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Short Film Showcase: Staying Afloat on a Drowning Island

A tiny island in the bayous of southern Louisiana is slowly disappearing due to rising seas and coastal erosion. Hear how the last remaining residents of Isle de Jean Charles are coping with a foreboding future in filmmaker Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee’s haunting portrait of a community on the edge of extinction. 

Vaughan-Lee has two other films featured in National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase. Meet the last speaker of a dying language in Marie’s Dictionary and imagine a world without salmon in Yukon Kings. I spoke with the filmmaker about his process and developing the Global Oneness Project, an online multimedia platform that also shares stories from around the world.

When did you first start making films?

I first started making films in 2005. Up until then I had been a jazz bassist but ended up making a career change after I was given an opportunity to work in film and loved it. I tried to do both for a while, but soon my music—at least professionally—took a back seat to filmmaking. But I feel a great deal of my experience and training as a musician, especially as an improviser within the jazz genre, has been a great asset to my filmmaking. As I never had any formal training in film I learned on the job, often by putting myself in situations where I was over my head and had to adapt and learn quickly. My background in improvisation helped me with this, despite how different the creative processes and challenges are in these mediums. Like music, film is a collaborative process, something I thrive on both [during] production and in postproduction. And, more directly, music plays a big part in my films. I love the interplay of story, image, and score. For me it’s one of the most creative parts of the filmmaking process.

What attracted you to the medium?

I guess I was always interested in telling stories, and for many years my vehicle to do that was music. But I had begun to feel frustrated [with] my ability to tell stories in the way I wanted to as a musician. When I experienced the ability to tell stories in a more direct way through film I was hooked. I was also very intrigued by the way that film, and in particular documentary film, could inspire and engage audiences. The story felt extremely alive and … took on a new life in the hearts and minds of the audiences. This felt particularly important to me, as the stories I was interested in telling were about the impacts of environmental destruction and globalization on cultures and traditions around the world. I felt perhaps the stories I could tell would bring attention to what is happening and in some way bear witness to the tremendous loss we are currently experiencing—environmentally and culturally.

Who has inspired you the most in terms of filmmaking? 

I don’t have a single influence that inspired me. I draw influences from both fiction and nonfiction filmmakers, as well as writers, photographers, composers, and musicians. I guess it’s very much a hodgepodge. Some filmmakers whose work always inspire me include Terrance Mallick, Alejandro González Inárritu, Pawel Pawilikowski, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Ron Fricke, [and] James Marsh, to name just a few. And not to sound cliché, but my filmmaking is very much influenced by time spent in nature. It’s something that is a continuous source of inspiration, whether I’m hiking in wilderness or surfing the rugged coasts near my home in northern California. My love and awe of nature is definitely at the core of much of my work.

How do you find the subjects for your films?

Once I’ve identified a story I’m interested in telling I start thinking about the themes I want to explore through the film. What emotions do I want to evoke, what narrative do I want to tell, etc.? From this I start looking for potential subjects or places (sometimes the place comes first and then reveals the subjects) that I feel will naturally tell the narrative and evoke that feeling. Then it’s just a matter of research, and once I’ve found [my subjects], creating a relationship so that we have a mutual trust that allows them to relax and be authentic. In documentary the camera can be a natural obstacle, so it’s important to have that trust so the camera can get out of the way.

Can you tell me a bit more about the Global Oneness Project?

I started the Global Oneness Project about a year after I started making films. The idea when we started was to build an online multimedia platform to share stories from around the world. Stories that examined global issues through a human lens. This was before many of the online video platforms existed and allowed us to have a distribution outlet for the work we were producing and build an online global community around these stories. Over the years we have evolved and have become focused on education and how films and multimedia stories can be used in classrooms. The power of story and its emotive qualities can be an extremely potent way to engage and connect students to what’s happening in the world. We produce content—films, photo essays, articles—and companion lesson plans for high schools and colleges. All of the content is freely available online on our website, www.globalonenessproject.org.

The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the web and selected by National Geographic editors. We look for work that affirms National Geographic’s mission of inspiring people to care about the planet. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of the National Geographic Society.

Know of a great short film that should be part of our Showcase? Email SFS at ngs dot org to submit a video for consideration.