“Beyond Planting Trees” – Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Danielle Berg
I am always astounded by the selflessness that is displayed by some documentary filmmakers. Their resilience to tell a story not for the entertainment or occupation of our free time, but to question our human condition, and challenge us as an individual. Danielle Berg is a creative writing and literature major at Stony Brook University, she also possesses an acute admiration for cinema. Recently she dug deep into her past and spirit to conceive an ambitious project to help raise awareness for the Choco Rainforest in Ecuador. The place in question is the Itaopa Reserve. Currently Danielle is raising money ($5000) on Indiegogo, to purchase a; camera, a laptop, and editing software, to direct, shoot, and edit a film about the reserve. After which she will donate all the equipment to the head of the reservation Raul, so that he may continue to archive video to raise awareness.
I could speak about Ms. Berg and her project for hours but as a writer herself, she deserves as much room on this page as I do. The following is an interview I conducted with her about both her latest cinematic endeavour, and her itch for film.
The Artifice: You’ll have to bear with me, this is my first interview [for The Artifice].
Danielle Berg: I am so delighted to be your first. [laughs] I will bear with you.
A: Groovy. Do you remember the moment that you decided to make this film?
DB: It was this summer, when I was making my third short film. I like film, it’s a lot of work, lots of hours in the editing room. At the end I had a film that I liked, but in my writing I prefer non-fiction, so I started thinking about some documentary ideas. I volunteered at the Itaopa Reservation 3 years ago and it always kind of stuck with me. And I thought, you know what, I have the skills to do something for them that stood beyond just planting trees, and the things that most of the volunteers do. So I think it was in the editing room when I was really really frustrated, and I thought I could put this frustration toward something that was activism, and not just a video for my own self.
A: I think that’s great! I know a lot of people including myself, whom make films… but it doesn’t really challenge anything, like your film can and probably will do. Could you talk a little bit about your past experience with film?
DB: My film experience is pretty limited, I lucked into it. The (Stony Brook University) Southampton Campus was going to expand to include film and theatre, they got the faculty but they didn’t have the students yet. So they started offering classes to the writing students, and I said “that sounds awesome!”. So a lot of my friends took the class and it was a lot of fun. It’s something I never thought I’d be able to do, I’ve always had an interest in film editing but I just didn’t have to skill for it. I did it on a whim.
The first film I made was… almost… unusable. I didn’t understand the idea of continuity at all and I had a little kid playing chess with an old lady and every take the cards would be different. It was horrible (laughs). Now I wanna go back, and I can probably make something with it. It’s so sweet but it’s nothing.
The second one I did may have been lost forever, because they cleared the hard drives at school without having a chance to back it up. So I don’t know if it exists. I act in it and my friends brother who is an actor, is in it as well, and this one is very close to me because… I was in it, and I wrote something more personal to me. We did a whole day of shooting, which was a crash course in how to not do things (laughs). I was so tired because I was in it and I was in theory, directing and I had my friends doing the camera work. But toward the end of the day at midnight I was like “I don’t even care, let’s just make this happen!” and then we had to do a reshoot a couple of weeks later because we needed some stuff that I hadn’t gotten. I learned a lot on that one.
Those two films were made in the class I took over the semester. Then Madaline who is in the film department, offered me and a couple of friends an opportunity to work the class over the summer so we didn’t have to pay for it. I got to take this class with Mitchel Kriegman (Rugrats, Rocko’s Modern Life), who wrote all the Nickelodeon shows I grew up with, which was very cool, and I made my third short film. And that one is alive and well on YouTube. And that one was also one we did in a week. I was happy with the results! Like I said though, fiction films right now, don’t do it for me as much as the non-fiction stuff.
A: When did Indiegogo come into the picture?
DB: So I wanted originally to just fund the project myself because I really don’t like asking for help, it makes me uncomfortable and I’m shy (laughs), so I really didn’t want to do that. I have a few friends who have used Kickstarter and Indiegogo and it’s been really successful, but I kinda wanted to just make it happen and not get hung up on the fundraising cause it’s a lot of work. I’m still working on my thesis, I didn’t want to spend too much time fundraising. A friend asked me if that was the route I was gonna go, and I said “I don’t know”. My friend Will who is a very “think big” kind of person said, ‘you know it doesn’t have to be your own money, people do things like this all the time and they ask for money’, and I was like “yea I know, you’re probably right”. So I checked them out, so Kickstarter doesn’t do causes or non-profits, it’s only for art and personal projects. Then I looked at gofundme, it’s smaller, a lot of people use it for stuff like ‘my car broke, and I’m poor, so help me fix it!” (laughs). Indiegogo has a sweet spot for it. Actually environmental campaigns don’t usually do well on Indiegogo. I don’t have a statistic for you, but if you look at how often they’re fully funded environmental causes are really on the low end of the list so I was reluctant. I figured since I had people whom were willing to help out it was just a link I could send them to show them it was valid and where it was going. My goal is $5000, I’ve raised $2000 so far but I’m gonna make it work with that. I’ll just get a less expensive camera and work around it.
