Speechless: The Polar Realm is a feature film created by New Zealand nature photographer and film-maker Richard Sidey, which was shot over a decade and explores the polar regions across the planet. It’s a non-verbal film and it will have its world-premiere screening during this year’s Documentary Edge Festival, which opens in Auckland on May 20 and Wellington on June 3. We talked to Sidey about the film and his passion for the earth’s polar regions.
D-Photo: What sparked your interest in the polar realms and saw you documenting its landscapes and wildlife over the past 10 years?
Richard Sidey: It began about twelve years ago while on holiday from Massey University, where I was finishing a Visual Communication Design course, when life presented one of those rare career-changing moments. I siezed an unexpected opportunity to work aboard an Antarctica-bound Russian icebreaker for three months as a wine steward. While knowing little about wine, I was passionate about nature, and my first glimpses of the white continent reached deep into my soul, and so began my affinity with the polar regions. A couple of years later I returned to Antarctica as an expedition photographer, a position now relatively common on many tourism vessels. The job generally involves guiding, driving zodiacs, photographing, running workshops and lecturing on nature photography. Before long, further opportunities arose, which introduced other remote regions of the globe, and and I spent much of the next ten years exploring, learning, and documenting the higher latitudes. Anyone who has travelled to these regions will understand when I say that it gets in your blood. They are majestic realms, full of intrigue, mystery, and great beauty.
What has it been like to travel and capture over that period time?
Like living a hundred lives, an enormous privilege, and seeing the best parts of the planet in the process. Tenzing Norgay once said, “To travel, to experience, and learn: that is to live” and I couldn’t agree more when applied to anyone with an adventurous spirit. It’s no walk in the park; a career at sea means long periods of travelling alone, close quarters, ship politics, no personal space, 20-hour days, no weekends, prolonged loneliness, and often monstrous seas, but the rewards are worth it. Having this film now completed from all these years of work, travel, and collecting footage is enormously satisfying.
Were you working closely with Miriama Young to create the score?
Miriama Young and I had collaborated once previously on a music video in Iceland, several years ago. The experience was such an easy, organic process that I had no doubt working together on Speechless would be the same.
Initially I created the core structure of the film without music, something I find extremely challenging as music and its tone help greatly in pacing, scene selection, colour, and moods. I felt if the film’s narrative could work visually, then the addition of music would take it even further. When the core structure was complete, the film was divided into themes, and sent over the internet to Miriama, based in Sydney. Miriama worked on her initial score, then sent it back to Wanaka where I’d make a few adjustments to fit the pacing and themes before sending it back for further adjustments, and so on. This process carried on over a year before we eventually sat down together in her Sydney studio to make the final adjustments. Miriama had commissioned two gifted musicians in Oregon: violinist Mirabai Peart and acoustic guitarist Ryan Francesconi, to perform her composition. The moment when I saw my decade of imagery put to this heartfelt music I was moved to tears, it was a special moment that I’ll never forget.
Can you describe the importance to you to make this a non-verbal film?
The orginal idea for Speechless spawned from the difficulty I had in sharing my experiences in these remote, unique regions with friends and family back home. So I decided to present raw video in a series of short three-minute films, roughly edited and stripped back of music or narration, to help aid a personal experience for the viewer. With the absence of a spoken narrative, no one is telling the viewer what to think, and the viewer is left to create their own personal journey. These short films were effective enough to conjur up the idea of The Polar Realm, a feature-length visual mediation of the polar regions. However in a production of this length, I felt the addition of music was an absolute necessity to accompany the visual narrative, and Miriama has truly done a wonderful job with her composition.
What messages are you hoping people take away from seeing this film?
Simply how wonderful our planet is, in the areas we haven’t wrecked, yet understanding the fragility of these regions. It’s equally part celebration of nature and environmental message. But like I mentioned, it’s the individual experience that drove this project, and I believe everyone will get something different out of it.
From the filming locations, were there any in particular that struck you as exceptionally beautiful or above and beyond the other places you had traveled?
Each wilderness has its own beauty and mystic, and all were a pleasure to photograph. The scenes that meant the most to me however, were the ones closest to home. It was while filming in the New Zealand subantarctic islands where I felt a real connection to the land. There is a scene with two yellow-eyed penguins meeting in an ancient Rata forest in the Auckland Islands to which I emotionally connect. It’s a simple moment, but one of exceptional beauty. These islands are wild, rugged, inhospitable, surrounded by some of the largest seas I’ve experienced — but in this dense forest was true sanctuary, calm and quiet, with only the chatter of bellbirds rising above the faint impressions of a penguin’s footsteps.
What does it mean to you to have your film played in film festivals?
It’s always a pleasure to have my work shown on the big screen and in front of a captive audience, with a great diversity of other work alongside. Film festivals are fun to be part of, as documentary film-making, and in particular nature photography, requires large amounts of alone time. In festivals, film-makers get a chance to unite together, and socialize while sharing our work and experiences, before we all go back to our next projects.
Film-maker Richard Sidey
Where else is it being screened? What are the future goals for Speechless?
So far Speechless has been accepted into a few film festivals outside, including the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York. But it’s early days still and I hope it will gain traction, allowing as many people as possible to experience it on the big screen around the world. It may also help in finding a distributor, but if not, with the speed of the internet now, opportunities are endless in connecting with a global audience. It would be nice to think that Speechless will open some doors to further projects and collaborations.
Of course, the primary goal of Speechless was always to share these wonderful, fragile wildernesses, to let each viewer have an individual experience while watching the film, and encourage greater love and respect for our planet. The more hearts that can be touched, the more successful the film.
Speechless: The Polar Realm is being screened in Auckland on Thursday, May 21, Saturday, May 23, and Monday, May 25. It will be screened in Wellington on Friday, June 5, Monday, June 8, and Saturday, June 13. To find out more and to book tickets to a screening, visit documentaryedge.org.nz.