Used in cooking, cleaning and cosmetic products, palm oil is also increasingly in demand for biofuel in a world hungry for alternative energy. This was before the recent dramatic rise in food prices and the subsequent realization that biofuels produced from clearing rainforest contribute more to global carbon emissions than the fuel it seeks to replace.
I decided I wanted to make a film about the importance of forests not only as threatened habitat for endangered species like organutans, but also in relation to climate change. After the massive fires in Indonesia during the burning season of 2006, which by some estimates were calculated to contribute almost 15% of global carbon emissions for that year, Indonesia was ranked as the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.
Through Jeff’s work with GRASP, I heard about Lone Droscher-Nielsen, a Danish ex-flight attendant who set up an orangutan rehabilitation centre in the middle of Borneo. She immediately intrigued me as a potential character for the film. At the 2007 Documentary Conference in Adelaide, I met Leonard Retel Helmrich, a celebrated cinematographer who agreed to shoot the film. His relatives in the province of Jambi are in the business of growing oil palms. That is how I met small-time farmer, Achmadi.
These two characters represented the two sides of the issue. Achmadi had recently purchased more land which he intended to clear and burn to increase his output of palm oil. He needed the income to feed his family and put his daughter through school. He was unaware that his fires were contributing to global carbon emissions. Lone on the other hand was grappling with over-crowding at her centre as more injured and displaced orangutans were being brought in from the palm oil plantations and surrounding villages.
In December 2006, in relation to another project we were developing, I met a young man who had achieved considerable success in building online communities. By chance he happened to mention that he was also looking at the problem of deforestation in Indonesia and was setting up a small carbon trading company as part of his proposed solution. His idea involved selling the carbon credits represented by large forest areas to big carbon emitters in the West. I asked him if I could follow his progress, and so my year-long journey of tracking Dorjee Sun and his quest for a solution began.
Also through another project, I met members of a philanthropy family trust fund in Melbourne. They immediately saw the importance of the story and decided to back the idea with a grant. This enabled us to produce the pitching documents for the project and to undertake vital back-ground research
At Crossover, a week-long multi-platform residential workshop in Adelaide, I met BAFTA award-winning British producer, Roger Graef. He responded with enthusiasm to the story and the characters and saw a place for the film in international markets. He agreed to come on board as our Executive Producer. Our pitching at the 2007 Documentary Conference the following week was successful, and soon we had three broadcast partners, ABC, BBC and CBC, and National Geographic as distributor. Trish Lake of Freshwater Pictures also came on board as Executive Producer, with a strong interest in helping the film to find a cinema distributor and broad global audience.
We pulled together a gutsy and talented team and started filming in March in Indonesia using development investment from the ABC. We later secured further development investment from the AFC and NSW FTO. The financing of the film took the rest of the year, and the first production finance was only received in early December. In the meantime, to help cash-flow the project, philanthropists Christopher and Lynda Dean based in the Northern Rivers of NSW, came to our rescue.
The first act of the film sets up the problem of the fires in Indonesia, their impact on the orangutans and the global climate, and introduces the three characters. Meeting Lone and the orangutans in Borneo was one of the highlights of this project for me. With their wide eyes and faces deeply etched with character, I fell in love with them. The tiny orphans needed constant care, while the older, more independent juveniles impressed us with their skill in the trees and their comic antics during feeding time. In particular, I fell in love with a young male called Waru who loved to walk on his hind legs and developed a crush on our Indonesian cinematographer, Ezther. I also fell for a frisky female called Kesi who despite having her hand chopped off by a machete, was as agile and impressive as the others weaving her way through the tall trees.
In April I followed Dorjee to Bali where he met with three Indonesian Governors who had come together to discuss ways of reducing logging and burning in their provinces. Behind the scenes, Dorjee managed to convince the three Governors to sign over to his company, Carbon Conservation, the rights to trade the carbon credits from their remaining forests on the carbon market. This was Dorjee’s first big success and launched him on his year-long quest to find investors in his scheme.
