“Xayaburi and Pöyry: What Lies Behind”

“Xayaburi and Pöyry: What Lies Behind” (41 mins. in English, August 2013).

Watch it on Youtube: http://youtu.be/vSKZTYIY-ho

The documentary film provides critical perspectives on the decision-making, scientific studies and planning of the Xayaburi dam being built in Lao PDR. It highlights the role of the Finnish company Pöyry who did the study used by Laos to justify the project.

Xayaburi is the first dam being built on the main stream of the Lower Mekong River. Since its inception, the dam has proved controversial for many social and ecological reasons but most importantly for its potential effects on the wild capture fisheries of the Mekong River that thousands of people depend upon for food, trade and livelihoods.

Pöyry was hired by Laos in May 2011 to evaluate the project’s compliance with the requirements of the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

Pöyry downplayed the project’s environmental and social impacts. Although identifying that over 40 additional studies were still needed to understand the project’s impacts, Pöyry recommended that construction continue. In November 2012, Pöyry was appointed the Lao government’s chief engineer for the project.

The film interviews a range of local people and fishers, the region’s leading scientists, civil society representatives, and the media to explore the dubious politics, bad science and conflict of interest behind engineering the Xayaburi dam.

Script, camera and direction: Rajesh Daniel
Editor: Plengvut Plengplang
Produced by: Siemenpuu Foundation

DVD cover_Xayaburi film

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My next documentary film … started production

Xayaburi Dam: What Lies Behind

June 2012

20-25 mins. (DVD) with English language narration and subtitles

Final film scheduled for release: April 2013

Synopsis

The US$3.5 billion (107 billion baht) Xayaburi Dam along the Lower Mekong, if built, would irreversibly change the ecology of the Mekong River, and threaten the fisheries and food security of millions of people in the Mekong region and beyond.

The first of a planned series of mainstream dams on the Mekong River, the dam is a joint development between the Government of Laos (GoL) and Thailand’s construction company Ch. Karnchang. Thailand’s Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) has agreed to purchase 1,220 MW of electricity at a cost of 2.159 Baht per kilowatt-hour.

The Finnish Pöyry PLC  (Publicly Listed Company) and its subsidiary Poyry Energy AG, one of the leading international consultant firms is involved as a consultant hired to do the impact assessment. Poyry has portrayed itself as a pioneer of green and sustainable economy with a slogan “Preparing the Plant”.

Although the social and ecological impacts of the dam could be huge and extending all the way to the Vietnam delta, the information and decision-making process appears less than transparent and the centralized energy-planning model is a point of controversy. Even before discussions went underway, Laos had started extensive construction work in preparation for building the dam.

For instance, the Pöyry study gave the green light for the project. But the Mekong River Commission (MRC) panel of experts declared in their Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) that the dam would disrupt the flow and likely affect fish habitats and life cycles. More than 200 species are found in this part of the river and the catch is estimated at 40,000 to 60,000 tonnes per year.

The SEA panel specifically recommended that a “10-year deferral be placed for mainstream hydropower development … to ensure that the necessary conditions to strengthen understanding of the natural systems as well as management and regulatory processes are conducted effectively”.

The film aims to:

1) give a human face for the project and its impacts so that people in different countries  could relate to it and understand its importance

2) enable people to be heard that are normally less visible and/or underrepresented in the decision making

3) examine the international global linkages (Laos-Thailand-Finland) and the role and responsibilities of international actors such as consultant companies.

The film will highlight five critical questions and issues:

1)    How transparent is the decision-making over the dam? What kinds of information are used to justify (consultants reports) and what is being missed (perspectives of fishers and others dependent on the river).

2)    Is this dam necessary for electricity; whom does the hydropower benefit? Do Thailand’s existing energy plans mostly serve the interests of the state-owned electricity utility, energy companies, and the construction industry, rather than the needs of the regions’ electricity consumers?

3)    What is the role and responsibilities of international actors/global linkages such as consultant companies in the region? For example: Pöyry is a company of significant national importance to Finland and it has portrayed itself as the pioneer of green and sustainable economy. How does this image match with its role in the Mekong dam projects (Xayaburi also Nam Ngum 2 and Yali)?

4)    How sound is the energy planning of EGAT (Thailand) and Laos? Is EGAT’s energy planning part of the problem as it heavily promotes the development of new large-scale electricity generation plants, such as fossil-fuel fired power stations and hydropower dams, increasingly locking Thailand and the region into a “centralized electricity supply model”.

5)    The impacts of the dam on the Mekong fisheries and the importance of capture fish to the people in the region.

Rajesh Daniel

March 2012

Bangkok

The Mekong: Grounds of Plenty

Documentary (DVD), 47 min., in English w. subtitles in four Mekong region languages, 2011.

For about a year from mid-2010 to early 2011, my friend Carl Middleton and I travelled across the countries of the Mekong region with a video camera. Our objective was to film the extraordinary fish biodiversity of the Mekong River and its ecosystems not only through the eyes of the fishers who depend on the fishing but also those who make their livelihoods from selling and processing as well as those who cook and eat the fish as part of their daily meals.

