Bold conservation: interview with Silent Forests filmmaker Mariah Wilson

Artist interview: documentary filmmaker Mariah Wilson

Silent Forests is an intimate portrait of conservationists and activists who are fighting against all odds to stop forest elephant poaching in Africa's Congo Basin region. The director and producer, Mariah Wilson, answered a few questions for me about this investigative and heartfelt story.

Hi Mariah, Thanks for sharing your filmmaking story for the Follow Magazine audience. Your film, Silent Forests, is currently showing at festivals around the world. Have you been happy with audience reaction to the film?

I certainly have! Audiences have been very engaged, and have been asking great questions. We are going to continue to take Silent Forests around to festivals for the rest of this year, and are in the process of signing with a distributor to release the film more widely – educationally, digitally, and on TV broadcast.

I’ve been encouraging people in our audiences to visit our film’s website, to learn more about how to support the conservationists featured in the film: https://silentforests.com/fea. All the people we filmed with are incredibly hard working and resourceful, but it’s definitely a lot of grassroots efforts with very low funding. Any bit given can really go a long way.  

 

That final image in the Silent Forests' trailer of elephant tusks all lined up is heartbreaking. What was it that first drew you to the plight of the forest elephants in Africa’s Congo Basin Region?

I had seen a lot of good media coverage about the elephant poaching crisis in the eastern and southern regions of Africa – but that was mostly talking about savanna elephants. Those are the large and very iconic elephants that are in the open plains and grasslands across the continent. As I began to dig in further, I realized there was much less attention being paid to the plight of the forest elephants in Central Africa. Forest elephants are a very important sub-species; they help shape the forest ecosystem and are vital to its health and existence. But they seemed to be getting mostly ignored in news and documentary coverage at that time, and their population was - and still is - being hit really hard by poaching.

I had already read about Sidonie Asseme, the female eco-guard in Cameroon, in a WWF newsletter. I realized she was working in the same area where these threatened forest elephants lived.  Then I began reading about other bold conservation efforts in the area, like LAGA’s Wildlife Law Enforcement model and Arthur Sniegon’s sniffer dog team. I realized I wanted to tell the story of what was happening in this overlooked and under-resourced region of Africa.

Director Mariah Wilson and eco guard Sidonie Asseme in the indie documentary Silent Forests.jpeg

You traveled to the area over a period of three years to film different aspects of the film, did you see many changes in the elephant population over that time?

It was incredibly hard to film the forest elephants at all! It may sound strange, since they are large animals, but the forest is so dense that they are able to hide very well amongst the trees. They are only really visible in the clearings, where they go to drink water. But our first two shoots were in Southeast Cameroon, where the forest elephant population has been exceptionally hard hit. In general, the estimates are that the entire population of forest elephants has dropped over 60% in the last decade - but in Southeast Cameroon it might be closer to 75% gone.

We saw signs of elephants on those first two shoots… their tracks, their dung… but we did not actually see a single elephant in Cameroon. The ones that were still there were increasingly wary about coming out into the clearings. It was really distressing – both from a conservation perspective, and a production perspective – I was starting to get nervous that we would never get footage of a forest elephant!

Finally, on our third shoot in Congo-Brazzaville, we went out with an elephant biologist who studies the elephants at particular clearings. There, we finally were able to capture footage of them (after many hours of waiting). But I would say that the difficulties we had filming the elephants in Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville speak to the effect that poaching has had on their population across Central Africa.

 

Do you have an update for what’s happening in the area now?

I don’t have hard numbers on what the latest population trends are, with respect to the forest elephants in the Congo Basin region. Forest surveys that gauge these numbers are logistically hard to carry out and usually only happen once every couple of years. The last numbers I saw, from 2016, indicated that the populations were continuing to drop precipitously, to the tune of more than half gone in the last ten years. Obviously that is not a sustainable amount for very long! The estimates of how many forest elephants remain range widely, but some guesses are as low as 40,000. (They were at 200,000 – 250,000 just twenty years ago).  Elephants have a low birth rate, since it takes them two years to carry a baby to term, and then the baby nurses for four years after that. So you’re looking at one elephant every 6-7 years for an adult female. Because of this, experts say that it would take 90 years for forest elephants to recover from recent losses.

And all indicators show that the poaching is continuing...  wildlife law enforcement groups in the area are still doing regular seizures of ivory, much of it belonging to forest elephants. (They can tell by the size and color of it whether it is from forest elephants or savanna elephants). Recent estimates are that we are losing over 10,000 forest elephants per year. One bittersweet thing is that because of the dense forests they live in, as the numbers get lower from poaching they are going to be harder to find to poach. 

So, is there any good news? Well, maybe. The price of ivory has started to drop, plummeting from its high of $2,100 per kilo in 2014 to $730 per kilo in 2017, and as low as $500 per kilo in 2018 (in China, at least). That indicates the demand might be lessening some as people learn more about the harm the ivory trade does to elephants. I can only hope that such a cruel and inhumane trade continues to go out of style in the years to come – before all elephants are gone.

Sidonie Asseme on patrol in independent documentary Silent Forests.jpeg

 It’s clear in the film that government corruption and systemic failure are having a huge impact on both the wildlife and the people that are trying to protect it. What do you hope to achieve by bringing worldwide attention to these issues?

