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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Becoming Cousteau

by director Liz Garbus

It’s always a joy to have my films presented at Landmark Theaters, so I’m very happy to share my new film, Becoming Cousteau, with you. My intention was to provide an inside look at the life of explorer, filmmaker and beloved adventurer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, his iconic films and inventions, and the experiences that made him the 20th century’s most unique and renowned environmental voice. I hope you enjoy.

As I began this film, just the fact that Cousteau himself is not a household name seemed extraordinary to me. Today’s generation has grown up with popular nature programs that highlight the oceans and sea life, and it’s extraordinary to recall just how mind blowing it was to actually see for the first time, every week in the 1970s, all of the undersea wonders that Cousteau filmed. It took a great mind, tremendous bravery and a pioneering spirit to do what he did—revolutionize undersea filmmaking—and today, we are surrounded by imagery and technology that exists because of him! And not only did he use his brand new technology to popularize science and important environmental issues, but he also created a style of storytelling that has now become ubiquitous on TV.

It was funny to hear Cousteau say he never wanted to call his films documentaries—“That sounds like something you’d see in science class!” He thought it made them seem like lectures. He called them ‘adventure films,’ and that’s what they were. He took us all on a high-seas adventure and showed us the majestic beauty of ocean life. As a filmmaker working in the documentary form for some years, I wonder if given today’s offerings and breadth of documentary cinema he might feel a little differently.

Famously, Cousteau said that people will only protect what they love, and that was the greatest gift he gave us—he showed us the sea and inspired us to love all that was in it, and in so doing, he created generations of conservationists. In some ways, Cousteau was an accidental environmentalist, coming to understand the dangers to the fragile underwater ecosystems he loved so dearly through first-hand experience. For example, when he began his undersea explorations, he took financing from oil companies to finance the Calypso and her crew. It was only through his decades-long experience diving and filming that he came to understand the potential dangers of these activities. And when he did, he used his enormous platform and celebrity to sound the alarm to the general public.

In 1991, Cousteau’s tireless efforts to preserve the Antarctic resulted in a historic agreement by the United States and 26 other nations to leave that continent untouched for 50 years and prohibit mineral resource activities. In Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Cousteau and The Cousteau Society helped make possible the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—also known as the Earth Summit—which brought together 170 nations, and Cousteau can be seen in conversation with world leaders from Castro to Bush. At that time, he was one of the most recognizable faces on the planet—the person Americans said they would most want to meet besides the President—and because of his influence and celebrity, he was able to bring world leaders together. His celebrity and popularity enabled a growing global awareness of the preciousness and precariousness of the undersea world.

Cousteau said in Rio, in 1992, “You have an extraordinary opportunity to change the course of the world... but only if you decide to challenge the huge problems with radical solutions.” His message is even more urgent today, almost 30 years on. At the end of the day, the future of our species, and the survival of huge swaths of biodiversity on the planet, will depend on innovation and commitment in the spirit of Cousteau.

Posted October 20, 2021

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