documentary film

A Q&A With Conservationist and NYFA Documentary Alum Valentine Rosado

We are excited to share an exclusive email interview with biologist, conservationist, and NYFA Documentary Filmmaking alum Valentine Rosado. Check out his impressive work in Belize, his insights on documentary filmmaking within the context of conservation, and more.

NYFA: First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your environmental work?

VR: I live in Belize with my wife and daughter. We found out we were expecting a baby only days before I went to NYFA and we had already decided to pass on on the course so that my wife would not go through her first phase of the pregnancy alone. After lots of contemplating we decided to make it work.  

I have worked on a multitude of conservation projects focused on protected areas and their benefits to communities. One of my areas of special interest is mangrove reforestation as a form of ecosystem-based adaptation. The idea is that we are able to reinforce coastlines against erosion and climatic impacts by integrating mangroves with coastal planning. The dialogue between preservation and development is most often a polarizing one, but I believe that scientists play a crucial role in facilitating the integration of sound sustainable practices into private sector development.  

I recently founded Grassroots Belize with my wife. It is a private consulting firm, where we now combine our qualifications and experience to work on conservation projects that instill meaningful change for the environment and the communities that depend on them.

I have done volunteer work throughout my career and pro bono work is still a big priority for us. We work with several community-based organizations throughout Belize by providing technical support where we can. In 2016 and 2017, 30 percent of our time was dedicated to pro bono work and 25 percent of our net revenue was contributed to charitable projects.

NYFA: Can you tell us how the WWF Professional Development Grant came about for you?

VR: We have been supporting a local community-based organization with their education and advocacy program. Fragments of Hope Belize works with volunteer fishers and tour guides in southern Belize and has out-planted more than 90,000 corals since 2006 — and that number grows significantly every year.

Through our work with FoH, I applied for a WWF-EFN professional development grant to participate in the NYFA documentary filmmaking course. I believed that specialized training in documentary filmmaking would greatly enhance our ability to present our stories to the wider public.     

NYFA: Can tell us a bit about your experience studying at the New York Film Academy?

VR: I have participated in countless training courses and workshops throughout my career but attending NYFA was a truly life-changing experience for me. I realized that storytelling and filmography was something I had always wanted to do. I now look back at my earlier years and realize that I did my first photographic story when I was just 10 years old. I was trying to get the local municipality to shut down the slaughterhouse that was located adjacent to our bayside community (even though our family business was a meat shop).

When I was 14 years old I scripted, directed, and shot a short film for a school project about a start-up tour company. My original idea was to produce the trailer of a faux movie involving scenes in the cemetery and a police riot but just getting access to an old VHS camera was enough of a challenge.

There was of course not much hope pursuing a career in the arts at the time, and I knew all too well that my sure bet was to pursue a career in science. The NYFA course made me realize all these things, and that I have always been a person that lives a life worth living. Hence, it enabled me to renew my interest in film and storytelling. It sent me into a phase of extensive reflecting and soul searching.

The experience could only have been possible because of what NYFA is: the location of the school, the facility, the amazing people that I now consider my mentors, and of course such a wide diversity of students. At the expense of my family and our business clients, I neglected every other commitment I had for the entire time I was at NYFA because I wanted to take advantage of every experience and opportunity I had during the course.

I especially enjoyed the hands-on approach of filmmaking that took us to interesting locations across New York and allowed us to really appreciate the fact that everyone has a story tell. Everyone’s story can be pleasantly captivating if we invest the time and creativity to put it together. I think that was my “take home lesson” — we have the ability to capture stories that will inspire others. As storytellers, people seek our storytelling abilities and we owe it to the world to do it right.    

NYFA: How has your time at NYFA impacted and changed your work in Belize?

VR: One of the main effects was that it make me think really carefully about what path my career would take after the course. I wanted to dive into filmmaking but I also knew that it was not realistic to give up my career as a scientist. The scientist in me made me conduct a thorough evaluation of all aspects (self, family, values, etc.) and to refocus our work under our Grassroots Belize banner.

Our mission is to inspire people to improve our world. Once we defined that approach, it cleared the dilemma of scientist or filmmaker or etc. We now take up projects of positivity to promote people living in harmony with nature. Science, business, filmmaking, etc. are various methods in our advantage.     