I’d love to say that bringing attention to these issues in Silent Forests will help to change the system, lessen the influence of corruption, and have conservation efforts in Central Africa be more effective as a result. But, realistically, it will take a lot more than one film to do that.

I guess I just hope to be able to contribute to the ongoing conversation about how corruption and lack of proper funding is really hurting any attempts to do effective forest elephant conservation in this area, and to provide concrete examples of that throughout the course of the film.

 

You’ve focused largely on conservationists local to either Congo or Cameroon. Why did you choose to shine the light on these particular characters?

One unique thing about this film that I believe makes it stand out from some other recent documentaries about poaching issues is that three of the four main characters are from either Cameroon or Congo. So, this isn't just a story about figures from the international conservationist community going to save Africa's wildlife. This is about African activists, scientists, and eco-guards and who care deeply about what is happening in their own backyards. The very nature of their work can oftentimes put them at odds with their fellow countrymen, and the risks they assume to protect the animals of the Congo Basin are significant. I want audiences to leave Silent Forests with a realistic look at what it’s like to be on the frontlines of conservation in this region day to day… including the dangers, the rewards, the frustrations – and how good efforts are riddled with challenges from dishonest and inept government entities.

Another way in which I hope Silent Forests will help to transform discourse around the subject of poaching is through telling the story of someone who used to be involved in the ivory trade. I think that the viewpoint of a person who has been on the poaching side will bring nuance to an issue that is normally seen as very black-and-white. Former poacher Jean Paul’s story will hopefully allow viewers to see that those at the bottom level of this criminal trade are not just terrible people who have a bloodlust for slaughtering elephants, but that they are driven to commit an extreme and awful act by grinding and endemic poverty. The regret expressed by Jean Paul represents an often-unheard perspective, and his anti-poaching “support” group highlights one unique solution to the problem of poaching – rehabilitating former poachers by offering them alternate forms of income, and getting them involved on the anti-poaching side with financial incentives.

Former poacher Jean Paul at his goat farm in the indie documentary Silent Forests

 How would you describe your artistic approach to the subject matter?

Silent Forests is a character-driven and cinematic look at the battle for the future of the forest elephant. The film takes viewers to the frontlines of a conservation crisis by using an immersive, vérité-style approach. We took advantage of Congo and Cameroon’s raw beauty by filming time lapses, slider “dolly” shots, wildlife scenics, and drone aerials to help make this film as cinematically captivating as possible.

The storyline is driven by scenes with our main characters. These scenes are buttressed by explanations from either on-the-fly interviews or main sit-down interviews with those characters, as they speak to the big picture of what is happening right now in the Congo Basin, and what is at stake if they aren’t able to halt this ivory highway.

 

You are both the director and producer on this project, was it a long journey to getting funding?

Oh yes. That was probably the hardest part of this documentary, which is a sentiment I hear echoed by other doc filmmakers I speak to. In between shoots, I was constantly applying to different grants and reaching out to organizations to seek funding. I ended up getting six grants for this project, which was a real honor, but there are many more I applied for and did not get. It’s very competitive; the odds of getting many of these grants are mostly around 2-7% if you calculate the number of submissions they receive and the number of grants awarded. It is an extremely time-consuming thing, applying for film funding, but if you are able to raise some money that can usually lead to more down the road. “First money in” is always the hardest. On this project, the Rogovy Foundation Miller/Packan grant was my first grant, and I will be forever grateful to them for seeing the potential in this film.

Indie documentary Silent Forests poster.jpg

 Have you built an audience along the way or does that stage begin for you once the film is ‘in the can’?

Ideally, audience building starts while you are still in production on your film. Having a presence on social media is very helpful – even if a modest presence like my own. Doing a Kickstarter for my film helped me grow my audience too. And partnering with other non-profits and organizations you are filming with can be useful. A filmmaker can and should try to leverage those connections by seeing if you can promote your film’s availability via those organizations’ networks and social media accounts.  

 

What are the key elements for securing a broad audience for a documentary like this? 

I think starting as early as possible is good... especially if you are planning any kind of impact campaign with your film. For instance, with this film, I have three goals: to invoke a sense of urgency about the plight of the forest elephant, educate the public about this overlooked elephant subspecies, and most importantly engage audiences to support groups dedicated to ending the forest elephant poaching epidemic. (Especially the groups and individuals that we filmed with in Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville). So, audience building is an important part of allowing a film like this to have an impact once it is released. Invite all your contacts on Facebook to “like” your film page. Post announcements about screenings on Instagram, or Twitter. And keep gathering emails of people you meet who express interest in the film, and eventually compile a mailing list from that. You can also add a widget to your film’s website so that interested parties can sign up to be on a mailing list.

 

Thanks for joining us. Finally, what projects are you working on this week?

Silent Forests is keeping me busy with the continuing work (and fun!) of submitting to film festivals, attending festivals, negotiating distribution, and planning a cut-down of the film to a broadcast hour length. But I’ve also hopped onto a couple other documentary films as a co-producer, to help apply for grants, raise funds, and push the projects forward. After working for so long on the same material it is really nice to start getting my head into new stories and subjects. I’m beginning to work on some pitches and development for my next project, which will also be focused on wildlife and conservation.


Silent Forests by Mariah Wilson is screening in the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.

Find out more about the film here.