Raising awareness and outrage about dolphin slaughter in Japan, “The Cove” succeeded in saving thousands of dolphins. Now filmmaker Louie Psihoyos and producer Fisher Stevens have teamed up on an even more ambitious documentary that aims to do the same for endangered species and their disappearing habitats.
“Racing Extinction,” which had a theatrical run in 10 cities this fall, will premiere to a wider audience on Dec. 2 to draw global attention to the biodiversity clock, which is ticking down — and only we have the power to stop it.
“The coral reefs will be dissolved because of fossil fuels by the end of this century. Twenty-five percent of the species in the oceans live on coral reefs. They will be gone. Half of the species on the planet might be gone in the next 90 years. That, to me, is unconscionable,” says Psihoyos, founder of the nonprofit Ocean Preservation Society.
He applied the same undercover camera techniques and “eco-thriller” style as he used in the Oscar-winning “Cove” to gather shocking footage of Asian markets full of bloodied shark fins, piles of rhino horns, and sea turtles and manta rays sold for food. The film opens with one such operation, where he sent spies to expose a Los Angeles restaurant illegally serving whale meat. (Psihoyos himself is too recognizable now, forced to wear a prosthetic disguise on other missions.)
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“This was much more difficult to film,” he says. ”This is an epic story. It's not just about one cove. It's about what's going on globally. It was harder to figure out how to get people emotionally engaged in the story,” he says, while making points about habitat destruction, overfishing, ocean acidification and climate change. Ultimately, he zeroed in on the people, including scientists and activists working to create change.
“If we can get people to care about the activists and their missions and why they care about these animals, that we could take people on that same ride that we did with ‘The Cove,’” says Psihoyos, pictured right.
“We talk about the smallest thing in the ocean, plankton, to the largest thing, the blue whale, and the message is, ‘Yes, we lost that one, but there’s hope. We can work on trying to save the ones that are left.’ It’s triage — we’re trying to save habitats and species.”
But producer Fisher Stevens emphasizes that the approach to the film was “to do it in a way where you are engaged and entertained while you are learning something as opposed to being preached to. We want you to think about it the next time you go to McDonald's or order that steak or buy a new car, whatever it is. Hopefully, it will have an impact.”
He points out some startling statistics: “Ninety-two percent of the Brazilian rain forest has been knocked down for grazing. A cat in America eats 30 pounds of fish in a year — more than a human being — and that fish is caught in these massive nets that are depleting the fish in the sea and killing the oceans. Between overfishing and the pesticides that they’re spraying on our crops to feed the cows that feed us, all that runoff goes into the water. There are over 7 billion people on the planet today and there will be over 10 billion by 2050. We have to change our ways, and contribute to helping the world become a little better and cleaner.”
With a worldwide audience of a potential 1 billion viewers, Psihoyos hopes “to create a social movement, a tipping point” with the film. “We want to create activists out of everybody who sees this film. We are not making a movie. We are starting a movement."
Toward that end, Discovery has provided materials for classrooms and the social action campaign #StartWith1Thing will encourage people to do their part, even if it’s small. “Individual actions when multiplied really add up, and we do have the ability to steer the course of history and really save the planet,” says Discovery Executive Vice President John Hoffman, who oversees documentaries.
Psihoyos, a vegan for six years who drives a 12-year-old electric car, emphasizes the importance of getting off fossil fuels and adopting a plant-based diet, to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. “The burning of fossil fuels is destroying the atmosphere and the oceans, that there are consequences to what we do every day that have ripple effects. But if you take acting by doing one thing, you can make a difference,” he says. “There’s a beauty and a curse in how much time we’re spending on social media, but it’s the ultimate tool for us. We’re using social media to spread the message in a massive way.”
Next up for the director is a film with James Cameron about vegan and vegetarian athletes that “will dispel the myth that you need meat to become a real man.” Producer Stevens is teaming up with Leonardo DiCaprio on a climate change documentary. “We know that this is the biggest issue on the planet, yet we’re still not doing enough. It’s about why are we complacent and what if we don’t act,” he says. He’s also making a film about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds for HBO, and hasn’t given up acting entirely — he has a small part in the next Coen Brothers movie.
But the mission of “Racing Extinction” is ongoing. “The loss of biodiversity will be unimaginably horrific for future generations if we don't do something about it now,” says Psihoyos. “We are the only generation left that can save endangered species. You can't look to your kids to save the planet. It’s up to us.”
Psihoyos photo: Oceanic Preservation Society