Here is my interview with Breaking Their Silence Director Kerry David:
Nigrin: Your incredibly important and moving documentary Breaking Their Silence: Women on the Frontline of the Poaching War chronicles the sordid world of wildlife trafficking and poaching is orchestrated by ruthless crime syndicates. Please tell us more about how you got involved in making this film?
David: I was invited to a fundraiser downtown LA in support of African elephants. This is where I learned 100 elephants are slaughtered each day for their teeth (ivory) so that we can wear them as trinkets. I came out of that fundraiser traumatized. I spent the next few days wondering what I could physically do and decided to start a non profit. Before I launched Over and Above Africa I went to Africa to research the crisis and learn from the ground exactly what was happening to the wildlife and what is most helpful to those working tirelessly to end it. I hadn’t been there long before realizing that the only people in conservation I was meeting were men! There had to be women on the frontline - who were they and where were they. After making one or two enquiries I was flooded with introductions to some of the most courageous, bold, big spited, compassionate women I’d ever encountered. Fortunately they allowed me to film them and that’s how the idea of Breaking Their Silence: Women on the Frontline of the Poaching War came from!
Nigrin: There must have been risks in making this film. Tell us about the challenges you faced.
David: We get this question often and I try to deflect it because yes, we felt at risk on several occasions during filming (altitude sickness climbing a volcano in Rwanda in search of Silverback gorillas, surprise riots, being surrounded by hungry lions in our tented camp - to fiery protests in the streets of Vietnam before we arrived just to name a few!) but we chose to put ourselves in those circumstances. The women of Breaking Their Silence risk their lives daily to protect and defend our wildlife. So I’d rather emphasize their courage and their dedication to saving critically endangered wildlife from disappearing than bemoan a few frights that we all survived!
Nigrin: Tell us more about Nomusa Zikhali and the other women who are fighting the poaching war.
David: Nomusa is very special. Her resilience and her character are more suited to legend than real life. She has suffered intensely for her desire to bring health and education to her community. She started the first eco school in Phinda a rural village in South Africa that not only promotes a unity to work with the local wildlife in an ecologically sustainable manner but also to bring equality to the girls and women in her community. She is also the first Zulu woman to divorce her husband which came at great cost to her, as most early adopters learn the hard way. Change in her culture is frightening to many and they lash out. She was beaten, her 2 children were raped in front of her, it was brutal and she said to them “If you kill me, I must be the last person, it ends with me” - who has that clarity in such a moment? Well, they didn’t kill her and she kept on with her school and education which now is home to 1200 children. She isn’t bitter, she is resilient and she smiles and she picks herself up and she continues on. She speaks all over the world now about what they are doing in Phinda and how things will change for the girls in her community. She’s definitely a hero to me.
Nigrin: Your film is amazingly shot. The cinematography is so beautiful and haunting. Tell us more about the look of the film and how it came about.
David: THANK YOU! I spent a great deal of time looking for the right DP for my film. I knew in my mind what I wanted but I wasn’t finding it. I went down a road with a D.P. who on paper looked to be perfect but both of us weren’t quite as committed as we should have been and ultimately I just said I don’t think it’s this project we’re supposed to work together on and he agreed! I wanted someone as excited about this upcoming adventure as I was, not afraid. It had to be someone who understood that this film had to be a visually stunning and an immersive experience because it’s not for the conservationists and experts it’s for lay people like me who just love wildlife and want to understand what is happening in Africa and Asia that is causing our wildlife to disappear. If it were visually stunning as well as emotionally impactful we might change minds and hearts!
I finally found Gretchen Warthen. She was perfect. She lived close to me in Venice. When we met, I knew immediately that she was my D.P. We worked together in pre-production on looks, textures, feel, emotions, scope etc. I wanted to shoot all in 4K with 2 cameras and a drone. Sadly, one week into filming in South Africa, she tripped over and broke her ankle (like a pro it was AFTER getting the entire interview down!) As producer and director I was torn. My producer hat said I had to send her home it was the right thing to do, but she was devastated and didn’t want to go! As the director I wanted her to stay we had spent so long on the look and feel of the film we’d only just got started! But her safety was my ultimate concern and I made the decision that night. We were filming at the top of volcanoes and venturing into lion and rhino country next - she would not be able to run away if things got sticky with only one good leg! My Co-Producer in South Africa, Rick Matthews, suggested a D.P. out of Capetown. His name is Ebrahim Hajee (Eeb) and he agreed to fly out the next day to meet with me. From that moment forward he never left my side. He took over seamlessly from Gretchen and filmed with the heart of a lion. There was no shot too demanding for him to get for me! We became one in our vision for the film. I had TWO D.P.’s on my film and the film is beautiful because of these two extraordinary artists.
Nigrin: Are there any memorable stories while you made this film or any other info about your film you would like to relay to our readers?
David: I didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas about what I would be filming. My mantra throughout good times and hard times was “Kerry, trust the process” and it brought me a welcome calm inside each storm (and there were many!). I made the film because I was so outraged by learning 100 elephants are slaughtered every single day for their teeth (ivory) just so that we can wear them as trinkets. They are such beautiful, sentient beings. We have so much to learn from them. How they communicate, their family bond, the history they relay to each other through generations. When one elephant is killed, all that history and experience dies with them. We are better than this. We don’t NEED ivory! They do. My one request from anyone who is moved by Breaking Their Silence is to find your own personal super power and use it. Are you good with words? Write to your congressperson and ask them to back an ivory free state. Only 10 states in the US actually ban the sale of ivory - Vermont is hoping to be the 11th (New Jersey was the first to ban it!) Your super power doesn’t have to be enormous, just effective. If each one of us does ONE thing to help them, this crisis would go away and the animals would have a chance to recover their numbers. Because WE dictate where our funds are spent and if we refuse to support companies and countries that support the sale of ivory, rhino horn and endangered animal parts - then WE also get to dictate that they stay around for another 80 million years!
Breaking Their Silence Trailer:
Here is more info on this screening:
Breaking Their Silence – Kerry David (Playa Vista, California) The sordid world of wildlife trafficking and poaching is orchestrated by ruthless crime syndicates. Meet the courageous women who are on the frontline of this silent war, doing all they can to reverse these terrible offenses, and risking their own lives to prevent Africa's most vulnerable animals from becoming extinct. Breaking Their Silence shines a bright light on their intelligence, empathy, strength, and stamina as they face down poachers and conquer seemingly insurmountable odds. A hopeful film at its core, Breaking Their Silence will challenge everyone to become part of the solution. 2019; 110 min. Q+A Session with Director Kerry David!
Benefit Screening for the Scarlet Paws Animal Welfare Network!
Sunday, October 6, 2019 at 7:00 PM
in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey
$14= Advance; $12=General; $10=Students+Seniors
Information: (848) 932-8482; www.njfilmfest.com