As redwood trees are logged, the salmon population becomes endangered. As the practice of shark finning increases, the health of coral reefs declines. Holiday Phelan-Johnson ’88, a documentary filmmaker and producer of environmental films, has been ahead of the curve on these issues. The Last Stand: Ancient Redwoods and the Bottom Line is a compelling film about the tragic ramifications of the battle between environmentalists and the timber industry over the fate of ancient coastal redwoods in Northern California. Sharks: Stewards of the Reef examines escalating threats to the Pacific reef shark through the practice of finning for shark fin soup, and how the plummeting population affects the habitat destruction of coral reef ecosystems. Her company, Trillium Films, named after a wildflower that grows in the redwood forest, examines the forces shaping the future of the Earth’s last wild places and presents solutions to sustainably protect our natural resources.
We sat down with Holiday to talk about her work and her life since Athenian.
Q. When you think back to your Athenian experience, what stands out for you or what influenced your direction?
A. Certainly I was influenced by the Athenian Wilderness Experience. I thought it was great that part of the required education was to have an understanding of the natural world. I went on the Sierra trip and was introduced to rock climbing, which I loved.
The other piece that influenced me was the mandatory community service, which was my first experience with activism. When I was at Athenian, every Wednesday afternoon was spent with whatever group you wanted to join. It didn’t have to be environmental, but it did have to be an advocacy nonprofit in which you actively participated. I joined the Greenpeace group and I remember going to Berkeley to have people sign petitions—it was interesting being out there doing activism.
Q. What led you into filmmaking?
A. I started getting into it when the whole dot.com thing was happening. Technology was changing and it was at the point where you could own your own equipment and edit your own stuff. I saw the ability of film to fill the void in activism from an educational point of view, so I started my own film company.
Part of what I want the audience to learn in my films is that it doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. I don’t want to be fatalistic, but I really want people to become jazzed about the beauty of nature, get informed about the issues, and prompt them to get involved.
Q. Tell us about your experiences while making The Last Stand.
A. There was a huge movement to save the Headwaters forest up in Humboldt County in Northern California, so we spearheaded that whole struggle of saving that forest as the “character.” I actually climbed up the tree to interview Julia Butterly, the activist who lived in a redwood tree for two years so that it wouldn’t be logged. My Athenian experience with rock climbing really paid off, because I knew I could do it. I had never climbed as high as an old growth redwood, but it was an amazing experience—getting to experience the canopy, seeing the lichen and the ecosystem.
Making the film was intense because there was war going on between the loggers and the conservationists. It was a rollercoaster experience, as one day we would be interviewing Julia Butterfly, this visionary, courageous person who is very eloquent; and then the next day, entering the lion’s den to interview the PR person for the Pacific Lumber company.
Q. Tell us about making Sharks.
A. After I made The Last Stand, my husband and I and we were ready to take a bit of a break. We went out sailing, always with the idea that we would be collecting material for the next documentary. While we were anchored at this little atoll, I went swimming off the boat and saw a shark and was terrified. But I became educated about their feeding habits (most are not man-eaters) and learned to relax. They are just exquisite, these animals. It became clear that shark conservation was going to become the subject for our next film.
While diving, I began to observe that where there were not as many sharks, the coral seemed to suffer. I began to wonder if there was a correlation between the health of the coral and the abundance of sharks. It turns out there is, as the food chain is affected when there is a decrease in the shark population. Overfishing and the practice of finning for shark fin soup has a direct repercussion not only on the shark population, but on the health of coral reefs as well. This news is only two years old and we were the first ones getting that information out there to the public.
Q. Any last thoughts?
For me, Athenian was a really positive experience that influenced my approach as to what I could do in the world. I believe that we all should give back to our community in whatever ways we can. Students should know that they can have an impact on the world, whether it’s recycling or getting involved in advocacy work.
Check out Holiday’s website at www.trilliumfilms.net to learn more about her film projects. To obtain copies of her film, visit www.greenplanetfilms.org.