Patagonia's new feature doc helps shine a light on 'the arrogance of Man'
Artifishal is a new documentary commissioned by outdoor clothing company Patagonia. The film charts the human need to control nature and, specifically, the impact that has on wild salmon. Here, the film's director, Josh Murphy, explains why a brand's voice can be an important weapon in fighting back.
Where did the idea and inspiration for Artifishal come from?
The initial inspiration for the film came from Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard. He’s a lifelong angler and environmentalist and sees our continued attempts to control nature as what he calls ‘the arrogance of Man'.
Through our efforts to farm salmon for food, and raise them in hatcheries to make up for the over harvest and the environmental degradation of rivers, we’re un-wilding salmon. We forgotten how important the wild fish are that we originally loved.
Has Patagonia commissioned projects like this in the past, and if so, can you provide examples?
Artifishal is Patagonia’s second feature length documentary, the first was DamNation, but they have others in the works and multiple shorter films including the recent Blue Heart about the last wild rivers in the heart of Europe; Takayna about the last tracts of undisturbed Gondowanan rainforest in the world, and Treeline that follows skiers and snowboarders through extraordinary forrest landscapes throughout the world.
How did you come to be aware of the project and how much did you already know about the situation the film highlights?
I was directing a spot for 1% for the Planet, a non-profit started by Yvon and friend Craig Mathews, and over lunch someone asked Yvon what he was working on. He said he was working on a film about ‘the arrogance of Man'. He went on to say it was about the way we’re mistakenly trying to control nature and manipulate salmon, one of the most iconic symbols of wild.
[Patagonia] recently re-wrote their mission statement to be simple, clear, and powerful; ‘We’re in business to save our home planet'. If this mission ever becomes a passing advertising fad we’re all in deep trouble.
Filmmaker/environmentalist Jacques Cousteau was my childhood idol, and before a career in film I earned two degrees in fisheries biology and worked on a fish farm and managed a hatchery. I understood the issue inside and out.
At the end of the day Yvon asked me for my number and said he’d be in touch. I’ve been around the block a few times, and if I had a dollar for every time someone said that I’d be a rich man. Two days later Patagonia Films called back and said Yvon wanted me to direct the film. That casual lunchtime conversation began a two-and-a-half-year year journey that just culminated in a month-long domestic and international Patagonia store tour and festival premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Above: Director Josh Murphy
Patagonia has always had ethical behaviour at its core but now many more brands are aligning themselves with ethical or charitable causes; why do you think this is and is there a danger this is just an advertising fad that will eventually pass?
Collaborating with Patagonia has been an honour and a dream. Yvon has long been an environmental hero of mine and he was advocating for sustainability and conscientious business long before it was in vogue. It’s core to who he is and to how the business operates. They recently re-wrote their mission statement to be simple, clear, and powerful; ‘We’re in business to save our home planet'. If this mission ever becomes a passing advertising fad we’re all in deep trouble.
The crucible of natural selection favours the best adapted and when we try to control that process we do a pretty poor job of it.
What was the thing that most surprised you about this story and situation when you were making the documentary?
The most surprising aspect of making the film are the clear ideological boundaries that have been drawn around this issue. One character told me, "you’ll find purists and pragmatists" and not much in between. But what I was not prepared for is how many people are willing to forgo the clear science in favour of a compelling story we started telling ourselves long ago.
The idea that we can engineer our way out of the mess we’ve created and that we can do it better and more efficiently and effectively than nature. Fish is the only animal in the world that we raise and release into the wild by the billions - most of it on taxpayers dollars - and expect to return no worse for the wear. It doesn’t work that way. The crucible of natural selection favours the best adapted and when we try to control that process we do a pretty poor job of it. If the continued collapse of salmon populations is any indication, it’s about time we renewed our faith in nature.
"Wild is scary, but that's how wild works"; that's a quote from one of the conservationists in the film who says that humans crave order; Artifishal is damning of human behaviour and its industrial approach to farming but do you think our nature can change?
To protect wild we first have to value it. To most people a fish is a fish. There’s been little delineation between a wild fish, hatchery fish, and a farmed fish. That’s a problem. Fish are the last wild food we eat at scale and to continue having them as both a valuable food and integral part of ecosystems, we must protect the environment that supports them.
When brands encourage positive social, ethical, or environmental change — and actually mean it — they can create significant societal change.
In the film, author and conservationist Carl Safina says, "You could say that everything we learn we learn from the stories that we are given. You could also then say, that all the problems we have are symptoms of stories that were wrong. Stories we told ourselves, and stories we passed on where we misunderstood things deeply". With this film we now have the opportunity to re-write the narrative and focus on the future of wild and, in this case, wild fish specifically.
We know that it’s working, as within the first week of the Patagonia store tour we had over 300 requests for community screenings and over 150,000 signatures demanding protection of wild fish. Film is can be a powerful tool for change.
How important can brand voices be in highlighting social, ethical and environmental issues to a wider audience?
Brands have a unique opportunity to amplify a message given the work they do with consumers on a daily basis and the fact that through sales they can invest in high quality filmmaker and storytelling.
We live in a democracy, but one of the most powerful votes we have is the votes we make with our dollars. When brands encourage positive social, ethical, or environmental change — and actually mean it — they can create significant societal change and challenge outdated belief systems. Just last week, the Airbnb supported Tribeca film Gay Chorus Deep South won the award for best documentary.
What was the most challenging aspect of making Artifishal?
Finding a way to tell a highly nuance story that could engage visually and emotionally and make people pay attention to a species with which they don’t normally empathise. We’re not talking about dolphins and polar bears, and we honestly wondered if audiences would feel for fish. We also realised that we needed to trust audiences to see what we saw as we began to reveal the issue.
More than a year into production, in what we call the dark days when we questioned if we had a powerful story to tell, our producer Laura Wagner found an article by Ira Glass, host of the ever-amazing This American Life. Ira mentioned that when moving through the huge amounts of material to find a story he always waits until he finds the ‘moment of joy'.
I hope we recognise the outsized impact humanity is having on the natural world and our failings when we continue to control it. With all of our technologic advances we still can’t build a flower.
For him this is an oddity or wonderfully weird twist a story takes and provides an entry point around which to build the narrative. We had been talking for months about just how weird the practice of raising and releasing fish was when you stepped back and looked at it with indifference.
Fish are the only animal we could find that we raise and release into the wild by the billions, mostly on public tax-payer dollars, so we can catch them again for food or for fun. Fish and wildlife agencies are managing wildlife like theme parks where fish the prize and licenses are the ticket to the attraction. Once we embraced the idea of showing more and telling less we knew we had a film.
What do you hope the film achieves?
I hope the film creates and appreciation of fish as wildlife and wild fish as worth our attention and protection. In a larger sense I hope we recognise the outsized impact humanity is having on the natural world and our failings when we continue to control it. With all of our technologic advances we still can’t build a flower.
Wild is a powerful force, and nature’s ability to heal should not be underestimated. When we protect wild we have a chance to save many of the things the make this world beautiful. As Yvon says in the film; "A life without wild nature, a life without these great iconic species is an impoverished life. If we loose all wild species we’re gonna lose ourselves". We agree.