Welcome back to Meet MNFF, a series of biweekly interviews with Festival alumni. Today, we talk to Ryan Patrick Killackey, whose film Yasuni Man won the Gaia Prize for Environmental Filmmaking at MNFF5 in 2018. Yasuni Man is a documentary feature about the Yasuni Biosphere of Amazonian Ecuador, the world’s most biodiverse forest, and the Waorani, an indigenous Amazonian tribe plagued by deception, exploitation and murder.
MNFF’s Sophie Hochman caught up with Killackey to chat about taking Yasuni Man to MNFF, his upcoming documentary, and his adventures as a trained wildlife biologist turned filmmaker.
You screened Yasuni Man at MNFF in 2018. What was your experience like taking Yasuni Man on the festival circuit?
My film did quite well on the festival circuit. I think it did about 35 film festivals, and it screened in something like 13 or 14 countries. It was really nice that it got a very wide festival run, and I think the festivals that it got into were all really wonderful, very diverse film festivals. Yasuni Man is part human rights, part wildlife conservation, but it’s not really easy to peg it into such a narrow hole, I think that’s why I did so well. At MNFF, I know that we sold out our screening, with twice as many people who wanted to get into the show as they actually had seats for. We were at a small theater at Middlebury, but it was really well received there. Being a first time filmmaker like that, getting to travel the country and see your film get into so many festivals, it was just a true honor.
Would you talk a bit about the audience reception to the film?
My film is quite a heavy film. There’s destruction of the Amazon forest, the dismantling of indigenous culture. So there’s some pretty heavy topics, but when you’re in the process of building a story like this, you just don’t want it to be all dread and doom. There were little things that I threw in there to make people laugh and display other emotions than just sadness. When I would be at the screenings, I would actually pay attention to the audience, and when I had a very intentional reaction that I was trying to elicit from the audience, I would pay attention to them to see if they were actually reacting the way that I wanted them to. So if it’s something funny, you want them to laugh about it, if it’s something really sad, you want them to react. You could really sense that emotion was there in the air of the theater. With Yasuni Man, at the end of the film, people would come up to me and say, “God, it was really amazing, there were so many funny parts but it was also very sad.” Those were probably the most rewarding moments, because you know that you touched somebody.
The relationship between you and Otobo [the Waorani man who guides Killackey throughout the film] is an anchor of the film. How did the two of you connect in the first place, and what was the process of deciding to make a film documenting this community?
I used to be a guide in the Amazon in 2005 and 2006, so that’s how I learned about this whole story going on. I went into Yasuni for the first time in 2006, and I stayed with a couple of Waorani communities that lived off of the oil road. We were doing an amphibian biodiversity study with a couple people from Catholic University in Quito. So I went in and in these communities who live off the oil road, they are heavily influenced by the outsiders, but they’re also heavily influenced by the very disruptive oil industry. And with that oil, you see those communities changing much more than the more isolated families that live deeper in the forest. You really can’t go into Yasuni without the Waorani.
Fast forward about three years later, the former director of the ecotourism lodge that I was working at in 2005 and 2006 was approached by Otobo in the street, in the city of Coca, which is the frontier town to gaining access to the Ecuadorian Amazon. Otobo approached my friend Tom, and he said, “I heard that you help indigenous people establish ecotourism projects in their communities.” And Tom told him, “Yeah, let me come in and visit you.” Tom went in and visited him to see if there was any way that he could help, and he was blown away by the whole experience. Depending on the level of the water, it takes about two to two and a half days to get into their home by floating down a river. So, one time he went in and he told Otobo that he had a filmmaker friend who might be interested in coming out to see if he could help tell the story of Yasuni, and the Waorani people, and the conflict that is taking place there. That was me. I went out and visited. I’d spent 14 months in the Amazon up until that point, and sometimes you feel like if you’ve been to one part of the Amazon, you’ve seen it all. This was just on the other side of the river, but it was completely different. It blew my mind. It was December 2009 at that point. In early 2010 we agreed to make the film together and started a Kickstarter campaign.
Importantly, you were a trained wildlife biologist before you turned to filmmaking.
I got a degree in terrestrial wildlife biology from the University of Montana. After I graduated, I did all kinds of research projects. I worked with wolverines, bobcats and fisher pine marten. I was a wilderness ranger at a brown bear observatory in Alaska, but really my passion was with reptiles and amphibians, so I helped run the state of Montana’s lentic breeding and amphibian monitoring initiative. So I had a lot of training in wildlife biology. I got to a point where I was spending about nine months of the year in a tent. I always had a passion for animals and wildlife in the outdoors, and I had kind of seen it all in Montana, and I was like, ‘well I want to go and learn more about other places, so why not do a 180 and go to the flat riverine tropics of South America’. While I was doing my amphibian work, I brought along a camera and made a short film on the reptiles and amphibians in Montana, because I didn’t know if being a wildlife biologist like this could be a long term career, and I’ve been doing photography since I was 18 or 19 years old. That eventually turned into film, and then I really fell in love with film because you can say so much with your script and your imagery, and I think you have this great opportunity to make a substantial impact. So, it was eventually in 2009 that I dove in headfirst into trying to make my first feature doc, and that was Yasuni Man.
What have you been up to since MNFF in 2018? What have you been working on?
I’m working on my next film, called A Light in the Darkness. I actually started developing it in 2016, when I went on my first reconnaissance mission just to see if I really wanted to do the film. In 2017, and then in 2018, until now, I think I’ve done 15 shoots in Peru, Slovenia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, California, and I’m hoping to go to China, Mexico, Louisiana, and Spain. So I only have four more shoots to finish it! I’m trying to actually have it done this November. It’s a climate change story about the human impact on ecosystems that are in the dark. The idea is that these ecosystems in the dark, the deep sea, subterranean aquifers and cave systems, are kind of the last, or probably the most poorly understood, most inaccessible parts of our planet – yet industry is rapidly trying to gain access to those resources. So I’ve been working with a group of cave biologists, deep sea scientists, and marine and aquatic experts to tell the story about the human impact on ecosystems in the dark. I met a biologist who is an excellent photographer and his focus is animals that live in darkness, and so the film follows the scientist as he travels around the world to photograph these animals and find new species. It’s a pretty large project and I’m not sure if it’s a feature documentary yet. I might make it more friendly for television, so I’m thinking like an hour long, so it’s ready for broadcast.
Last, do you have a favorite memory from MNFF you’d like to share?
Of all of the film festivals that I went to, Middlebury definitely was one of my favorites, because the well-known talent that was there was so approachable. Getting to network with other wonderful filmmakers, for example Bruce Greenwood, Paul Schrader, Steve James, the documentarian of Hoop Dreams. The talent that you guys attracted was really awesome, and it was great for us as filmmakers to be able to network with people like that who are so well established. The festival is not enormous, it’s a relatively small town. That allows you to network and interact with your audience more intimately. The events were just great for being able to talk to other filmmakers and learn from other filmmakers, and the town itself was just really brilliant.