Animal Welfare is one of the most important issues facing the world today but yet, from a TV and film point of view, it appears to be the least interesting. Of course, there are many who would refute that, including myself, but, by and large, stick the 'Animal Welfare' label on a product and it doesn't really fly.
It's been said to me many times. We're about to release a film called 'Jill Robinson: to the Moon and Back' about a remarkable British woman who has tackled the unthinkable and barbaric bear bile farming industry in China and Vietnam. Time and again we've been told it's a good film, but while pitching it to broadcasters and commissioners we heard the same response over and over again; 'people' just aren't interested in animal welfare programmes.
To distill that a little further, the real issue, it seems, is that many animal welfare films are not 'theatrically sensational' enough (another quote from another Network head). And I do understand that because faced with ever-evolving, high-budget and boundary-pushing content that commands our screen time, animal welfare films can't compete. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule such as Blackfish and The Cove but these are just a handful of stories among the many hundreds of lower budget but no less important projects that are met with apathy.
The problem is that it's highly unlikely to get backing for an animal welfare story unless it strays in to the territory of 'theatrical sensationalism' and frankly, most can only do that by skewing and bastardising the narrative or unveiling graphic content so horrific it's a turn off in its own right. Furthermore, to make something 'theatrically sensational' often means straying into a territory that key contributors to the film feel distinctly uncomfortable with. Such is the often sensitive nature of these tales that the slightest irreverent and deliberately cynical comment could destabilize years of negotiations with politicians and governments, especially in Asia where our film was made. There was no way we could have completed our project without respecting our subject, Jill Robinson.
We never, ever want to stop telling these stories. And we want to tell them truthfully. But, what's the motivation for people to watch them? How do we get in front of a viewer who doesn't share our enthusiasm yet forms part of a collective solution? A viewer that is so important to broadcasters that the fear of losing them is countered by a televisual diet of tried and tested shock and awe programming?
You see the dilemma. Change only comes from knowledge and yet we're having trouble imparting that knowledge. I've seen with my own eyes on numerous occasions the reactions when once apathetic people do see these programmes. 'How did I not know about this?' or, 'why is this even legal?' and, 'what can I do?' They're generally glad they know.
But getting them to know is what needs to be mastered. That's the bit we, as film makers, have a responsibility to resolve. With limited budgets and big imaginations, we have to find a way to bring these animal welfare stories to the masses because the lives of these animals can quite literally depend on it. I also think we need to work with the broadcasters to find new and innovative ways to use their platforms and reach out to their audiences in ways that work for them. As one commissioner for a large TV network said to me a few weeks ago, 'we simply don't do enough here. We need to find a way to do more.' Of course, I agree. WE do. I love frivolous nonsense as much as the next person. Reality TV and great dramas form a backbone of entertainment. I binge on Netflix and am a closet Dr. Who fan. But I also want to know about the world I live in. I want to learn about things I never knew existed and people I've never heard of. Above all, and as best I can, I want to be part of the solution. And you know what, I think there are quite a few people like me. But, we need to get to them; to inform. Not bleat, moan or preach but let them know that somewhere on this planet, something of someone needs them.
Right now, I don't have the answer. I don't know how to cut through the noise and enthrall the indifferent. But, as long as we're committed to telling these stories we're going to try and find a way. Apologies for the gratuitous cliché but knowledge truly is power. And right now, animal welfare needs all the power it can get.