We filmed fishers and fish sellers near rivers, streams, canals and wetlands, and talked to them about their relationship to the river, its fish and to markets near and far. We marvelled at the incredible number of ways that the fish catch is processed: fermented, smoked or dried, salted or marinated in spices. We ate many kinds of fish preparations in homes, markets and restaurants and talked to cooks and chefs and fish sellers about their favourite recipes and fish dishes.

At the end of a year we had about 50 hours of tapes that we edited into this 47 minute movie called …

“The Mekong: Grounds of Plenty”

A film about how the plentiful fisheries of the Mekong River and its tributary ecosystems provides a web of connections across livelihoods, food and culture in the Mekong region and beyond.  

A healthy Mekong River is central to mainland Southeast Asia’s food security.

The rich fisheries and ecosystems of the Mekong River not only feed people living alongside the river but are crucial for the livelihoods of millions of people across mainland Southeast Asia.

The film shows how the fish from the Mekong River and its tributaries are caught and sold, cooked and consumed, by the people in the Mekong region.

Caught using an array of nets, baskets and traps, and cooked in many amazing ways, the wild fish catch provides protein and essential nutrients. Yet, the interconnection between the Mekong River’s well-being and the fish on a family’s plate is not so apparent in the urban centers. The film shows the Mekong River’s wild fish being caught and processed, and its passage through networks of trade as people work through the night and day to transport the catch to villages and towns, to markets, homes and restaurants (read more).

Filmed in over 30 locations across the Mekong region from Cambodia and Laos to Thailand and Vietnam.

Camera, Script and Producer: Rajesh Daniel

Executive Producer: Carl Middleton

Editor: Plengvut Plengplang

Produced by: Mekong Program on Water, Environment and Resilience (M-POWER), Unit for Social and Environmental Research (USER) and International Rivers

Available for onscreen viewing at: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/7225/The-Mekong—Grounds-of-Plenty.

The film was screened at:

Siirretyt (Displaced)” film festival organized by the Siemenpuu Foundation on 10-12 October 2011.

Lifescapes Southeast Asian Film Festival in Chiang Mai on 2-5 February 2012.

Doing documentary films in social science research

Explorations on using video for improving research and communication in resource governance by Rajesh Daniel. Paper presented at the panel session on Filmed Ecologies: Possibilities and Challenges in Environmental Communication at the 11th International Conference on Thai Studies – Visions of the Future, held in Siam City Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand on July 26-28, 2011.

Introduction

In recent years, it has become increasingly common to take cameras and videos to meetings, interviews and for fieldwork. In my research work in Thailand and the Mekong region, video was frequently used to complement a research project.

The use of video in social research has become more widespread and my own work and that of colleagues has evolved and benefited from learning about similar efforts in various fields. For example, Bateson and Mead (1942) were the pioneers in using visual image observation in the field of anthropology.[2] Later the term “visual anthropology” gained wider use after Collier and Collier (1986) [3] who wrote a practical guide for using photography as a research method.

My primary use of video has been as a research tool in interviewing people and filming where and how they live and practice their livelihoods. One of the positives of video is it clearly communicates who and what we see, who we choose to listen, and to reach our conclusions. At the same time, the interviewees also grasp not only their own but also other’s viewpoints especially when put next to each other in an edited film.

Filming interviews and watching the recorded footage of seminars, as people’s perspectives were shown side by side on film, often helps to better understand the issues and people’s views, afford new insights into local resource or governance politics, and act as a more direct format for communicating ‘ethnography’.

There are also experiments using the video filming as a “process” and not just documentary film as a “product” that is obtained after hours of filming and editing. It seemed that the process of interviewing people and watching/listening to them on film by itself often helped break through difficult research situations such as when ethnic language was a barrier. The process of filming helped improve understanding of resource conflicts and sometimes even facilitated dialogue meetings on resource management.

This paper explores some experiences with video in Thailand and the Mekong region to draw lessons and reflections on the use of video in social science research and, in particular, in resource governance. It also poses some questions and ethical concerns about video technology as the format can lend itself to abuse. With digital video, it is as easy to show genuine scenes, as it is to move content and people out of context to serve certain interests and agendas.

The paper is structured in five parts. After this section one, the introduction, section two provides a brief background and literature review of the use of video in social science especially in the fields of anthropology and sociology. Section three briefly explains the use of video and some ideas about visual research, and why I think it’s useful to incorporate video, in particular as complementary to research.

Section four illustrates some of my video experiences from Thailand and the Mekong region, with some lessons and reflections as well as questions. For example, can video/visual research improve resource governance? Can the process of filming foster empowerment and participation? Or improve efforts to raise awareness on health and ecosystem related issues?  It also looks at some of the challenges both technological and practical. The last section five is on video politics and ethical concerns related to the use of video in research that explores how video is not a neutral technology and there are significant questions of simplification, power and control when used in research.[4]

For the full paper, please contact the author.

