The four young filmmakers of Splashroom Media are turning their ideals into a business, for the good of us all.
It’s a disconcerting end to an educational resource doco. For an unconventionally long time, the camera steadily fixes on its subjects’ faces. It’s almost uncomfortable, and then it becomes compelling. These faces hold so many stories, and are as beautiful as the landscape behind them—the wrinkle-adorned old women, the concentration in the men on foot-treadle sewing machines, women farming in their dusty fields, the stonecutters, the serene mother and baby, and the children, curious, attempting to be serious.
The documentary, Without Rain, is set in the remote hill community of Syangja in West Nepal, and shows how the people are working to become more resilient in the particularly dire context of climate change. All good stuff, and the film fits its educational brief well.
But this simple film is unusual in its beauty and power. The guys who made it—Guy Ryan, Ed Saltau, Ollie Lucks and Iain Frengley, aka Splashroom Media—are also unusual. For starters, they like mankind even though they are all natural history devotees, graduates of the University of Otago’s Science and Natural History Filmmaking master’s course. They don’t make nature documentaries where the villain always turns out to be the nasty humans watching the film. Their work posits that “people can actually be a positive presence on our planet”, as subject Jinty MacTavish says in another Splashroom doco, Carving the Future.
This attitude shapes the three films the Splashroom Media team members made for their master’s degrees. Carving the Future tells energising stories of young Kiwis making great changes in their environment and communities, and still fits in skateboarding, glorious coastal panoramas, fine oratory and earthy practicality. Albatrocity has exquisite footage and impressive, apt graphics to bring us closer to the wondrous albatross, but it also explains how changing human behaviour can save the various species from extinction.Plato’s Cave deals directly with the major challenge we face as humans—how can we make our stone age brains understand the dangers of climate change?
These short films have won prestigious awards all over the world—even more than is usual for graduates of this highly-acclaimed master’s course. For example, Carving the Future was one of three Wildscreen Newcomer Award finalists. Professor Lloyd Davis, director of Otago's Centre for Science Communication, calls England’s Wildscreen festival the “gold standard in the industry”, and says the newcomer category is for people making their first professional films—often with megabucks.
His students, however, get $1,500 or less to make their films, and are “presenting what is basically their homework”, yet they’re still making it on the world stage.
Davis thinks that his master’s graduates in general are distinguished by the quality of their storytelling. But he believes the Splashroom partners stand out because of their level of motivation, even among his type-A students, “in terms of being attuned to the market with a really good business acumen. Their focus is very unusual.”
This focus was evidenced early on when the Splashroom quartet joined forces a year into their two-year master’s degree. They had quickly realised they had common passions and goals. “We are committed to film as the medium to connect with people, the chance to inspire, to change perspectives and challenge stagnant dogmas,” says Frengley.
Lucks agrees. “We are passionate about making films. While this might sound trite, it really means something. It means to have the lines between work and fun blur. We care about nature and the environment and want to have it influence us—not just in the type of films we make but also how we make them.”
Saltau says the four of them set up the company early to get experience working together, so they could get straight into doing their kind of films as soon as they graduated. Transitioning themselves from students into a business took a lot of energy, but the complementary nature of their skills has been a huge plus.
While building the business, they have carried on filmmaking and developing new projects. This work has already been recognised by the Ministry for the
Environment, which gave them the Green Ribbon Award for Environment in the Media in June 2010.
The partners have also impressed their clients. Caritas, the Catholic agency for justice, peace and development, commissioned Without Rain after programmes officer for Asia Tricia Thompson saw how Carving the Future inspired young people. Working with Splashroom in Nepal, she found them to be “dedicated and technically fantastic, really appreciative of the opportunity to immerse into a community ... ethical, willing to give their point of view but also to hear others.”
Perhaps what most defines Splashroom is that for its members, film is a means to a passionately-cared-about end: the welfare of this planet and all its creatures. They don’t just want to tell inspiring stories, they want to help create further action, as shown by their involvement in the A Day at the Beach west coast action festival and the popular 350 Aotearoa spring festival in Dunedin in 2009.
Film is their way to engage with people and issues. “The biggest thing I learned from doing this master’s filmmaking course is that the process of filmmaking is such a powerful learning process,” says Ryan. “That’s what I found with Carving the Future. In making the film, doing the research, creating these big festivals and then touring the film around the country, we brought together heaps of people, which just started so much conversation. People were buzzing afterwards and I know that has led to quite a few other projects.”
He admits it’s a daunting challenge to tell positive stories. “I think it’s really important not to be pessimistic, but to be optimistic—it gives people hope, it gives people energy, and at the core is this idea of empowering people to reach their full potential to do as much as they can to create change.”
The major project for 2011 has been the ReGeneration Roadtrip. From March to July, Splashroom has been travelling with a group of ten young people from around New Zealand, bringing together other young people and empowering them with new skills and networks, focusing on ‘active citizenship’: volunteering, creativity, valuing diversity, community development and so on. This road trip includes school visits, weekend retreats and community workshops, and is such a large, multifaceted engagement that the team is producing a whole range of stories to cover it. The short web pieces are already being posted and a longer film is being planned.
But filmmaking is only one outcome of the road trip. It also aims to stimulate contributions to the greater good by connecting individual and group efforts to the wider community. It’s an example of Splashroom’s longer term goal to foster social enterprise business models. Support for that goal has been cannily gained through awards and sponsorship, such the 2011 Vodafone World of Difference award to Ryan for his newly-created charitable trust, Inspiring Stories. Added money to the kitty has come from Inspiring Stories winning a $5,000 prize for a startup idea at the national Community Economic Development Conference in Auckland in April.
Social enterprise is something Ryan is passionate about, and he spent a lot of time looking at different social enterprise models while in the UK last year for the Wildscreen awards. He was impressed by how the Eden Project in Cornwall, for example, started with public funding but has now become so popular and diverse that it can self-fund through eco- tourism, education, research partnerships and food production. Another highly successful model is London’s The Hub, which brings together a diverse network of freelancers all keen on working on projects to generate social value. It is operating so well it has been franchised across Europe and into Australia.
For now, running Splashroom as a full-scale social enterprise model is the dream. Meanwhile this profit-making-albeit-idealistic company has expensive gear to pay for, trips and projects to finance, more people to bring on board and more films to make.
The Splashroom name fits. Not only do these guys love the surf, they’re out to make a splash. They love seeing the waves of stories and people spread out and interconnect, and they are hard out working, playing and having a great time while doing their darndest to save the planet.
At the end of Without Rain, a little child tries to outstare the camera and then laughs and scampers away. This film works as documentary and as art. It celebrates human resilience, and reveals the sharp edge of tragedy. If the mountain snows and seasonal rains no longer water the land, the beautiful life of our newfound friends is doomed. It’s a visceral sense of threatening loss, because this child is now any kid, anywhere, one of us.
Anil, the local narrator in the film, speaks for his people, but also for Splashroom. “It is time for the whole world, the whole community, to act as one.” That’s what the Splashroom guys are doing, and they want us all in on the trip.