A: Why do you think these environmental causes don’t get the attention that others do?
DB: There have been a few people I’ve talked to, (actor) Steve Hamilton is one of them. He has some experience fundraising and said that, “people don’t donate to a cause, they donate to a person”. So when you’re fundraising, it’s more about the fundraiser or person you’re fundraising for. I think it may be too abstract but people don’t click with an environmental cause like they do with someone’s animal being sick. I don’t really know, I guess we care a little bit more about people, then animals, then somehow the environment is taken very much for granted and it doesn’t have a face. Also there are just a million causes in the world, a million forests, a million oceans, and there’s just so many things to care about that I think it’s just so hard to grab someones attention with a rain forest that’s a third of the way across the world.
A: Would you say your person of interest in raising money was Raul?
DB: Yea, Raul is my link to the Choco Rain Forest in the first place. He’s given up everything to protect this rain forest and I’ve seen-I’ve meet other people who do the same thing because it’s their land and they care about it. It’s just kind of amazing because you don’t see that much in the U.S. I think that may be because our Government does a better job of protecting the land. Down there, the protection at the Choco is almost nothing. The Amazon is a much more publicized, and the rainforest you think of when you think of South America. Because they drill for oil there, a lot of celebrities have gotten behind some fundraisers, helped raise money, and saved giant tracks of land in the Amazon. The Choco is there too, it’s just not as well publicized. So there are people there like Raul who are working really hard and they’re not getting the same sort of publicity.
A: I’d say your ambitions are matched, him just being there and you spreading the word with this film. You’re a creative writing major, and film isn’t your first round pick so to speak. When you were conceptualizing the project and trying to get fundraising, what advantages did you find with your experience in writing and disadvantages with not being fluent in film?
DB: It’d be easier for a non-writer to write something for an Indiegogo page. If you write, you’re used to doing several drafts and second guessing everything. So for me, even writing the Indiegogo page was challenging because I’m very hard on myself when it comes to writing and… that’s writing. I think in the end since I’ve been writing for a while, I can write a pitch and I’ve done some press release work before. It’s funny because if you’re doing press for someone else and writing about someone else or someone else’s project it’s really easy to do. But when you’re doing it for your own thing you suddenly become really self conscious, and you feel like you’re self promoting which feels really weird. The writing was helpful but I almost wish I was writing this for someone else, it would have been much easier, or I should have gotten one of my writing friends to do this for me (laughs). But I didn’t do that.
When it comes to film, I’ve only been doing it for about a year. So I’m not an expert camera man, or editor, but… I am a story teller, and that sounds really cheesy (laughs). If the last few years have afforded me anything, it’s how to tell an interesting story. So I trust that I’ll be able to craft a film out of all the things I’ll be encountering down there. The rest of the stuff for me just takes a lot of work. I’m probably going to be the one doing the shooting and editing, unless I somehow raise a crap ton of money to pay an editor (laughs). But I don’t think that’s how it’s gonna be. The making of the movie itself, the crafting together of the story, and the interviews, and leading it into a film, that the writing has helped me with. I think that two or three years ago I would not have undertaken this and thought, “I can’t do this!”. But I’ve seen myself do other things I thought I couldn’t do. It gives you more confidence, although I think writers in general aren’t all that confident (laughs). Some of the best writers are not.
A: Give me the 411 on the Choco Rainforest and the Itapoa Reserve.
DB: Back in the 60’s the government gave regular people the land, and in order to prove that they were using it so they could keep it, they had to deforest half of it. So 50 years ago, half of Ecuador’s forests were gone because of that. African Palm Companies harvest palm oil for bio-deisel fuel, which sounds great because it sounds better than oil. But everything has a consequence, even if you eat Tofu they’re cutting down some trees somewhere to plant soy, that’s just a fact. Only .3% of the land is protected from deforestation, that leaves the rest of it open for logging. They burn down the land and build these plantations, and these plantations have this effect of spoiling the water for the residence. A lot of them get pushed out of their lands… it’s like really messed up. Over here we don’t really know what’s involved with the palm oils that’s in cookies and other products we eat, but the politics behind it are really just appalling. Even if the land is protected and there’s an indigenous group living in the rain forest, they don’t know how to read. So these companies come to them with these contracts and say were gonna pay you a few hundred dollars for hundreds of acres of land. These companies promise roads, educations and all this great stuff but it turns out that non of the plantations need many employees either and they make less than when they previously were farming their own land. So they leave to find and make work in other parts of the jungle, deforesting other parts of the jungle. The others who stay behind have a higher rate of skin and liver disease from the pesticides. That’s just the people. There’s something like 3000 endemic species that don’t exist anywhere else in the world, only in the Choco rainforest, and a lot of them are highly endangered. The rate of deforestation isn’t slowing down because there isn’t any awareness about it. Jordan Karubian is a scientist who stated the Bilsa reserve, and the only video you can find on the internet about the Choco is by this guy. So there are people and organizations that are working really hard, but it’s only amounted to .3% protection.
