“Why seven years? Because 10 years is too late, basically,” are the opening remarks of Rosemary Edwards, the executive producer of BBC Earth’s ambitious Changing Planet documentary. To be more precise, the project will be documenting six different locations—namely the Maldives, Iceland, Kenya, Brazil, California and Cambodia—year on year for the next seven years, forcing eyes on not merely the same locations, but potentially even the same personalities, from native folk to scientists and local conservationists. And the presenters who are assigned to each location too, will be experiencing these potential changes first-hand as they return to their respective sites in an honest attempt to look at what’s changed—for better or for worse.
The format is one that is unprecedented in BBC’s Natural History Unit, and according to Edwards: “It’s even got a certain sense of immediacy, which I found appealing,” as each location’s changes would be reflected in real-time, compared to the usual documentary format that showcases the change over an extended period of time. Instead, “it’s charting change as it happens,”; a sentiment, which her colleague and the presenter who is assigned to Cambodia, Ella Al-Shamahi also readily agrees with. It adds a certain factor of the unknown future to the series; a possibility that can’t be accounted for, for each of the ecological issues the documentary hopes to address—be it reef sustainability in the Maldives, severe droughts threatening the wildlife in Kenya or the protection of river basins in Cambodia.
This begs the question: why, or why now? Perhaps it’s a question of what’s at stake here for the docu-series with its consistent return to the same locations, potentially the same characters and probably the same environmental issues. In Edwards’s eyes, 10 years would be too late. But then what of seven?
The global crisis
The six locations had been chosen to illustrate six different yet specific issues—urbanisation, deforestation, desertification, global warming, food security and coral reef sustainability—but they were never meant to be exclusive representations of these environmental concerns. These issues are hardly isolated from one another, and the approach of Changing Planet is one that aims to showcase how they all link up to one another in one way or another; to some, certain issues may seem further away, but they may actually be a direct cause of a phenomenon our current locales are currently experiencing.
“If you look at the Arctic which is miles away from Southeast Asia (SEA)—we’re looking at melting ice caps and the problems they have with global melt. That is predicted to affect sea levels in SEA more than other countries that are actually nearer to the Arctic,”comments Edwards. And if we’re looking at the issues closer to home, we don’t have to look very far. The Tonle Sap Lake welcomes schools of fish year on year during the monsoon season, making it one of the largest annual migrations on Earth. But in the past 15 years of consistent industrialisation and urbanisation, the number of hydroelectric dams upstream have severely affected the number of fish who make it downstream—to where the fishing communities are. The result? A near complete loss of food security; where villagers like Mr Leur and their families, whom Al-Shamahi visits and speaks to, have started to eat field rats and snakes as an alternative source of protein instead.
This nearly mirrors the crisis of food security that often plagues the borders of our country; think the most recent chicken export ban from Malaysia. As over 90% of our food supply depends on imports—most especially on our surrounding neighbours—our means of access to proper food and nutrition is even more vulnerable and susceptible to these worldwide shifts in global supply chains.
And if we can see it from the perspective of the little island we call home, then the other question that the BBC poses and gives the lens to, is that of the rest of the world. The issues addressed really exist on a global scale, they just manifest onto the surface in different moving parts and forms; hence Changing Planet eventually “hopes to show that everything is interlinked, almost like a jigsaw puzzle.”
The nuanced power of truth
The very basis of a documentary is the realistic portrayal that it’s meant to offer—via the most objective point of view a camera can have. For Changing Planet, it hopes to be the most truthful mode of narration: inspiring people through real stories, whether it be a good or bad outcome. “We will document the truth as it happens. From a BBC perspective, it’s not our job to predict what will happen. If it’s a negative change, we will document that and if it’s a positive change, we’ll document it too,” Edwards offers regarding the seven-year format of the series.
But perhaps the documentary’s necessitated honesty and self-awareness of its year-on-year format is where its power lies. For both the crew and audience, the docu-series reminds all that what we’re seeing on the screen isn’t a one-time affair. Both the location and the characters presented before the camera are possibly making their return in the years to come—and this is exactly how change would be visibly charted. We’re watching the potential change happen to not just the locations marked by their specific issues, but also the actual changes that the returning characters will experience.
In the case of the Tonle Sap Lake, Mr Leur might become a character the audiences can follow and get invested in; Al-Shamahi hopes that “over the years, you want to know what happens to them, you’re rooting for Mr Leur and you hope he’s okay. Because unlike a lot of the other shows, we’re not filming and leaving, we’re filming and coming back next year, or in two years even.” It’s the knowledge that these stories are real and happening to someone across the globe too, that makes it all the more eye-opening—and lends it a strangely delicate manner, for whilst the future of Mr Leur and his family might be unknown, their future consequences just might have the potential to be turned around for the better.
The hope to inspire
Via Mr Leur’s narrative, we might begin to understand why the documentary aspires towards its seven-year ambition. As a starting point, these abstract stories gleaned from the six different locations start to form a singular narrative surrounding the dire and evolving state of our planet. Changing Planet is essentially saying that a lot can happen in the next few years; “there’s a potential that pangolins would go extinct, or the potential that our coral reefs might have completely bleached and died,” remarks Edwards. It sounds bleak, but more than that, it’s realistic about what the future might look like for our planet.
But if all hope had already been lost, there wouldn’t be a point to the project. What it is trying to do, albeit in a seemingly ironic manner, is instil a sense of hope. A hope that things can still change; we can still save some of our precious ecosystems—be it the melting glaciers of the Arctic, the disappearing coral reefs of the Maldives or the fishing communities in Cambodia. Through watching the programme, we’re not only watching the pertinent issues at play. We’re also watching the release centre animals that have been given a second chance to survive in our urbanised world. We’re hearing the honest thoughts of the villagers who have already started to believe they might be better off abandoning their homes on the lake for the more assured future of their children. And we’re witnessing the scientists, conservationists and coalitions who are doing the good work—spearheading movements of change in their respective locales. “The clock is ticking but we’re going to show you over the seven years, how things can change, with the huge caveat that we all need to make that change,” says Edwards of the approach to the series.
It’s a part of the reason presenter Ella Al-Shamahi wanted to take on the role in Cambodia; to her, “it would be a real privilege and responsibility at the same time,” to be there seeing what was really happening on the ground, learning from the scientists who are there, of what might really happen to the Mekong River in five years time, and tracking that story to truly do it justice. To be part of that change, and to inspire others to be a part of the change is a message that both Al-Shamahi and Changing Planet hopes to leave its audiences with. So why seven years? Perhaps it isn’t just the bleak outlook that 10 years might be too late, but the possibly inspiring hope that there is yet still a sliver of time left—to actually save our reefs from completely vanishing, the fishing villages that are home to folks like Mr Leur’s family, the pangolins and the elephants of our wildlife, and ultimately, ourselves.
You can watch Changing Planet on StarHub channel 407, Singtel channel 203 and on BBC Player here.