The second act took us across the globe, following Dorjee and the Governor of Aceh to San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC and New York. Meanwhile Achmadi proceeded with his plans to burn his land, and Lone struggled to get evidence of orangutan habitat destruction. The 2007 burning season began in August, and still Dorjee hadn’t found an investor in his scheme. Time was running out. Finally Dorjee ended up in London, the carbon capital of the world, and found a major international bank willing to take the risk on his venture. It was a week before the Bali Climate Change Conference and Dorjee was still hoping to lock off the deal and announce it at the conference. But it was not going to be that easy.
The final act of the film takes place at the UN Conference in Bali. There is a moment in the film where Dorjee talks about “those momentous moments in history, like the Berlin wall coming down or the start of the new millennium…” This conference was one of those moments. We all felt privileged to be part of it, and watching the deliberations on the last day of the conference is one of the great experiences of my career as a documentary maker. The conference came so close to collapsing without an agreement, which would have paralysed future global efforts to tackle climate change. I can still feel the enormous wave of relief that went through the room, and across the globe, when the US changed their mind and decided to support the Bali Roadmap The story for us was the implications of these decisions for Dorjee and the Governor of Aceh and their carbon trading deal with the bank, Merrill Lynch.
This film is going to be controversial. Already in test screenings I have found that audiences are forming very different opinions of Dorjee and his carbon trading solution. Some say that saving forests is so important and urgent that they don't care what method is used. Others argue the merits of carbon trading or say it just won’t work. And there are those who are concerned with where the profits from the scheme will go. The film has already generated heated discussion on these issues. My objective in telling this story is to give audiences the opportunity to observe a young man as he goes on a quest to find a solution to the forest crisis, see the huge obstacles and opposition he confronts, and despite enormous odds, watch him pull off a big deal. Who actually benefits from the deal remains a central question of the film. No-one yet knows the answer. This is a pioneer scheme and there are no precedents. We do know that a major international bank, Merrill Lynch, are prepared to risk millions on the scheme. Only a sequel will reveal whether it delivers on its promises, and who will ultimately benefit from the deal. At least in the short-term it will ensure that 750,000 hectares of forest will not be logged, that 1000 ex-combatants have been recruited to protect the forest, and that the habitat of numerous endangered species, including the Sumatran orangutan, will be protected.
The audience for this film will include sceptics and optimists. The sceptics will most likely conclude the concept is flawed, Dorjee's motivation is purely selfish and the scheme probably won't work. The film does not preclude them from forming that view. Achmadi’s entire story-line is about the difficulties and improbability of the money from carbon trading ever reaching the village level. Carbon trading as a concept is questioned by various protagonists in the film and at almost every meeting Dorjee attends in the middle section of the film. The skeptics can draw their own conclusions.
I personally do not have great admiration for skeptics. They thrive on criticising the efforts of others and succeed only in putting the brakes on new ideas and innovation. They slow progress and stunt enthusiasm. They usually take the high moral ground saying they are being 'realistic' or 'smart'. But their opinions are based on the assumption that because something happened in the past, the same thing is likely to happen in the future. They negate the concept that change is possible, and they work from the assumption that human nature is fundamentally flawed. These are not views I share. I think skeptics often take the lazy way out. It is far easier to criticise something than to go out and try to fix the problem or invent something new.
Personally I am more interested in the views of young people and optimists. This film can be read as a story of hope – there are young entrepreneurs out there who are looking for solutions to the global crisis we face. Dorjee’s quest can be interpreted as an inspiration for other young people that change is possible. It shows a young man making it his quest to find a solution to the enormous problems we face on this planet. Whether he succeeds or not, he is not just accepting the world as it is. He is looking for new ways of saving forests. And he proposes the radical idea that making money from saving the environment is possible.
There are two major areas of controversy raised in this film which I deal with in more detail in our forum; the debate about carbon trading and Dorjee’s motivation in setting up his scheme. I see Dorjee as a flawed and fascinating character, and I see his solution, and carbon trading in general, as a flawed but necessary solution. Without some form of carbon trading, I doubt we have a hope of stopping the mass destruction of forests in the next decade. And without protection of forests, and giving a value to the services they provide to the planet, solving the climate change crisis seems less likely. I hope that the film continues to raise these issues and that heated discussion will continue after every screening of the film.
Writer, Director, Co-Producer
The Burning Season