NYFA: What is Grassroots Belize? What is your role there?

VR: I recently founded Grassroots Belize with my wife. It is a private consulting firm, where we now combine our qualifications and experience to work on conservation projects that instill meaningful change for the environment and the communities that depend on them.

We believe that people can live in harmony with nature and we hope to inspire others through our work. We combine our experience in business, science and the arts to work on projects that enhance the sustainability of communities. Our multidisciplinary approach allows us to make connections across traditional boundaries and to develop a unique worldview for innovation. We work on a wide range of projects that aim to improve the environmental performance of natural resource users and the benefits they provide to communities.

I serves as a biodiversity scientist and my wife, Angie, is the administration and finance director.

NYFA: You were featured in WWF’s Education for Nature Annual Report. Congratulations! How did this come about?

VR: WWF-EFN works diligently at growing and strengthening their network of grantees (alumni). The network consists of over 2,500 experts in different fields of conservation from all corners of the world. I had the opportunity to participate in the first alumni symposium this past year that brought together over 40 current and past grantees from 17 countries.

I even had the opportunity to document the stories of three grantees and capture the portraits of several of the scientists. One of the most interesting aspect of the experience is that I was very much interested in their stories and considered my story not interesting at all.

Ironically, everyone else seemed to feel the same (super interested in the stories of others and considered their own less important). I guess if we all reflect on it, we will realize that perhaps we should all be open about sharing our own stories in the hopes to inspire others.

NYFA: Has anything shifted for you as a result of WWF’s Annual Report?

VR: Indeed. In my readings I came across literature about human personality. It turns out that the better we are at traits that result in great scientists, the less we are at the traits that define our communication with others. It seems like a challenging paradox for conservation where we invest so much effort into sound science aimed to address unsustainable behavior.

Basically, every alumni I heard from [at WWF’s symposium] confirmed in some way that our research is not having the impact we desire at the community and global level. The experience with WWF, post-NYFA, has reenergized my drive to expand my knowledge and efforts in science, and to complement it with my recent training in storytelling.

Someone has to tell the stories. The difference is that I also understand the science.   

NYFA: What do you most want people to understand about environmental conservation in Belize? How can we help?

VR: I believe that in an effort to bring attention to the issues facing our world we focus heavily on issues and challenges. However, it may result in an atmosphere of constant negativity and sense of helplessness. In the process, we tend to overlook or underestimate the good progress and the good stories around us.

I have always believed that we should be highlighting the stories about people doing their part to improve our world. We have many such stories in Belize and I think that this would inspire others at a global level.

If a small group such as Fragments of Hope can replenish reefs with 90,000+ corals in 10 years (with very limited resources), what would this world be if the global financing for conservation gets directed to initiatives that have this level of direct impact on communities?

My final message would be to follow our stories. We hope they inspire others to improve our world in their own communities, in their own small way.  

NYFA: What is next for you? Any upcoming projects we can watch out for?

VR: This past year of training, reflection, strategic planning and welcoming my daughter (thankful for good health and all), made me put several projects on the back burner. Now that our business is focused and we have all this training, we have several exciting projects in our work plan for the year.

The following is a synopsis of 3 short films that I have in post-production and expect to complete in the next few months.  

  1. Sandwatch Belize: children from schools in Placencia participate in hands-on program that assesses coastal erosion of coastal communities. The activities serve as a meaningful incentive to inspire greater learning but not everyone gets to participate.
  2. Man O’War in Peril: the island was officially protected in 1977 as a bird colony but in recent years, storms have affected the island’s vegetation. Tour guides are concerned that they are about to lose an important tourist attraction.
  3. Palo Seco Costa Rica: resort owners used mangroves to reinforce their coastline against erosion. In the process, they were able to safeguard their land concession with the government. The success has prompted scaling up of efforts.

Congratulations to Valentine, his family, and Grassroots Belize! Connect with Valentine Rosado on Facebook and follow Grassroots Belize on Facebook.

