Local People Make the best Wildlife Trackers: Akanksha Sood

Akanksha Sood Singh, award winning wildlife film maker, and producer and co-founder of The Gaia People, a film production company, is described by Jackson Wildlife as having "developed and honed her skills, often in extremely high pressure – high demand settings which range from the jungles to tent pole feature films, crafting scripts to negotiating complex acquisition and co-productions and now to producing and directing her own films."

Akanksha’s work has been televised across the globe on almost all major networks.  In this interview with CSP she speaks about her films:

As The Gaia People is an all women team, how do perspectives change in wildlife films based on gender of the filmmaker. Do we have enough female voices?

Every filmmaker has a point of view that is reflected in the films they make and that is what sets the narrative apart from another film, which may be on the same topic. Having said that, I think in wildlife films the subject of the film dictates the tone – you want to tell the life story of the most famous tiger through her point of view or do you want David Attenborough narrate her story? Both have an impact, the tone may be different. In my experience I have seen that women bring in a more personal and emotional touch to a narrative whether she is a director or writer or cinematographer. We have not had enough female voices and for those who are here, there has never been a platform for their contribution. But this is now rapidly changing as I see an army of young dedicated women entering this space in varied roles – something that collectively as a team can really change the shape of a film. And in India, irrespective of the gender of the filmmaker, we don't have platforms for natural history content! There is an amazing number of channels in India and even OTT platforms now, yet none of them commission wildlife films – commission is different from acquisition. We do have a Discovery Channel and National Geographic here who tend to acquire some wildlife films, but mostly commission quick turn around content based on culture, food, travel, defense etc.

How did your love for the wild enter the narrative?

The fact that I am making this narrative is because my love and passion for it drives me! It gets reflected in the locations I work in, the animals I pick to make characters in my stories and how I want to tell their stories. The love of the team for this work is also very important because that too has a bearing on the narrative. What is important is that there is a diversity of views working towards the same goal that truly brings out the best and more holistic story.

How are your wildlife films similar to your films on social issues or documentaries on society?

The two are very very different. My wildlife films vary – blue chip, action, science, conservation – a mix of something or everything. But my social documentaries have been observational and emotional. In films you rather take a stand or lay out the facts – I like to keep my views to myself and show the facts, but with a treatment that moves the audience. I want people to empathise with my characters whether they are human or animal. Over the years, I have come to conclude that telling stories of people is much easier than that of animals – and that challenge is what keeps me on my toes.

How has film making influenced conservation in India?

It brings to light habitats and species that you did not know exist in our country. It makes you aware of issues that plague our natural world, shows you historical changes that impact contemporary times and help put in perspective what the future can look like. It highlights the grassroots work being done by researchers, biologists, conservationists, NGOs, forest departments and even the common man which otherwise never come out. And films can influence policy level decisions as a tool of research and evidence. Overall, wildlife films help promote the appreciation and conservation of our living planet.

Among the science genre where do wildlife films stand?

Wildlife films are special factual films. Let me explain this – there is fiction and non fiction that is also called factual. In the broad categories of factual, science is one. Wildlife films are very specialized and thus the term “specialist factual”.

Does the wild tell it's own story or do you approach it with your own ideas?

Nature always tells it owns stories. As a filmmaker I think it is my role to bring that story in an entertaining and impactful way to the audience. For example – I made a film called Tigress Blood – based on unusual behaviour of tigers that has never been documented in the wild. The story unfolds as we saw it play out in the jungle. Now I am working on a series that is scripted – I will film and put together the visuals as per my script– but it is completely based on facts.

How have wildlife films originating from India changed over the years?

They have come a long way. Long way. Wild life films have typically been blue chip – films of very high value and production quality on a species. These films would take a year sometime even more to make an would typically be an hour long. They are timeless films and thus have an appeal across regions and languages – could just be dubbed into any language. They were also popular as television was the only outlet, usually just one public broadcasting channel, which had dedicated slots for all kinds of programming.

Then came cable television and it changed the game. It required films of shorter durations, but more in numbers, and films with drama and action as they were now competing with other kinds of fiction and non-fiction programming running at the same time on another channel. Around this time came a wave of presenter led films thanks to Steve Irwin. The public lapped up the hand-on approach of the wild with all the drama of survival and exploration that was thrown in. Now for the price of one blue chip film, 2 to 4 presenter led films could be made. Blue chip thus gave way to low budget, quick turn around films.

Now there is just too much of content out there. Blue chip sill remains the all time favorite, but unique access; never before seen behavior, human impact and even conservation told smartly are gaining popularity.

How closely do you work with locals while filming.  What insights does this offer? Can you share a few anecdotes.

Yes we do – at many levels. Involving the local communities is a primary responsibility that I have to factor in as a filmmaker. To immerse yourself in place and to gain the most out of it for your story, who else can be a better guide than the communities that live alongside with the species in those habitats, apart from the scientists? And involvement has many options –making them stakeholders by using their knowledge base, involving them as characters in the film, or giving them the financial benefit through home stays and local canteens, and also building skill sets by employing them as crew members in some capacity. I can tell you that local people make the best wildlife trackers in any landscape, anywhere in the world. Even researchers depend on them for their field work.

I was recently making an episode on Pangolins in and around Papikonda National Park in Andhra. This is one species that you don't know if its there or not there, how do you track it, in a Naxal zone, where do you even start? The biologist himself had tried for a year or more and had no got even one Pangolin on his camera traps. I had an amazing shooting script ready. But it all broke down in the field when after 5 days I realized we are NOT going to get even one shot. I spent two days interacting with local people, hearing their stories and experiences with the animal and the landscape, and than on location I had a new script for the film. It’s turned out even better than what I had imagined – all because I reached out to the best source of information!