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Feature: Documentary Filmmaker Dr Gianna Savoie

'Mountain Mermaid'

They say there are ocean people and mountain people; science people and story people. As an environmental biologist-turned-writer, lecturer and filmmaker, I suppose I perch myself at the intersection of all.

I am a relatively new transplant to NZ, having arrived from the United States three years ago to dive into a new gig as the Director of Filmmaking (and as the very first woman in that position) for the Department of Science Communication at the University of Otago. My role is multi-faceted as I not only lecture and supervise postgraduate students from Master’s to PhDs, but also continue to write and produce my own films (three of which are currently touring the festival circuit). And conduct research on media through the lens of culture.

Way back in the summer of 2010, I was living in New York City and working as a natural history film producer and writer for broadcasters such as PBS/NATURE, National Geographic, BBC, and Discovery. I had just been nominated for an Emmy for my PBS/Nat Geo film, Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom, when I was invited to Montana State University as a visiting professor in their MFA program for Science and Natural History Filmmaking.

Having grown up in the "Ocean State" of Rhode Island, if there was one language I thought I understood well, it was that of the sea. I was excited by her rant through a storm, and soothed by her easy lullaby on a quiet summer night. The voice of the ocean was a constant companion, one that anchored me. With a move to Montana, the nearest coastline would now be a thousand miles away, and so I expected that voice of the ocean to be hushed.

Just as I was planning my move to the mountain-ringed town of Bozeman, I was offered a job to write and story produce a feature-length documentary that would come to be called Te Mana o te Moana. The project sounded incredible -- we would be chronicling the voyage of over 100 South Pacific Islanders who were sailing and celestially navigating a fleet of Polynesian voyaging canoes on a two-year, 20,000-mile journey across the Pacific to share a message of ocean stewardship with the world. There was absolutely no hesitation in my response. I was on board.

Over the course of the next few years, I kept one foot planted in the mountains and the other dipped in ocean, toggling between teaching natural history production in the heart of the Rocky Mountains and sailing with the Pacific Voyagers (as they would come to be known) across that great blue universe of water, learning all I could from them. As we made our way across the Pacific from Aotearoa to Tahiti, Hawaii to California, Costa Rica to the Solomon Islands, a story of connection began to emerge, as ancient as it is modern, as sacred as it is scientific.

I soon met Tua Pittman, the Master Navigator from the Cook Islands, who became the main character in our film and one of my dearest friends. He explained what it meant to him to be a citizen -- and steward -- of the ocean. He taught me about the importance of the canoe in South Pacific culture. “We have a saying: 'He va'a he moku, he moku he va'a,' which means, ‘The canoe is our island, and the island is our canoe.'" He then showed me a large stone set at the base of the mast and explained that it was a mauri stone -- a rock from his home that would accompany them on the entire journey and remind them of the connection between land and sea. As he spoke, I began to understand. The canoe was not simply a vessel that moves people from place to place, but a microcosm of the planet -- a place of limited resources where people must work together and live sustainably in order to survive.

Gianna Savoie and Tua Pittman

One night during production, I found myself standing on the deck of Marumaru Atua, the Cook Islands waka, with Tua. His eyes were trained on his thumb and forefinger, extended to the sky. In the billions of twinkling lights above, he was reading the direction across the highway of ocean that rolled out infinitely in front of us. As I watched him, I felt something catch me off balance -- and it wasn’t the pitch of the waka. This was so far outside my experience, so far outside my way of knowing and my way of understanding the world. And that’s when it hit me; this was not my story to tell.

Then and there my role shifted. I wasn’t there to “tell” the story or “craft” the story, but rather to listen, learn, experience and most importantly, relinquish the story. Now, surrendering the story sure is a difficult thing for a writer and producer to do. In this case, it was frustrating, even heartbreaking, as I wanted that experience -- that history -- to be mine. But to honour the truth of the narrative, it could not be told through my filter. It had to come from the people to whom the experience belonged.

The Voyagers’ perspective was not just an important addition to the story, it was what defined the story. The Voyagers themselves would dictate how the narrative would unfold. When I came to terms with letting it go, it wasn’t just okay; the story was richer.

The time I spent with the Pacific Voyagers challenged me to question how we come to "know" the ocean and provided me with a different lens in which to view my own relationship with it. Over the course of my years working on the film, the story of the ocean changed for me as new "truths" were revealed, new lessons were learned, and new ways of experiencing it were discovered.

As my Pacific crewmates opened their hearts, lives and cultures with me, I discovered their journey echoed my own journey; their dreams reflected mine – their story and my story were woven together. And at the heart of their message rests the notion that this ocean is not a barrier that separates our islands, our nations, and continents, but rather the bridge that links us all. And that was perhaps the most important lesson that I carry to this day.

I also realized that the ocean is not confined to that blue expanse beyond the land's edge. Even in the land-locked state of Montana, the language of the ocean was communicated in rich, full verse. It wasn’t through the pounding of surf or lapping of waves; no, in the mountains, the ocean sings in a different register. It pings across the ice of a blue-white glacier and rasps in the whirling diamond dust on a sub-zero morning. The ocean is, in fact, as close as the clouds that fringe the peaks, as common as fresh snowfall on the towering spruce, as much a part of us as our every second breath.

That realization would cause a shift in my own narrative and serve to define the rest of my career. I went on to get a PhD, focusing on ocean science communication. In 2015 I founded the Ocean Media Institute (OMI), a nonprofit global media collective that serves to enrich and expand the public's engagement in ocean science and conservation through the production and open distribution of innovative, inclusive media and artistic approaches to ocean literacy.

Flowing from the confluence of science, storytelling and the human experience, OMI is designed to be a hub for collaborative work among scientists, communities and media makers. The goal is to create a connective tissue that brings together a diverse array of voices and perspectives in ocean science storytelling.

Over the past seven years, we have introduced some successful initiatives through OMI, including our Ocean Media Explorer programme, where we pair emerging filmmakers on oceanographic and scientific expeditions. We also run media training workshops with scientists and work with underrepresented communities on issues affecting them, such as climate change, marine debris, and plastic pollution. But my favourite initiative is our signature series, "I Am Ocean", a widespread global campaign that serves to cast a spotlight on the health of the world's oceans through short films of and by people we seldom hear from, yet whose lives are deeply impacted by each ebb and flow. This flagship project serves as a cross-cultural bridge through the powerful platform of participatory media.

Now, here in NZ, I have found my “sweet spot” – a place where both ocean and mountain mingle as does science and story. A place where I can pay forward my love of the natural world and my experience of filmmaking through my work with OMI and to my students who conjure their own magic with the camera and craft stories that don’t only inform – but inspire.

We often think in terms of what separates us: our religion, our colour, our land, our language. We tend to frame our lives in the context of “boundaries.” But if there is one thing that I have learned in the liminal spaces between ocean and mountain, from the Far North to the Wild South, it’s that nothing is truly isolated. Everything is interconnected, interdependent. Mountain needs ocean as bone needs blood, as modern society needs ancient wisdom, as science needs story.

I am eternally grateful for all of the lessons that filmmaking has revealed to me over the years and so very excited to see where the winds and currents take me next on this incredible journey.


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