Interview with an Environmental Filmmaker

Haroldo Castro considers himself a “citizen of the planet.” It’s easy to see why: he was born in Italy to a Brazilian father and a French mother, he was educated in France, he speaks five languages, and he has visited more than 80 countries. Furthermore, Castro has devoted his life to improving the planet’s well-being. He has accomplished this by taking photographs, writing books and articles, and producing award-winning video documentaries. Castro works for Conservation International (CI), an environmental organization that establishes partnerships with countries all over the world to develop and implement ecosystem conservation projects.

Q: What do you do at CI?
Castro: I am the International Communications Project Director. What I do is make documentaries and take photographs of CI’s conservation projects. These videos and photos are designed to teach people how to better interact with their local environment. Most of our work is done in countries that have tropical rain forests, such as those in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Q: Can you describe one of your documentaries?
Castro: Sure. We made a documentary in Guatemala about products that local people can sustainably harvest from the northern tropical forests. After one year of production, we completed a half-hour documentary called Between Two Futures. CI then distributed the video to government officials, environmental organizations, university professors, and teachers. We also encouraged its broadcast on TV channels in Guatemala and other Latin American countries. The film has been a real success story. I think our ability to be culturally sensitive to the Guatemalan people contributed in large part to the film’s success.

Each of us who worked on the project had a Latin American background. We worked closely with the Guatemalan people, we had a Guatemalan narrator, and we used only Guatemalan music. If you are trying to deliver an important message to people of a different culture, it’s important to step into their shoes and deliver it from their point of view.

Q: What is your educational background and experience?
Castro: Although I do have a degree in economics, my best education and training has definitely come from traveling and other real-life experiences. I learn by studying the diverse cultures around the world. Once I spent two years traveling around Latin America by van; another time I drove from Europe to India in six months. These experiences are my education. When my friends say that it is necessary to have a master’s degree or doctorate to gain respect, I respond by saying that I have a Ph.D. in “Travelology.” That’s a degree I think my real-world experience on the road has earned me.

Q: Do you ever have to deal with crisis situations?
Castro: [laughter] If there is not a crisis when I’m traveling, I’m worried—it usually means there will be a disaster later! Anyone who travels a lot has to deal with crises, such as getting sick on local food or getting robbed. I’ve had equipment stolen from Lebanon to Peru! I would like to tell you a story. Several years ago we were working in a remote rain-forest region of Mexico for 10 days. When we were ready to leave, we boarded a small plane and set out for the nearest
commercial airport, only to learn that it had been closed. We were forced to go to a nearby military airport instead. When we landed and began to unload our large boxes of equipment, the military personnel got very nervous. We looked pretty grungy and unshaven and covered with mud. It was obvious that we’d been in the rain forest awhile. They thought we were terrorist guerrillas and surrounded us with machine guns. For three hours we pleaded our case, and finally they let us go. I think you might call that a crisis situation!

Q: If a high school student were to ask you what he or she could do to help the environment, what would your answer be?
Castro: I would say . . . Learn all you can, appreciate the world around you, and follow your passion. If you like photography, go out and take pictures of things that leave you with good and bad impressions. If you like gardening, start experimenting with seedlings. Whatever your interest, my advice is just go for it!

Many government offices, publishers, and environmental organizations have in-house communications departments for producing films or photographs. Have a librarian help you make a list of such places, and then call these places for more information and for possible volunteer or internship ideas.

While you’re at the library, look through The Guide to International Film and Video Festivals for any mention of environmental film festivals in your area. Castro recommends attending a film festival if at all possible. “Doing so,” he said, “would give you the invaluable opportunity to see some of the best films produced and to talk to the people who made them.”

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