Siemenpuu International Film Festival – “Siirretyt – Displaced”

SIEMENPUU INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL “SIIRRETYT-DISPLACED”

During 1-10 October 2011, Siemenpuu Foundation organized activities including seminars on minority and indigenous peoples’ rights, displaced people and Mekong region energy issues as well as an International Film Festival “Siirretyt-Displaced” (6-9 October) in Kino Engel (Sofiankatu 4), Helsinki, Finland. It was attended by many film makers from Asia and Europe. We also had panel discussions including a beers-round table in a pub.

My film “The Mekong – Grounds of Plenty” was screened at the festival.

About 1000 people attended the film festival and some 200 participated in the seminars and activities. More information is available at http://www.displaced.info/.

The Mekong: Grounds of Plenty

DVD, 47 min, in English w. subtitles in four Mekong region languages, 2011.

The story of how fish from the Mekong River is caught and sold, cooked and consumed, by the people in the Mekong region.

A healthy Mekong River is central to mainland Southeast Asia’s food security. The rich wild capture fisheries of the Mekong River and its ecosystems feed not only people living alongside the river but are crucial for the livelihoods of millions of people across mainland Southeast Asia.

Caught using an array of nets, baskets and traps, and cooked in many amazing ways, the wild fish catch provides protein and essential nutrients. Yet, the interconnection between the Mekong River’s well-being and the fish on a family’s plate is not so apparent in the urban centers.

The film shows the Mekong River’s wild fish being caught and processed, and its passage through networks of trade as people work through the night and day to transport the catch to villages and towns, to markets, homes and restaurants.

Filmed in over 30 locations across the Mekong region

from Cambodia and Laos to Thailand and Vietnam.

Produced by: Mekong Program on Water, Environment and Resilience (M-POWER), Unit for Social and Environmental Research (USER) and International Rivers.

For DVD copies please contact: noelrajesh@gmail.com; carl@internationalrivers.org.

Full version available online at: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/7225/The-Mekong—Grounds-of-Plenty.

Short version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeQYG0Idy-8

Exec. Producer: Carl Middleton

Script, Camera, Producer: Rajesh Daniel

The film was screened at:

1. “Siirretyt (Displaced)” film festival organized by the Siemenpuu Foundation, Helsinki, 10-12 October 2011.

2. “Lifescapes” Southeast Asian film festival, Payap University, Chiang Mai,  2-5 February 2012.

 

 

 

 

Grounds of Plenty_Flyer

The craft of film-making

“So you’ve finished a film recently?” the academic from a well-known university asked. The tone was one of amusement, as if she had found a mouse under her chair and it was dead. “So you’ve found a dead mouse under my chair?”.

I replied yes, it had taken some time but now it’s finally done after a year and a half. She asked, “So what was your role in the film?”. I said quite matter-of-factly, “I did the camera and was the director”.

“Ah, the technical stuff?” she queried, and gave a disparaging laugh.

Yes, the technical stuff. The research, then the script reworked and revised and then revised some more, the camera work across four countries and around 30 locations working from early dawn to late night in all kinds of situations. The transcripts of interviews and the translations from the four regional languages, and the final painstaking corrections of the English language subtitles. And then the long, long hours of editing, trying to turn 50 hours of footage into a 47 minute film. Yes, all very “technical”. I was upset that my creativity was not being recognised. Then I realised, why be ashamed of this word technical. Yes, film-making is indeed technical. It’s not that different from a university engineer building a bridge or a 60 storey building.

Yes, film-making is a craft, not only an art, and it takes a lot of patience and skill and time and energy. And yes, it takes a lot of knowledge about what one is doing. It seems in this multimedia digital era, where a child can (and often does) cut and paste digital footage into a film (and that’s a good thing, the ease of technology), it’s often forgotten that documentary film-making can still require so much of the film-maker.

It’s easy to dismiss a documentary filmmaker. It seems we have to be Al Gore or Mike Moore to be perceived as a good documentary maker. But in this digital day and age, even a 10 second clip on a mobile phone can become a documentary film depending on its content. And then we have an effort like ours – 47 minutes after more than a year of hard work. And I do say “ours”, because this film was due to not just long hours but an effort of collaboration by many people, those who funded us, did research for us, helped us to go to the right locations and gave advice. Sometimes it was people we had just met for the first time who allowed us into their busy lives, who simply assented to go on camera to tell us about their work and fears, to trust in us. To be disparaging of such a collaborative effort is not only inhumane but more simply to lack any imagination whatsoever.

We need to welcome all kinds of efforts at multimedia, not just from the Gore’s and Moore’s. From the simple mobile telephone-handheld 10 minute shot of a dam inside Burma (taken at great risk to the videomaker) to the 3 hour-long feature, we need to relish and revel in their efforts. If one is socially activist, why be restricted to just words at a seminar or the written article. Why not multimedia, when the power of the visual can provide such clarity to a life situation. If one wants to be engaged in the public sphere, why would one wish to denigrate the power of film, or the small efforts of the filmmaker as she or he tries to bring some small slice of reality in the visual medium into your lives.