How to Reconcile Personal Bias in Your Documentary Film

Is your bias getting in the way of your documentary? In documentary filmmaking, your opinion can enrich your creation with information and insight, but it can also hinder it if not at least considered. When filming a documentary, it’s important to reconcile your personal bias with the topic at hand. Reconciling your bias may not only expand your viewpoint, but may help to enrich the perspective you’re trying to convey to your audience. Learn how to balance your viewpoint with other perspectives and information out there. Your documentary will thank you for it!

What is a bias?

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According to Google, a bias is a “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.” For instance, you may have a bias towards a certain political party due to your pre-existent beliefs and opinions surrounding subjects like gay marriage or gun rights. Consider details of your background and experiences as predisposition towards certain points of view. Depending on your documentary’s topic, it may or may not reflect your personal bias.

What are your biases and how did they form?

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It’s important to be aware of where your biases come into play and how they can help or hinder your film. First, you must have a clear understanding of your own viewpoint. You may come from a demographic that is involved in and impacted by a topic covered in your documentary. For instance, it wouldn’t be surprising for a medicaid recipient doing a documentary on health care to be in favor of public health care versus privatized health care. Details like these factor into biases.

Here’s how you can get around your bias.

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There may be nothing wrong with your opinion, but you cannot let it minimize your documentary’s focus in any way. Naturally, the audience is going to wonder about the other side of the topic at hand. Give your audience information that allows them to think critically and draw their own conclusions. For instance, if you’re doing a documentary on the health care crisis, you could try to include information about privatized healthcare. Interviewing a representative from a private healthcare company would accomplish this while not straying from the focus of your documentary. You want to balance your perspective with footage and facts that broaden your viewers’ perspective.

Your documentary is presenting a perspective to your audience. It’s up to you what that perspective is.

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When you reconcile your biases, you can refine your opinion in a way that strengthens and expands it. Researching arguments that differ from your own can help you a lot. Let the audience think for themselves and make sure your documentary gives them the information they need to be able to do that. Give them facts to consider that ultimately amount to your documentary’s purpose. After all, your audience has their own biases they will have to reconcile upon watching your documentary.

Interested in learning more about making documentary films? Check out NYFA’s documentary filmmaking programs!

HBO Documentaries: Which Ones Make the Cut?

HBO is known for their premium television shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “True Blood.” But the network has also produced some riveting and chilling documentaries. HBO produces a handful of documentaries per year, but only a few still stick around in recent memory as truly captivating. While there are many more documentaries worth viewing, these are four of the many worthy documentaries shown on HBO within the past few years:

Spoiler Alert: May Contain Spoilers.

“The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”

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The six-part 2015 documentary series was already popular before the filmmakers unintentionally caught Robert Durst — a real-estate heir — making a startling admission. But even without the shocking discovery, the series captured the attention of many interested in a high-profile murder case. Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a whopping 94 percent and a. 8.8 out of 10 rating on IMDb. The film combines both past and contemporary interviews, news footage, reenactments, and more exciting visuals to make it a worthy documentary.

“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”

Based on the 2015 book  of the same name by Lawrence Wright, the documentary premiered in 2016 and received heavy criticism from the Scientology community. Regardless, the film won three Primetime Emmys. The New York Times wrote, “[Director Alex] Gibney, who enters swinging and keeps on swinging, comes across as less interested in understanding Scientology than in exposing its secrets, which makes for a lively and watchable documentary if not an especially enlightening one.”

“Beware the Slenderman”

The film initially appeared in 2016 at South by Southwest, but was released on HBO January 23, 2017. The documentary analyzes the case of two preteens who stabbed their friend repeatedly to avoid being murdered by an internet folklore legend called Slenderman. The film lifts stills and footage from the indie game inspired by Slenderman called “Slender: The Eight Pages,” fan sites, and from the homemade “mockumentary” by Marble Hornets. IMDb rates the film at 6.3 stars out of 10 and Rotten Tomatoes gave it an 83 percent rating.

“What really compelled us about that case was how the girls blurred fantasy with reality,” producer Sarah Bernstein told Rolling Stone. Bernstein added, “[That] notion of, as a parent, can you really police what your children are watching online?”

The film itself would more than likely be nothing new to those familiar with the Slenderman myth, but for those who are just getting acquainted with the faceless forest-stalker, it’s nightmarish.

