WRITTEN BY: Christian Jean
This article was originally published in Produced By Magazine.
“Chess helps us solve problems. It teaches us to make a plan.” Wise words on the perks of playing chess, from coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), in producer Lydia Dean Pilcher’s new film about survival and dreams, Queen of Katwe.
Pilcher and director Mira Nair, longtime collaborators, are both firmly committed to sustainable filmmaking and were keen to raise the bar while producing Queen of Katwe. The film, based on a true story, charts the improbable rise of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) from the slums of Uganda to international stardom. On screen, the film is a kind of love letter to Uganda. But it was a love letter behind the scenes, too. To sustainability and the environment.
From on-set waste diversion (like donating used and surplus resources) to comprehensive recycling rules and strict vendor requirements, Pilcher’s team estimates they reduced over 40,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), the internationally-recognized measure of greenhouse emissions. Additionally, the production contributed to local sustainability efforts in its host nations of Uganda and South Africa.
Results like that aren’t accidental. “Making a plan,” as Oyelowo’s Katende opines about chess, is also the key for producers with ambitious green goals. And Pilcher notes planning must begin right from the start, “You’ve got to anticipate everything before it happens. It’s something that you want to put out there from the beginning, so people understand that there’s going to be an expectation.”
So from the minute she hires a line producer, Pilcher is also working on building her “Green Team,” a group that develops sustainability initiatives. The group is communal, open to anyone who wants to join and, Pilcher points out, “helps identify who your ambassadors are right away.” Throughout production, Green Team members meet to discuss what’s working, what isn’t and what they can do better. They are the bishops, knights and rooks of green filmmaking.
But the king of sustainability on set is the “eco-supervisor.” It’s a relatively new role, and one that Pilcher has come to value greatly. She explains, “We need someone who is really connecting the dots and working with the departments, who can really make sure everything is on track.” The eco-supervisor is also a kind of educator, making sure environmental information reaches everyone. Because, Pilcher adds, “ultimately what we’re talking about, on the immediate level, is the carbon footprint that we’re trying to reduce. But on the bigger picture, we’re changing behavior.”
On Queen of Katwe, Pilcher and Nair brought in eco-supervisor Emellie O’Brien. O’Brien then got to work training four environmental stewards in Uganda and South Africa, setting up carbon calculation procedures and implementing green systems for department heads to execute. Pilcher is particularly proud of the stewards, sharing, “we picked people who were on some kind of environmental career path and interested in what we were doing. Because, rather than just hiring her [O’Brien] to do the whole job and then go back to America, we actually were expanding the knowledge, expanding the craft of eco-supervision on sets and leaving people behind who had a methodology to do it.”
What a production leaves behind – its impact on a host community – is a fundamental concern in Pilcher’s philosophy of sustainable filmmaking. For example, while producing The Darjeeling Limited in India, Pilcher recalls, “We were working near a little school that had no clean drinking water. And they had a rooftop water harvesting system, but it was broken. And I realized it only took $1,200 to fix this rooftop water harvesting system, that one huge rainfall provided six months of drinking water.” For this little school in India, $1,200 was insurmountable. So the production fixed it for them.
Likewise, in Africa, the Queen of Katwe Green Team looked for opportunities to support local communities. Pilcher describes a situation in Johannesburg, South Africa, where a township of 3,000 people was being supported by just 15 portable toilets. Access to water was also a big issue. So the production started a bio-sanitation pilot project to install composting dry toilets. And they gave the township some big water towers to harvest rainwater. Pilcher adds, “we worked with the elders in the community to pick something that they were on-board with and felt good about administering.”
Pilcher’s philosophy that film productions have responsibilities to the communities in which they work is also a collaborative one. She explains, “One of the things I think is important to do is to listen. On Queen of Katwe, we were in these areas for very long periods of time. And as we built relationships with people, we organized community meetings where people could really talk about what their priorities were and what would mean the most to them.”
In Uganda, this took the form of supporting a new chess academy in a sustainable environment. One of Robert Katende’s long-term dreams, the academy will use chess as a platform to enhance abstract thinking, creativity and innovation. The Queen of Katwe Green Team, in association with a qualified local vendor and The Centre for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation at Makerere University, organized plans for the installation of 10 bio-latrine toilets that can be used both by the school and the local community. It’s known as the Queen of Katwe Legacy Project.
As for the production itself, in Uganda, over 300 pounds of leftover food was turned into 280 meals served to local residents. And nearly 60 per cent of the production’s waste was diverted. Pilcher puts that in context, “We didn’t have to compost in Uganda because everybody took all the extra food. If it didn’t go to people, it went to animals. Nothing was left, nothing was wasted, no food went to a landfill.”
In South Africa, over 90 per cent of the production’s waste was diverted, including construction from a partially-built church. The set was struck after shooting, and all its raw materials were donated to the local community. All-told, between Uganda and South Africa, the Green Team estimates over 37,000 water bottles were saved and over 4,000 pounds of resources were donated, including 1,300 meals.
Reaching these levels of achievement requires a lot of discipline, and Pilcher says leadership starts from the top. She stresses, “There’s certain departments that you absolutely have to have on board. When you hire the caterer, when you hire craft service, you absolutely have to say, ‘it’s non-negotiable that we’re not having plastic water bottles, we’re not having plastic utensils or plates. Everything has to be compostable, recyclable.’ When people want the job, they’re willing to agree. And then they have to comply.”
In the endgame, Pilcher says success in sustainable filmmaking is really all about setting good goals, because you can’t do everything. “But you set a list of achievable goals that you think you can accomplish, and that’s what you focus on. And if you achieve those goals, then that’s your success.”
And if all this risks painting Pilcher an environmental activist, she’s okay with that. “I think being an environmental activist means that wherever I have a platform, whether it’s as a producer on a set or whether it’s as a parent in my children’s schools, that I try to take a leadership position in furthering the education and the awareness of environmental issues. And really, I feel like as a producer, we’re used to looking at things systemically. And that’s an advantage I like to use in terms of giving back in the community.”
There’s that word again, “community.” It’s a keyword – perhaps the word – in Pilcher’s sustainable filmmaking philosophy. Because whether it’s raising the bar on Queen of Katwe or exploring biodiesel fuel on a future production, Pilcher’s respect for community is the driving force. “Our philosophy is that we’re part of a community. We’re part of a community wherever we are working, we’re part of a community in the bigger picture, and we’re living in an era where climate change is a reality. And we need to respond to the way we live our lives in the context of that.”
Wise words for sustainability in filmmaking, or in any enterprise. And the kind of environmental leadership our communities need now, perhaps more than ever.
Christian Jean is a director, producer and writer. He is the founder of Bon Accord Picture Company in Los Angeles.