Stephen Amis: Film Shepherd

July 19, 2019
The Melbourne filmmaker makes a major leap forward with his latest film, Defend, Conserve, Protect, which documents activist group Sea Shepherd’s gripping mission to stop Japanese ‘research’ ships from killing Minke whales in the Antarctic.

What was your personal relationship with Sea Shepherd before starting on the film?

I’ve always been interested in socially progressive filmmaking. I’d been making TV commercials and promos for Sea Shepherd before they approached me with an idea to make a feature film on one of their major oceanic campaigns. Sea Shepherd had thousands of hours of footage, and knew my background was in film and television. I took all the material, shot a whole lot more material, then set to work editing everything into what is hopefully a dramatic and inspiring feature documentary.

What sort of impact do you hope the film will have?

I made this film for my daughter and for the generations of children like her. We’ve left these kids with one hell of an environmental mess. The usually non-alarmist United Nations came out 10 months ago and said we have 12 years to turn things around or face an extinction level event… this means overhauling every major industry on the planet. It’s a monumental task – and I’m hoping this film might inspire and encourage young people to step out beyond their comfort zone to create positive environmental change.

In the same vein, what sort of experience do you hope the audience will have when watching the film?

When you look at the scientific data, you quickly realise all humans, along with most species on the planet, are looking down the barrel of a gun. Governments are dragging their heels on environmental policy and we really don’t have time left for platform rhetoric. Defend, Conserve, Protect is about anti-whaling and saving species from extinction – but the real power of the documentary is that it’s shot from the point of view of passionate activists. If we’re going to face up to our environmental challenges, it’s going to be about people power.

Are you an activist, and can you also speak to activism’s importance in contemporary society?

I’ve heard people say they aren’t political. But I think all people are political whether they’re conscious of it or not. Likewise, I think all people are activists to a degree. Activism doesn’t mean becoming radicalised. Activism is about vigorous campaigning and I think we’ve all done that in some small way, starting at school. We need to take our human capacity for creating better circumstances and conditions, and to funnel that into our current environmental issues. We can do this as a species, but we have to stay optimistic and overturn the hurdles in our way.

Why do we need orgs like Sea Shepherd rather than relying on our lawkeepers?

In Australia we are still debating whether the climate crisis is real. I mean, with life on Earth in such jeopardy from global warming, it’s insane that we’re still having this ridiculous political debate. We only have one home, and we’ve been treating it like a trash can for a long time. We should have jumped on these environment issues decades ago, but short term governments create short term agendas. So, it’s vital that organisations like Sea Shepherd exist that can fill a law enforcement vacuum.

When putting the film together, did you have any feature film/documentary inspirations?

I’d shot a number of documentaries as a cinematographer, and made a number of narrative features, but this was the first feature documentary I had directed and produced. I was a big fan of Herzog’s Grizzly Man and also Jacquet’s La Marche De L’empereur (March of the Penguins) – the French version not the recut U.S. version. Those two films really impacted the direction of Defend, Conserve, Protect.

You’ve done quirky scifi history (The 25th Reich), comedy (The BBQ), now seafaring documentary, what’s next?

I’m developing a new sci-fi feature with Ian David (Blue Murder), and in the final throes of financing a new action comedy with the a US studio. I’m also working on two new feature documentaries – one is another eco doc and the other is on the American deep state.

Defend, Conserve, Protect is in cinemas July 25.

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