“The Loving Story”

Centered on the historic Supreme Court case on interracial marriage, “The Loving Story” follows the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who married and started a family regardless of discriminatory laws in Virginia. The film received a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and fittingly premiered on Valentine’s Day in 2012, just in time for Black History Month. The film combines new interviews as well as home video footage from the Loving family with previously unseen photographs of the Lovings and their lawyers from LIFE magazine.

Interested in learning more about documentary film? Check out NYFA’s documentary programs!

Are Food Documentaries Changing the Food Industry?

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While the purpose of a documentary film can vary, most documentaries are made with the intention of promoting one thing: change. By uncovering hidden truths and enlightening viewers with valuable information, a documentary filmmaker hopes to help people realize there’s a problem and do their part to fix it.

Shedding Light on Unhealthy Truths

Such is the case with food documentaries, which look to help audiences discover disturbing secrets about the very food we put into our bodies. Whether the focus is on unsanitary conditions of animals and overuse of chemicals or the complete lack of nutritional value in today’s fast food chains, these kinds of films want viewers to rethink if what they eat everyday is actually doing them good.

Of course, it’s not easy taking on arguably one of the most powerful industries on Earth. The food industry is a colossus, which means it’s to their benefit to keep unsavory facts about food production in the dark. Food documentary filmmakers certainly have their work cut out for them, but has their work actually shown signs of any impact?

You Are What You Eat

To answer that question, one must look at perhaps the most popular food documentary of all time: “Super Size Me.” This film follows a man on a 30-day diet consisting only of McDonald’s food. While eating three McDonald’s meals a day, he went from a healthy 185 pound weight to a heavy 215 pounds — all in one month.

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Despite walking 2,000 steps a day, which matches the average American’s daily physical activity, the man saw his fat content rise 7 percent and cholesterol rise 65 points, essentially doubling his risk of heart disease. The three doctors featured in the film were astounded by the change and even suggested he give up the diet to avoid health problems.

“Super Size Me” became a huge success, grossing more than $11 million in box office revenue. People were flooding into theaters to learn just how unhealthy the fries and burgers they’ve been eating themselves and feeding their children actually are.

Our Food Industry

Four years later, Robert Kenner released his own food documentary, titled “Food, Inc.” This film also struck chords across America, revealing the corporate side of food production. Viewers gasped as they saw the cruel treatment and sad, short lives of the animals eventually slaughtered, packaged, and distributed at stores to eat.

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The power of Kenner’s film is fueled by a simple, ugly reality: Finding meat that isn’t made from abused animals is difficult today. It was the perfect film to follow up “Super Size Me” because it helped audiences realize that just because they stopped eating at McDonald’s didn’t mean they’d solved the problem of supporting a controversial system within a controversial industry.

Making An Impact

Both of the food documentaries we mentioned managed to influence thousands of people across America. But it hardly matters if food production and consumer habits remain basically the same. So do food documentaries actually influence the food industry to change?

Between these two influential movies, the answer is yes. Change did happen. In the last decade we’ve seen more regulation of trans fats in food, including stricter nutritional labeling. Even McDonald’s has introduced healthier food options while also using their resources to educate children on eating correctly. They even cut ties with long-time egg supplier Sparboe Farms, who received backlash for alleged animal cruelty. And just this month the World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed the idea of a sugar tax for sugary drinks. Food documentaries, and increased public awareness, are certainly behind this increase in conversation.

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The fact that “Super Size Me” and “Food, Inc.” alone helped create change in the world’s biggest food chain on the planet is a testament to the power of the food documentary. The fact that countless more food documentaries have been produced since them also helps prove one thing: Although slow and steady, food documentaries are making a difference.

Best of all, we’ve seen these game-changing films — and the makers behind them — have a direct positive impact on NYFA documentary students and alumni. Warrior Poets’ Matthew Galkin, is an instructor in our Documentary Filmmaking Department. This community connection to award-winning and active documentary filmmakers is only a small part of why the New York Film Academy’s Documentary Filmmaking School has been rated by Independent Magazine as among the 10 Best Documentary Programs.

What other ways have you seen food documentaries impacting the food industry? Have you personally felt influenced by a food documentary? Let us know in the comments below!