Documentarian James Robinson ’20: Filming the Frontlines of Climate Change

James Robinson
James Robinson

While at Duke, James Robinson majored in Environmental Science & Policy and received a Documentary Studies Certificate. His short documentary, “Louisiana’s Missing Coast”, was named a 2020 Student Academy Awards Finalist by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As a participant in the 2019-2020 StudioDuke program, Robinson worked with a mentor, CDS alum and filmmaker Ryan White ’04, to take his film and his interest in filmmaking to the next level. The film also received funding and mentoring support from Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. And Robinson’s multimedia exploration of land loss in Louisiana earned him a 2020 Koonz Prize from the Duke Human Rights Center.

Congrats on being named a finalist for the 2020 Student Academy Awards! Tell me how you came to tell this story and why it moved you.

Thank you! Much of my documentary work focusses on sharing stories from the frontlines of climate change, with the hopes of humanizing the science and statistics. I started this work before coming to Duke, during a gap year that I spent travelling down the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, interviewing fisherman and farmers about the combined impacts of climate change-induced drought and hydropower dams. Then, the summer after my sophomore year, I received funding from the Center for Documentary Studies to document climate change within the United States. I chose to focus on Louisiana, as it is the first of many states working to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise. I was accompanied there by Sierra Cleveland T’19, another Documentary Studies student, who helped me film.

In addition to working with faculty at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), you were also a participant in the StudioDuke program, where you were mentored by CDS alum Ryan White. How did StudioDuke and Ryan White help you take this project to the next level? Would you recommend these resources to other Duke filmmakers?

StudioDuke and Ryan White have been hugely important to me, not only while working on this film, but also as I navigated my own career path.  Ryan gave valuable feedback on the film and pushed me to make it more succinct. He was also instrumental in helped me to land an internship at Markay Media in Durham, where I gained valuable experience working on the PrimeTime PBS show Somewhere South. And lately Ryan has been helping me navigate the job search in these strange times.

As for other Duke filmmakers, if you’re on the fence about StudioDuke, just go for it! Documentarians, especially, have to fight for their own existence after college. StudioDuke connects you with people who have succeeded in this endeavor.

Application Form

Fisherman looking into the distance
Stills from “Louisiana’s Missing Coast” courtesy of James Robinson.

How did you go about building trust with the community?

Building trust is a core endeavor as a filmmaker, especially as an outsider. When working in historically marginalized and misrepresented communities, mistakes can be incredibly harmful, as they can perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce the voicelessness of a community. I was hyperaware of this from the start of the project.

On my first day in Louisiana, I was allowed to sit in on a community meeting for the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and then interview Chief Shirell Dardar. Listening to them discuss the issues they were facing—from education, to relocation, to the process of receiving federal recognition—crystalized in my mind the historical injustice of the Indian Removal Act and the ways it continues to haunt these communities.

I had come to Louisiana to document an environmental issue, but the truth is, this story didn’t begin with the construction of the levees in the 1930s. It didn’t begin with the influx of oil companies in the 1960s or with the impacts of rising seas and increasingly powerful hurricanes in the 2000s. This story really began in the 1830s, when Native communities fled to the region to escape persecution from the federal government. It was very important to me to start this story—and the film—with this original injustice.

I believe that deep listening should always be the first step in gaining trust. But much of our connection to this community came from the fact that they were so openly generous with us, and continued to connect us with members of their community. We started calling it “the people train.” One meeting would lead to another—we jumped from community meeting, to eating shrimp on the porch, to visiting the renowned Sno-Ball parlor, to late night shrimping in the bayou in the middle of a thunderstorm. I was profoundly moved by the ways that so many families went out of their way to welcome us into their homes, communities, and lives. The Gregoire family, especially, was incredibly generous.

Where did the idea of using motion graphics to illustrate the scale and urgency of the issue come from and how did that process evolve?

As soon as I started editing the footage, I realized that I was going to have to use motion graphics. What’s happening in Louisiana is really complicated. Although the film focusses on the impacts of climate change, if I just showed a photograph of Louisiana’s coast and said, “This is climate change,” I would be doing my audience a disservice. Climate change almost never appears alone, and what’s happened along Louisiana’s coast is a combination of three factors—sedimentation from levees, erosion from oil canals, and sea level rise from climate change.

As a filmmaker (and an Environmental Science & Policy major), I felt it was my duty to clarify not only how these three environmental issues layer on top of each other, but also how they have intersected with the historical injustice created by the Indian Removal Act. Motion graphics was the only way to convey all this visually. It was essential to the story and pushed me to expand my skillset as a filmmaker and editor.

Arial view of Louisiana coast

How did the community respond to the finished piece?

I shared several versions of the film with community for feedback, especially as it pertained to the details of their tribal history. They were happy with the piece and grateful that I was willing to dig deep while researching it.

What are some of the key lessons or takeaways from the experience?

I grew so much as a filmmaker and human being through the act of making this film. There were more take-aways than I can possibly list here, but here’s seven: 1) give yourself more than four days to film something like this. 2) Being willing to discard plans and trust your gut. 3) If it’s possible, try to hop on the people train—see if one meeting can lead to a next. People have networks and more often than not they are happy to share those connections with you. 4) Use a lapel mic whenever possible. 5) Shorter & tighter is almost always better. The film used to be 24 minutes, but it’s much stronger as a ten minute piece. 6) Apply for opportunities, even if you don’t think you’re going to get them (I almost didn’t submit this to the Academy!) 7) It is an incredible privilege to be able to ride the tracks of someone else life. As a documentarian, this privilege comes with a responsibility: to be present, to listen deeply, to frame ethically, and most importantly, to do no harm to those in front of the lens.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Please vote!

James Robinson’s Website