A: I hear they have some pretty kick ass chocolate.
DB: (laughs) A lot of our chocolate, and coffee comes from Ecuador. Raul has a chocolate save the rainforest program where he’ll buy chocolate from the locals for 20% above the trade cost in exchange that they promise to reforest some of the land. He doesn’t do much of that anymore, he has one community that he works with and sells the chocolate out of a hostel. It’s very small, he was having trouble exporting or finding someone to export it. With Raul, he wants to free himself up so that he can be doing research in the jungle or guiding volunteers. But that (chocolate) is what I’m giving as a prize for donating, and it is great. I still have chocolate from 3 years ago that I made with my own hands. It’s totally stale, white, and crusty, but I just grind it into my smoothies and no one notices. But the chocolate I’m giving out is fresh.
A: Either way the chocolate is good for your soul. What’s it like to work with Raul?
DB: When you first meet Raul he’s like a lot of impassioned people, where he gets really excited about what he’s talking about and stutters. It’s so obvious when you first meet him. It is all rainforest, all the time. I learned a ton. He has these programs where people can come out for a weekend or 5 days and do a jungle trek, and I was just volunteering at his reserve, which is also an option, but there was someone coming in from Brooklyn just to do the trip and he (Raul) said “Well, I guess you better come.”. So I got a sort of crash course in the jungle that I may not have gotten from volunteering. Volunteering for him is like; planting trees, making chocolate, or helping with the garden. He doesn’t have time to decorate his house or anything, it’s so bare bones, and he’s a man living there… and it’s obvious (laughs). It’s just enough for him to go to sleep at night so he can go out the next day. I was very tempted to paint it but he was like, “No, we don’t need that, we need to go plant trees.”. He’s super smart, and we became really good friends. He’s a really freakin’ great person, he kind of does anything for anyone. He’s inspired me a ton, because when you see someone giving up everything in their life for a cause you think, “Well, what am I doing in my little life?”. Every once in a while he gets invited to do lectures in Germany or in the U.S. I think he did one in Spain a few years ago and these people who are not biologist heard his lecture and they came to volunteer and are actually coming back to volunteer the same time I am so hopefully they’ll be a few spanish volunteers there. He (Raul) often moves people to go stay at his reserve and donate their time. I haven’t seen his lecture, but part of my hope, is that we can turn that lecture into a video and make his “effect” exponentially larger.
A: Sounds like you have a lot planned for the future past just making this film.
DB: Oh yeah! One film is great, but twelve is better, so let’s do that. I could have borrowed equipment from friends, but I wanted to raise money so I can leave the equipment behind. I want to start a YouTube account for the Choco because there is only one video out there and I think that so cummy (laughs), if you google the Amazon you get a ton. They can document endangered species, have volunteer journals, anything that could encourage someone who was maybe considering donating their time to the reserve to go ahead and do it. Not to say that they shouldn’t be devoting their time to other things, of course they should, but a lot of people know about the Amazon and not a lot know about the Choco. So I’m trying to publicize it as much as I can. There is a scientist and his team researching the Brown Headed Spider Monkey which is endemic to the Choco, and it’s the most endangered Monkey in Ecuador. They found out about my project from Facebook, and got in contact with me saying they were so excited and were wondering if we could help each other out, like she could be part of the documentary, and in exchange I could help publicize their cause and I could get footage of these primates, and I’m doing this for selfless reasons… but how cool is it that! I can go one this trek with these biologist and track down one of the most endangered primates in Ecuador, like wow! I help them and they help me, and that’s what leaving electronics behind will help do. Electronics in Ecuador are way more expensive and the people there make a fraction of what we make, so me bringing a camera to them from here isn’t the same as them buying a camera down there. I have a couple of old computers that I plan on donating to them but I want to raise enough to buy a new one so it’ll last more than a year after I leave.
A: Well if monkeys are going extinct than us humans must not be too far behind, so I like the idea of saving them. 12 films sounds like quite an ambition, 12 is actually my lucky number.
