Wakefield Doc Fest: Julia Barnes is doing battle on behalf of the Sea of Life

Julia Barnes is seen here swimming with a hammerhead shark.

The young Canadian filmmaker Julia Barnes has produced a call for action to help save the world’s oceans. Her film Sea of Life follows her on a journey around the world to explore the threats facing the oceans and it also speaks with the people who are working to protect the seas. The film will be screened at the Wakefield Doc Fest this weekend. Before then, the director answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about yourself? 

A. I’m 22,. I’m from Burlington, Ontario. I’ve been in love with nature for as long as I can remember. I never intended to become a filmmaker. When I was in high school I was debating going into art or biology, but my life changed completely when I watched (the film) Revolution (by Rob Stewart). I became an activist and a filmmaker as a matter of necessity to fight for the world I love.

Q. Why do you think the film Revolution affected you so deeply.

A. Revolution opened my eyes to so many issues I had been previously unaware of. It made me realize the world I love is in serious jeopardy. The predictions are that by 2048 there will be no coral reefs, no rainforests, no fish in the ocean, and nine billion humans fighting over what remains. If we want to see a different future, it’s clear we’ll have to fight for it.

Rob, the director of Revolution, inspired me because he proved that one person can change the world. After his first film Sharkwater came out, shark conservation groups started popping up all around the world and people started fighting for sharks. Rob made a huge difference with that film and showed what’s possible when you’re passionate about something and you take action.

Julia Barnes’ film Sea of Life will be screened this weekend.

Q. Do you consider yourself to be a filmmaker today?

A. I think I’m more of an activist who uses film as a tool.

Q. What do you want your film to accomplish?

A. I want people to better understand the ocean and what’s happening to it, because it’s so easy for the ocean to be out of sight and out of mind. Most people don’t realize how absolutely connected we are to the ocean, how important the ocean is to our survival, and how much trouble it’s in. I want people to come away with that knowledge and then go fight for the ocean. There’s so much that needs to be done. The ocean needs heroes and everyone has the opportunity to be one, to rise to this challenge.

Q. How did you do this? Where did you go? What kind of filming did you do?

A. I was 16 when I started. I knew nothing about filmmaking and I had never been to the ocean before. The plan I had was that I would go to the Florida Keys for a week to film coral reefs and interview some scientists. Then I would come back and spend the next few weeks editing the footage. I thought I could finish a movie in less than a month.

I got certified as a diver and did my first dives in Key Largo, and it was amazing – there were fish of all sorts, sharks, sea turtles, sting rays, coral reefs. But I quickly realized it would take a lot more filming and a lot more interviews to explore all of the concepts and issues I wanted to cover in the film.

The movie ended up taking three years and taking me to seven countries. I interviewed more than 50 experts and filmed in remote locations underwater. I also followed the events and massive protests leading up to COP21 in Paris. A big part of the movie is looking at what’s being done to address the challenges facing the ocean, and why it isn’t working.

Q. You wrote and directed this film but I also see Rob Stewart’s name on the project. What was his role?

A. Rob was a huge part of the movie. He inspired it, he’s in it, and he was a mentor to me throughout the process of making it. He really shaped the film in a lot of ways, connecting me with the right people to work with and suggesting places for me to go and film – like Cabo Pulmo. That whole scene about the marine reserve where life bounced back – that’s there because of Rob.

Q. There are so many threats to the oceans and thereby to the planet; can you talk about the most serious ones?

A. I would say the most serious problem is human supremacy. The perceived entitlement to exploitation and the idea that the whole world exists for human use. We have an economic system that expects infinite growth on a finite planet. A culture that values money above life – converting the living world to dead commodities and then converting those to garbage. There’s a fundamental problem with the way this culture perceives and interacts with the natural world. It’s suicidal and it leads to all the destruction we’re seeing, whether it’s industrial fishing or ocean acidification, oceanic dead zones or deforestation. We cannot ignore the laws of nature and expect to survive, but that’s what civilization has been doing for a long time and the results are devastating. 

Q. Louie Psihoyos, director of The Cove, is a strong voice in the film? Why did you decide to feature him? 

A. I connected with Louie while he was working on Racing Extinction because I wanted to interview him about the sixth mass extinction that’s going on right now. Louie is a great communicator and he gave a wonderful interview. He definitely influenced me. He shared facts I hadn’t known and made me realize how urgent the biodiversity crisis is.

Q. The threats to the oceans are severe. Do you have hope that they can recover if we act? 

A. I’m certain the oceans will recover if we allow them to do so. If we stopped polluting them with CO2, with runoff from agriculture, and plastic, if we stopped industrial fishing, shipping, and stopped sonic blasting, then absolutely they would recover. Within a matter of decades the oceans would be teeming with life again.

I talked with Paul Watson recently and he said we need to have a moratorium on commercial fishing for 50 years. I completely agree with that. Without the moratorium on whaling many species of whales would have gone extinct, and the situation is the same with fish right now. So many fish populations are on the brink of collapse, or are collapsing. Industrial fishing won’t be viable much longer, and the question is, will it stop because we make decisions that are going to protect the ocean, or will it stop because the fishing continues to the point where it wipes everything out? Either way it’s going to end. You can’t take fish out of the ocean at a rate faster than they can reproduce, but that’s what industrial fishing has been doing, among other things (industrial fishing also destroys habitat, kills non-target species as by-catch, and is the leading cause of plastic pollution in the ocean because of discarded fishing gear).

I don’t see any evidence that governments will make the right decisions when it comes to the oceans. Their main role has been to facilitate economic growth at the expense of the natural world. People have been begging governments to take action on things like climate change for many decades and their response has been utterly insufficient.

It’s up to those of us who care deeply about the natural world to force the change we want to see, using whatever means necessary. We need to ensure these destructive activities are stopped, not just hope for it to happen.

If we stopped the destruction of the ocean, if we let the ocean recover, fish and whales and plankton and corals could come back, along with all the benefits they bring to the global biosphere. For example, fish sequester carbon and plankton produce two thirds of the earth’s oxygen.

Q. The film has been well received. Are you planning another project now? What is it?

A. I’m working on a new movie that I’m really excited about. It’s going to expose the biggest scandal in the environmental movement, and what needs to be done to save life on earth.

Sea of Life will be screened Feb. 23 and 24 at the Wakefield Doc Fest. For more information: wakefielddocfest.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.