Interview with Filmmaker Stuart Cohen (Fat ducks mean fat cattle – water for the environment)

“Fat ducks mean fat cattle – water for the environment” played to rave reviews at the December 2021 Toronto Documentary Film Festival.

1. What motivated you to make this film?

I’ve spent most of my professional life working in the field of environmental media and when I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about the release of ‘environmental water’ into the internationally significant Macquarie Marshes after the worst drought in the last 250 years in Australia I decided straight away I had to go and film it. There’s a lot of agricultural irrigators that consider ‘environmental water’ releases to be a waste of water. There’s a lot of political pressure here NOT to allocate water for the environment of our major waterways so that it can be used for agriculture. I wanted to show just how critical these environmental water releases were to the Macquarie Marshes.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this film?

This was quick! I needed to get to the Marshes ASAP while the environmental water release was at it’s peak. I didn’t have much time to work with. So after making the decision to go I contacted State Government authorities that day seeking some assistance and within a week I was on the road. It’s an eight hour drive from Sydney to Macquarie Marshes and I spent only two days filming in the Marshes and then was back on the road to Sydney. A week later I had an edited seven and a half minute film. So all up from idea to completion of the project it took less than two weeks.

3. How would you describe your film in two words!?

Gee two words!…hmmm…. The first thing that comes to mind is “VERY IMPORTANT” and I’m not being self congratulatory here. I mean the message about the importance of environmental water for the Marshes is very important in the face of lots of pressure not to release it.

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

I made this film at my own expense and there were no major logistical issues in shooting or editing it other than distances covered. But I had offered to make this film for the government department to use to promote ‘environmental water’ for free and even went so far as meeting their branding guidelines but strangely after completing the film it was knocked back on the basis that it was “too long”. So I published it myself. If there were any obstacles it was the very department I’d actually offered to help. There’s a pervasive view across government and indeed many organisations that no one will watch anything over 60-120 seconds but I find these short ‘puff pieces’ ultimately meaningless in their ability to change people’s attitudes and behaviours toward the environment. You’re not trying to convince people to buy something like a car! You’re asking people, with a film like this, to actually “do” something, as in change their attitude or behaviour towards the environment and that means appealing to the heart and their deeper sense of ethics and moral perspectives. Very hard, if not impossible, to do in 60 seconds.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

I got goosebumps!!! 😛 I mean getting an audience in this day and age of social media is the hardest thing to do. Making the film is the easy part but getting someone to see it and ‘get’ the message across is the big challenge so when I see a group of people, having watched my film, ‘getting’ the message then that made my day! Probably not a huge audience for this film but I loved it! So thank you!

Watch the Audience Feedback Video:

6. When did you realize that you wanted to make films?

Probably when I was about 14 after spending a few days with a really cool film crew who were working on a news story with my Dad. They were such great people on the crew and I was just a kid but I loved how the process worked and then when I saw the finished story I said to myself “that’s what I want to do”. But as fate would have it it really took me until I was at the age of 55 when I went freelance and that’s when I really started to do what I’d always wanted to do.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

Another hard one but probably the 1964 Cy Enfield film “Zulu” starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine. An historical epic that I loved for its realism and faithfulness to the historical facts.

8. What other elements of the festival experience can we and other festivals implement to satisfy you and help you further your filmmaking career?

To be absolutely honest that’s hard to say for me having not had much experience at all entering festivals. This is only the third time I’ve had a film screening in a festival and the other two screenings were only a few weeks ago so this is all a bit new to me. Having said that I really love the way you guys do it. So much contact and involvement and I feel really valued as a fellow creative. You are doing a great job so thank you.

9. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway. How has your experiences been working on the festival platform site?

FilmFreeway has been a revelation for me and already yielded hugely positive results. The ability to list a project once and then be able to just press a few buttons to submit the same film to multiple festivals is so easy. There was another platform a few years back I had used which was ok but it folded so when I stumbled on FilmFreeway I was accepted into the first festival I entered and now I’ve been accepted to three. From a business marketing point of view it’s been great and I have already picked up a great film job with a client simply because of the credibility that these few festival acceptances have offered me.

10. What is your favorite meal?

Hahaha I think Spaghetti Bolognese…ever since I was a kid I’ve loved it.

11. What is next for you? A new film?

Aside from a bunch of short corporates with existing clients I have been given the opportunity to go and shoot two completely nerdy seabird scientists on a small remote island 900 kms off the coast of Australia in the Pacific Ocean carrying out their annual survey of seabirds. It’ll be a ten day shoot which is a luxury. This is a love job, as in, I’m not getting paid. The Macquarie Marshes film was a ‘love job’ and these opportunities are important for me to have the chance to make a film just how I want to make it and not according to the dictates of corporate clients who often don’t understand the process and can turn a decent film into what effectively becomes and electronic brochure because they are trying to jam as many words into a film as they can without recognising the power of the visuals alone to tell a story, often in a far more compelling way. I have a few ideas about this seabird survey film and at this point I think it will be about the two researchers and their motivations rather than the birds themselves. Going there in a months time! Excited!!

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By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival www.wildsound.ca

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