In just a few months, Orange Planet Pictures will release a film to reveal the life of a person we believe to be of great significance in 21st Century animal welfare. 'To The Moon and Back' summates the life of Jill Robinson who has worked within China and Vietnam to bring an end to the unimaginable horrors of bear bile farming. Two years ago, when I first decided to take on this project, I was asked why. Even now, I'm asked the reasons behind my intention to make a documentary to tell Jill's story. So, to answer that question as simply and directly as possible, these are my reasons.
You may remember that during the summer of 2015, a then unknown American dentist called Walter Palmer felt it was within his rights to hunt and kill a lion called Cecil. The global condemnation was vast, vitriolic and entirely justified. But I noticed from various Social Media outlets that among the anger and sadness there was also a feeling of hopelessness. In fact, I myself felt disempowered and thoroughly inert in the face of something that appeared to be 'quite legal'. How could that be? In the most graphic way, I realized that just because something was within the law doesn't necessarily make it right.
The mass feeling of inertia was the most worrying aspect as millions of animal loving people across the world questioned how they could make a difference when something so abhorrent was sanctioned at the highest level. What can one person do against the imperious march of trophy hunters when a Government says it's OK?
Well, I guess I was fortunate because I had met Jill Robinson. If ever there was a person to inspire at times like that it was Jill. In China, bear bile farming is still legal. When Jill started her charity Animals Asia in 1998 to end the practice, it was significantly more prolific and less known that it is now. And the point is this. When she started, Jill was much like the millions of angry, upset and emotionally prostrate people who saw countless images of a bespectacled dentist draped over a macabre collection of dead African mammals. But, with nothing more than her resolve, Jill peacefully and intelligently began a movement that has now saved hundreds of bears, created two beautiful and expansive sanctuaries and is well on the way to ending bile farming for good in Vietnam. Jill is not wealthy or privileged and the path was predictably difficult. But, she did it anyway. She witnessed animal suffering that was perfectly legal in a politically charged and socially complicated country yet overcame the fury, emotion and inertia to make a change. And when she made that decision, she wasn't really any different from the rest of us. So, it's with that in mind that I needed to make this film; to prove beyond doubt that with the right resolve and attitude WE, ordinary people, CAN take on a bogus legal framework in a country that perpetuates needless cruelty.
The second reason for making this film is to demonstrate how Jill, a Westerner, has brought together large groups of native people in China to tackle animal rights issues themselves. When she arrived in China in the early nineties, there was one animal rights group. Now there are over two hundred. And these are young, dynamic and organized groups who are as appalled and angry as anyone else to see moon bears caged for three decades for their bile, polar bears withering in zoos and dogs being slaughtered for the meat trade. Over two thirds of the staff at the Animals Asia sanctuaries are Chinese or Vietnamese and I have seen with my own eyes how tirelessly these people work. It's a remarkable situation that's often overlooked in the West. At the time of writing this, thousands of bear paws have been seized on their way from Russia to China. I saw some of the anti-Chinese remarks on Twitter which are not atypical following news stories such as this. However, the tide is changing and thanks to Jill's ability to inspire welfare groups in China, it's no longer appropriate to tarnish all Chinese with the same brush.
Finally, the way in which Jill has effected these changes in Asia has created a blueprint for a peaceful, intelligent and 'inward-out' approach. There are no 'shouty' politics, no threatening rallies and no bolshie Western superlatives in the face of unpalatable Asian 'traditions'. Jill has shown that, to put in place real and meaningful change means working WITH bear bile farmers, dog meat traders and zoos. Real change comes from the INSIDE.
That's why I wanted to make this film. And I've always said that if just one person sees it and does what Jill's done for animal welfare then the benefits to conservation will be immeasurable.