Oxford, for the most part, is an academic, civilised city, but last night it was very much in store for some monkey business. Yes, GAFI (The Great Apes Film Initiative), SOS (Sumatran Orangutan Society) and the Ape Alliance were in town at Oxford Brookes University holding a screening of a primate-driven conservation film, powered, not by dirty old carbon, but by pedal energy.
We’ve covered the subject of pedal-powered cinema in the earth section recently, of course, but this event partnered the unusual film viewing experience with an interesting initiative – namely, using it to help raise awareness of and finance for pedal-powered cinema opportunities in the remotest parts of the world. GAFI, under the wind of its c-founder and filmmaker Madelaine Westwood, has committed itself to showing conservation films to the public in remote areas that highlight the damage they and their society are doing to their own environment.
Madelaine, present at last night’s event, said that GAFI took up pedal-powered cinema as a resource after children in Cameroon had to walk 20 miles to a GAFI screening, only for a priest who had agreed his church could be used as the venue for the screening called it off, leaving the children to walk all the way back home without even having seen the documentary. A pedal-powered cinema kit, made up merely of a bicycle, a car battery, a DVD player and several different cables and coming in at a top price of just £2,000, was the answer. Thanks to this technology, GAFI can now screen films anywhere; on the side of a building’s wall or even a blanket.
Admittedly, last night’s screening may not have raised much towards this project – admission price was only £3 – but it was certainly well attended by an audience of up to 50 people, and not all of them obvious students either. And, in my opinion, the major feature shown, ‘Losing Tomorrow’ (directed by Patrick Rouxel), was certainly a success. Unlike the disappointment that was ‘Ice Bears Of The Beaufort’ I sat through at the Artivist Film Festival last weekend, this documentary successfully highlighted the problems – complex as they are – that blight both Sumatra’s primates, most of them orangutans, and the people who are involved in the logging industry that is depriving the monkeys of their habitat and the island of its rainforest.
Over the course of the last century, 50 percent of Sumatra’s rainforest has been cleared for logging, so dominant is the industry there – indeed, it’s estimated that just each day an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan is wiped out. However, suddenly to curtail the logging would rob a large number of people their livelihood – impoverished as they are – while, on the flip side, if the logging continues the country’s rainforest will be entirely wiped out and the logging employees without an industry to employ them anyway. It’s a fine Catch-22 with no easy answers. All the same, the audience was informed there is something they can do – contact their local MP or MEP to put pressure on the British government and the European parliament not to allow the import of timber furniture and wood pulp-produced paper that comes out of Sumatra – 75 percent of which is illegal anyway, so widespread is the logging industry there. The British government has so far made no move in this direction, but the European parliament has been looking into it, so there is some optimism, at least.
But what, specifically, of the pedal-powered cinema experience? Well, I must say, on a personal level, it’s rather an invigorating thing to be part of – or at least watch. On this occasion, as something of a gimmick, British cyclist and 2012 Olympic hopeful David Smith took to the pedals and, to give him his due, kept up an impressive tempo for about 45 minutes, before – a bit pooped – he handed over the reigns to another volunteer. There is certainly something agreeable about watching something worthy and well-crafted, while you’re aware the power that’s generating it is carbon free and directly man-produced – either that, or it’s just proof of the old maxim that it’s always enjoyable to watch someone working while you’re lazing about doing nothing. Either way, the pedal-powered cinema kit worked perfectly well and was a great advert for GAFI’s aspirations.
‘Losing Tomorrow’ was followed by the short documentary ‘Dear Mr President’. Filmed by Madeline Westwood herself, it showed reactions of Sumatran locals while watching the first documentary and then featured one or two of the viewers addressing, direct to camera, the Sumatran president at the time, asking him to do something about the primate/ logging problems in the country. ‘Dear Mr President’, we were subsequently informed, was indeed shown to the president, but just how much that act has achieved, of course, remains to be seen.
And how much can be done, in general, about Sumatra’s rainforest debacle remains to be seen too – but, as mentioned, we can all do something. For those interested, the MSc 10th anniversary conference on primate conservation will also be held at Oxford Brookes University on the April 23 and 24 – it’s open to everyone; the public as well as students and academics.
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