Lifestyles Reviews

Situational Storytelling: An Interview with Sean Peoples, Filmmaker

Journalism is an art, a powerful one, and within that art is a story that presumably needs to be told by and for many. But when telling a story, especially one that is not yours to tell, the inclusion of all affected perspectives is of greatest concern.

“There’s a real power in journalism; it’s investigative and you want to uncover what you can so that you are able to represent each of those sides as much as you objectively can. For us, that was the approach. What we wanted to do was make sure we were true to what these people were saying, investigate it the best we knew how, use all the tools in the journalism toolbox while you were there and follow the story,” said filmmaker Sean Peoples in regards to his critically acclaimed film, Broken Landscape: Confronting India’s Water-Energy Choke Point.

Award-winning international filmmaker and producer, Peoples visited Ohio University from October 29th until November 5th, following the screening of Broken Landscape, presented by the Common Experience Project through its annual Sustainability Film Series. During his stay, Peoples discussed with students and faculty the obstacles one faces when confronting controversial topics, especially those rooted in environmentalism, and how he uniquely approaches such stories to most effectively create a context to visually retell that story.

By telling his stories through film, weaving the issue at hand with connective personal narrative, Peoples earned recognition as part of a new generation of visual communicators. An example of such work presents itself in Broken Landscape.

“Four months before we went in, we thought it was just going to be a simple story about miners, mine owners and the community. When we got there, it was about all those folks trying to make sense of ‘We can’t coal mine anymore?’ and the ban stands today.”

The short documentary explores Northeast India’s reaction to an all-out ban on coal mining as a result of the dangers and risks of the unscientific and thoughtless extraction process, as well as the environmental and health impacts to the community. A good thing, of course, in terms of the fight for environmental and human justice, but coal mining was once an imperative fuel for the region’s economy.

“There are so many layers to the impact of what has already been done in terms of extracting and now what can be done to make the extraction safer or more environmentally sensitive. The way we decided to tell the story was to make sure we had voices that were all represented within the range of people who were dealing with this issue. We were able to capture the mine owners, the miners, the communities downstream and the journalists; all those folks are in a big mix of trying to make sense of this situation,” explained Peoples. “Every story is going to have a different way to tell it and I think for us, that [personal narrative] was the most emotional way to do it. We wanted to present each side in a straight way so whoever watched it could make up their mind. I think it’s pretty clear what’s happening and that it was pretty terrible in terms of the environmental impacts, but also an entire economy was stalled.“

One voice unheard in the film is that of policy makers, a perspective that would have been influential in understanding the confusion of the situation. Although that side of the story was not told, filmmakers were accepting in the idea that government officials may instead be part of their audience, as they are the ones that most need to hear that message.

“This film is about policy, the lack of policy,” said Peoples. “The lack of policy creates an environment where you have no safety regulations; you have no scientific or technological approach to getting coal out of the ground; you have the danger of having a lot of power in the hands of a very small group of people. There are a lot of things you can do to solve this; it’s just the question of whether or not the government and mine owners are willing to come together. It hasn’t happened and that’s sad.”

Different conclusions can be drawn, taking into consideration the concerns of each perspective. In this way, conversation becomes a tool to solve confusion and keep discussion surrounding the issue alive to ultimately reach a fix.

“I really think the power of film is in the ability for really compelling personal narratives to start conversations, and it’s amazing. If you sit people down for an hour, hour and a half, the first thing you do after that is you look to your friend and say ‘What did you think?’ and you then have a conversation about that. There’s opportunity there, especially for an environmental topic I believe is pressing and one we need to know more about, and one that doesn’t just happen in Northeast India. That conversation is so important to have, especially here in Ohio,” said Peoples.

That conversation has the ability to connect distant communities experiencing similar problems. The impacts of coal mining are global issues that need global solutions. Analyzing conflict in one place may contribute to solving and understanding the problem elsewhere.

“We’re not alone, the people of Southeast Ohio. This is not a thing in which you can find solace, but you can find solidarity. Solidarity in the idea that other people are fighting what is a really scary thing when you find your environment threatened and you have very little power in the decisions that make that environment threatened. That’s a powerful idea. The idea of giving people a voice who are impacted is a huge thing; something that’s a given here in the U.S. is not in Northeast India. That’s where the power of using your voice and coming together in a solidarity movement is so important. I wish the folks in Northeast India had a film about what’s going on here, so they could see that connection—that would be important cultural exchange, lowering that divide so they understand that sort of solidarity is out there, here in Southeast Ohio and the region.”

 


Alexa, strategic communications major, spanish minor, and environmental certificate candidate, hopes to one day become a tree. Her best friends are plants and the occasional human that can keep it chill. You will always find her with music in her ears and in her head, whistling or even grooving to an unheard tune. When there’s time to breath, she enjoys floating in water, looking at the sky, and cooking delicious, flavorful food. 

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