DB: It might not be 12 legit films but it’s gonna be videos so you can see so much about it.
A: For those short on change or us poor college students that can’t donate on the heavier side, what can they do to help out? Besides making their own film of course, competition is stiff enough.
DB: There’s a million causes in the world, and it’s the holiday season, and we’re all poor, and unemployment is high, so it’s really hard to ask people to support a project. And just because I care about something doesn’t mean that other people have the time, or the energy to care about the same thing. With that said, I’ve still sent out messages to my classmates and said ‘hey look, there’s 40 of you, if you all just save your change and put in $10 that’s $400 toward my goal. People tend to think that their $2 doesn’t help but it does. People that can’t donate, just liking the Facebook page and spreading the word helps. The people who know about it and don’t donate will still be waiting to see the finished film, so being part of a community that cares no matter if you donated $1, $2, or $200, getting the word out is amazing. People I talked to didn’t even know this part of the world existed and they didn’t know what was happening to it. Just being a little bit more aware.
A: You’ve obviously been inspired by life, which is the highest plane of inspiration you can reach if you want to put it on a hierarchy, but what are some films you’ve seen that have inspired you to do this and how you’re going to do it?
DB: The answers simple actually, the inspiration came from a feature film I saw in theaters that didn’t have anything to do with the environment. There’s this movie called Breaking Upward which was made with a $20,000 dollar budget and the people who made the film acted in it and all their friends helped them, which is part of the larger movement that is going on now, which is what Stony Brook is basing their whole program around; making your own film without having to go through a studio or sell your script. I think it’s that movement that’s inspired me and all of my friends who are doing this to just do it. Instead of waiting for someone to tell you to do it or tell you it’s okay to do it, just do it. That’s the trend and I’m happy to be apart of it. There’s also this film called Craigslist Joe about this guy who decided to drop everything for 30 days and just live off of Craigslist, people who would let him crash at their place for the night, volunteer jobs, dates, everything. He had no money, no phone numbers in his phone, no nothing, and it was just this idea this guy had and I think he’s my age, and he just did it. He’s not a filmmaker or anything like that but at the end he had this really inspiring video, it wasn’t perfect but I like seeing things like that, where I can see myself doing it and see how the film is made. These little movies that you can wrap your head around the whole thing is really helpful, cause if it’s a giant Hollywood movie it’s like “oh my god there’s millions of people, and millions of dollars involved in this”, it’s the small stuff like Breaking Upwards and Craigslist Joe that say “hey, I’ve got a group of five friends, we can do this!”. As far as environmental films go I saw The Cove, An Inconvenient Truth, Forks Over Knives, what’s that giant one about food…
A: Food INC.
DB: Yes that’s it! I just enjoy documentaries a lot so I would watch all of those cause I really like school and being in classes. There were times in my life when I wasn’t a student and I took documentary’s as kind of sitting in on a lecture.
A: What are other ideas for film that you have bouncing around in your head?
DB: Okay I have two ideas that I’d really like to make happen within’ the next couple of years. I am a previously extreme struggler of social anxiety. So I suffer from panic attacks and was an agoraphobic for a couple of months when I was younger, and I think that a lot of people don’t acknowledge their own anxieties, because there’s a huge stigma that if you’re weak, than society does not value you. I’m really into life science right now, so I’d love to do a mini doc about people who have suffered with anxiety, maybe like a web series, or something manageable, but also something that keeps coming where I can interview new people I want to talk to about this, so I might want it to continue. Something about bringing anxiety to life. Or even teaming up with one of my good friends in the program who is a psychotherapist, and maybe even making videos for people who are reluctant to go to therapy or afraid to talk about it. The other thing I want to do is a film about my parents. My family is Jewish and on holidays everyone gets together for two hours and then rushes out the door. I don’t really know my family that well, not even my nuclear family, like I don’t know if they believe in God, or what the best thing that ever happened to them is, I don’t know if they’re happy, I don’t know anything about them. My older sister and I are a bit estranged also, and my middle sister is always traveling and I don’t get to see her that much, so I really want to sit down with my family and ask them the questions… that you somehow know about your friends, but never got to know about your family. I think it’s an opportunity to get my family together to do something, and we don’t get together much so there’s that, and maybe curing old wounds but really I’m just curious to get to know my family while we’re here.
A: Well, you sound like a regular Martin Scorsese.
I want to thank Ms. Danielle Berg for being so open and patient with me during this interview. If you’re interested in donating or spreading the word about the Choco Rainforest, the Itapoa Reserve and Ms. Berg’s film, then you can check out their Facebook page, and the Indiegogo campaign.
You can view Danielle’s third short film on YouTube.
What do you think? Leave a comment.