x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Documentary promises 'a resounding voice for our oceans'

The Singing Planet documentary will explore what its director calls the sixth mass extinction of species in the history of the world.

Director Louie Psihoyos poses for a portrait session in Los Angeles for Status Magazine.
Director Louie Psihoyos poses for a portrait session in Los Angeles for Status Magazine.

The multi-award-winning film director Louie Psihoyos snared an Oscar in 2009 and shut down a California restaurant selling whale meat. Now, as he tells Lyndsey Steven, he's out to chronicle humankind's role in a mass extinction of species with his forthcoming documentary, The Singing Planet.

There's nothing like swimming with a humpback whale - when you hear it singing it resonates against your chest. To be able to do something like this and carry it back to the theatre is pretty exciting," Louie Psihoyos enthuses over lunch. Having visited the emirate a while back as one of the judges for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Psihoyos combined his visit with his mission to make his latest "weapon of mass construction" by forging relations in the Middle East. "You drop a bomb, you kill people," he explains. "You make a movie, you create allies."

A renowned photographer and avid diver, Psihoyos founded the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) in 2005, a non-profit organisation that creates visual media to inspire people to save the oceans. The Cove, which honed in on the dolphin slaughters in Japan, not only won the 2009 Oscar for Best Documentary, but also picked up no fewer than 75 major film and environmental awards in 2009 and 2010.

Psihoyos and his crew recently returned from Tonga, in the South Pacific, where they spent a month filming humpback whales under water in 3D.

"The subject matter of The Cove is a microcosm of what is happening in our oceans. The Singing Planet will expand on that theme, uniting an even greater legion of activists around the globe in a resounding voice for our oceans," he says.

In the restaurant, the campaigner won't place his order until he knows exactly how big the fish is that's going to end up on his plate. While the waiter initially tries to impress him with the generous quantity of the sea bass fillet, Psihoyos persists: "No, the actual size of the whole fish when it came out of the water." Only when he is confident that its length is no greater than his forearm does he acquiesce, placated that the levels of mercury won't be dangerously high.

Speaking of restaurants, I ask Psihoyos if he received any hate mail after his exposé of The Hump, a sushi restaurant in Santa Monica, California, got the place shut down.

"We were worried about our safety after they got closed down - that story became international news," he says. "The New York Times broke it a day or two after we won the Oscar and in my head I knew it was going to be a good story... We knew it was selling endangered sei whale meat, which is served as part of an $800 [Dh2,938] sushi meal, so a couple of people who work for OPS recorded the conversations. We videotaped it and had the meat analysed by the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. We took the evidence to NOAA officials - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , a federal agency focused on the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere - and they said: 'You need a chain of custody. Can you do it again?' But we'd just won an Oscar so we couldn't because by then we were too well-known. So we got two women in and one could speak Japanese - they don't just sell it to anybody - and we got the evidence we needed."

The Cove also brought down two illegal whale meat rings and put an end to the serving of mercury-laced dolphin meat in Japanese schools.

Psihoyos says The Singing Planet will be similarly confrontational, but insists it will not be about bashing one single country, but rather "humanity bashing".

Humanity has a lot to answer for.

"We are working with the Laboratory for Bioacoustics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, the biggest repository of recorded animal songs in the world, and the director played this tape for me," he says. "There was a beautiful sound of a songbird in a forest and he said to me: 'Do you know what that is? That's the last male of the species singing for a female that will never come.' This is happening all over the world. When you hear the song and realise what's happening, you think: 'This could be us.'

"There have been five extinctions in the history of the planet. We are going through a sixth one right now, caused entirely by human beings. What I want to do in the film is educate people in an entertaining way while putting across that cheap energy is too expensive - environmentally, socially and economically. It's not just about being green. What's the cost of cheap fuel compared with the possibility of not having a great ocean left for your grandchildren to see?

"There are over 10 million species across the planet and this one species, us, is causing the potential extinction of half the species by the end of the century," Psihoyos says. "That's the biggest story in the world."


The Singing Planet is in post-production and will probably be released next year.