Students to document sharks in South Africa

Originally published in the Globe on January 14, 2015

photo by Victoria A. Mikula Sophomore cinema major Jaz McKibben, sophomore cinema production major Jordan Durham and freshman global cultural studies major Blaise Kepple will travel to South Africa to film a documentary on shark finning this May.

photo by Victoria A. Mikula
Sophomore cinema major Jaz McKibben, sophomore cinema production major Jordan Durham and freshman global cultural studies major Blaise Kepple will travel to South Africa to film a documentary on shark finning this May.

Three Point Park students are traveling to South Africa this May to make a documentary about great white sharks.

Sophomore cinema production major Jordan Durham, sophomore cinema major Jaz McKibben and freshman global cultural studies major Blaise Kepple will be working on a conservation project with GoEco.org, an international volunteer organization.

The filmmakers will be documenting their experiences working with scientists and other volunteers on beach clean-up, shark tagging and other conservation efforts in a project titled “Rock Bottom:  The Truth Behind Shark Finning.”

The idea to make a documentary did not come from an assignment or project, but out of a mutual interest in conservation.

“Jordan and I started talking about our interests and we both found out that we’re both interested in documentaries and wildlife conservation, and we were just brainstorming ideas of things that would be cool to do,” McKibben said Jan. 11.

The project did not start out focusing on great white sharks, but as they explored possible projects, the conversation kept returning to the oft-misunderstood species.

“We actually were looking at other projects, but it always came back to sharks,” McKibben said.

Sharks are underrepresented in conservation documentaries, but have a presence in the media as the villain appearing in movies like Jaws and on television specials such as Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

“A lot of the projects and a lot of the documentaries that have to do with wildlife are about the more larger, ‘cute’ animals I like to say – polar bears, elephants, rhinos,” Durham said Jan. 11. “But everyone fears sharks so there’s not a big group of films made after them.”

The plan is for “Rock Bottom” to focus on the balance between culture and conservation.

“The culture right now is that sharks are these horrible creatures and they’re portrayed as these monsters,” Durham said. “It’s this horrible culture that’s going on and puts this horrible reputation on sharks. And then you have conservation, which is the truth. They’re not these monsters. Only four people are killed a year by sharks, so we’re trying to balance that.”

They also hope to address the culture of shark finning within the countries that practice it.

“In many of the countries where finning is taking place, fishing is part of the culture,” McKibben said. “We’re not looking to degrade these cultures, but more educate the people participating and the consumers of shark fins.”

All of the proceeds from the film will go to help stop shark finning, but the students hope to highlight several issues in their film.

“Shark finning is just a small portion of the entire issue, it’s very devastating but I think the fear and misunderstanding is just as bad because people don’t care and aren’t interested in conserving them,” McKibben said. “If there’s no one who cares about them this is just going to continue happening.”

One of the factors of the students’ documentary is that it features students actively participating in conservation.

“The general thing we’re trying to do is inspire our generation to get into conservation,” Durham said. “I think what’s new for our documentary is that we’re a group of students that are very passionate about wildlife.”

Social media and a Kickstarter campaign helped make this documentary a reality for the young filmmakers and opened the opportunity for others to follow their lead.

“We’re able to promote this without the agenda of a studio and just educate people,” McKibben said. “It’s a very good learning opportunity to inspire people to make their own changes.”

The documentary is still in pre-production, and the filmmakers’ biggest challenge is getting resources, awareness and funding.

“We’ve posted on social media about the project and gotten great feedback from different conservationists, shark conservationists, wildlife conservationists from all across the world,” Durham said. “Just giving us music and giving us people to talk to and actual footage. So right now we’re just gathering the help, and after that we’re going to do more the planning for the trip.”

The $10,000 “Rock Bottom Kickstarter” campaign has begun, with the majority of funds going directly to filmmaking costs.

“The GoEco program covers a lot of the cost,” Kepple said Jan 11. “It’s really great to do volunteer work like the beach clean-up when we’re not able to go out at sea. Through that program we’re able to do that and help.”

The filmmakers will all be wearing GoPro cameras and conducting interviews with the people throughout the trip to get as much footage during the 2-to-4 week period as possible.

“Something that’s really common with documentaries is that you don’t really find the story until you’re editing the film, because there’s so many forms that it can take,” McKibben said. “There’s definitely a story in the sharks themselves, but there’s also a story in our journey there and the people there that are doing these projects.”

The hope is to get “Rock Bottom” on the festival circuit, as well as to have a screening party in Pittsburgh.

“For the premiere, we want to try and get some local theater to screen it; we have the money set aside to have a big screening party,” Durham said. “It’s going to start with Point Park. It’s going to start right here, and then it’s going to go a little further after that.”

The campaign is at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/496020190/rock-bottom-the-truth-behind-shark-finning, with a $5 pledge level for college students.

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