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Heroines for the Planet: Emmy-Award Winning Filmmaker Marilyn Weiner, Creator of Journey to Planet Earth

Posted Oct 25 2011 8:20am

Marilyn

Journey to Planet Earth is one of the most important TV series you’ll watch. Each episode magnificently explores the fragile relationship between us and the world we inhabit.

And in my opinion, one of the most important, world-changing women on our planet co-created this series: Marilyn Weiner. That’s a fairly bold statement, so allow me to back up my claims.

Through Screenscope , Marilyn’s and her husband Hal’s Washington, DC-based production company, Marilyn has produced, written, and directed over 225 documentaries and four public television series (Journey To Planet Earth, Women At Work, Faces Of Man and The World Of Cooking). She’s also produced three feature films (Family Business, The Imagemaker, and K2). Together, Marilyn and Hal have won Emmy Awards for The Earth Summit Pledge, commissioned by the United Nations to open the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and Streets of Sorrow, an NBC documentary about a support group that helps people cope with the violent death of a family member.

Throughout the course of her career, Marilyn has fearlessly trekked the globe, at times risking her life, to tell stories that she felt needed to be told — in hopes of in some way bettering our world, making us more enlightened, helping us understand issues that we otherwise might never be exposed to. Marilyn is daring, witty and brilliant, and she has seen and done things many of us will never have the guts to experience. She is also humble and kind, which makes her all the more intriguing.

Marilyn is one accomplished heroine, and I’d like to share a few of her many accolades with you, as it can be easy to be distracted by the names associated with her work (Matt Damon, Lester Brown, Thomas Friedman in Journey to Planet Earth). But Marilyn is one of the two masterminds behind many of our century’s finest documentaries.

Marilyn was appointed by Mayors Anthony Williams and Marion Barry to serve as a DC Commissioner for the Arts and Humanities for six years, and she is on the Board of Directors of Filmfest DC. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Committee To Promote Washington, DC, the Washington Urban League, Women-In-Film and the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. She has also been President of the Washington Film Council, Vice-President of Women-In-Film, consultant to the National Commission on Working Women, Chairperson of the Advisory Committee to the Washington Office of Motion Picture Development, and Panelist for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Case made.

Somewhere in between traveling and filming this Fall, Marilyn so graciously accepted my offer for this interview. She shared a few mind-blowing stories from shooting around the world, how we can empower women worldwide, and she unveiled what’s up next for Journey to Planet Earth.

Lindsay: You were born and bred in New York– the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. What was your childhood like? I understand that you taught High School French for some time, but did you always dream of being a filmmaker as a young girl?

Marilyn: Grew up in East Flatbush, not Flatbush. To Brooklynites, that’s an important distinction!

No, I never dreamed of being a filmmaker but like all kids in Brooklyn, I spent every Saturday afternoon at our local movie theater (the Rugby in this case) watching two features, serials and news clips. In other words, it was an all day affair and an affordable baby-sitting option for our parents. Little did I know that my future husband was at the same theatre during all those years of Saturday afternoons.

Lindsay: You’ve shared that you attribute your successful partnership with your husband, Hal, to the fact that you two often do not see eye-to-eye. How would you say that your unique perspective of the world as a female, in a fairly male-dominated industry, has bettered the work you produce together?

Marilyn:  I never had to think in terms of a male-dominated industry; we were simply partners.  We were just able to come at projects with our own “separate but equal” points of view. Agreeing, especially at the beginning, wasn’t the goal.  Stating your point of view and then being able to back it up was the main objective, followed by gentle arm-twisting. Basically, we revel in our ability to finally negotiate difficult terrain until we are both satisfied with the result.

Lindsay: One of the many things that makes Journey to Planet Earth so brilliant in my opinion, is that you address such complex issues in our world, but you do so in a way that makes it very relatable to the viewer. It hits on one’s emotional level, but I always walk away from an episode feeling enlightened and hopeful, rather than depressed. How are you able to strike this balance so well? And what inspired you and Hal to create Journey to Planet Earth to begin with?

Marilyn: Our first inspiration came as a result of creating the opening film for the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Our assignment was to produce a five-minute non-narrated film about sustainability. First we needed to be sure we knew what that term meant and then we had three weeks to deliver, really quite impressive since we can at times be notoriously slow. After the success of “The Earth Summit Pledge” (we won an Emmy), the Secretary General suggested that the world needed a high-profile television series to deal with these issues. And so it began…..

As for striking the balance between hope and depression, that’s for viewers to decide.

Lindsay: Fair enough. Your body of work is superlative. Of the hundreds of documentaries and the four public television series you’ve written, directed and produced, as well as the three feature films you’ve produced, is there one project in particular that you’re most proud of? 

Marilyn: I’m always fondest of the latest—that’s because I have a short attention span.

Lindsay: What about your work do you find to be the most challenging? And what do you find most rewarding?

Marilyn: For me the most challenging aspect is the actual shoot. The most rewarding  is trying to make sense of all the footage and coming up with the best approach. The latter isn’t always revealed until we are well underway in our editing.
Lindsay: Screenscope is based in D.C., but you’ve spent decades now traveling the world. During the course of your travels over the years, would you share with our readers a moment you experienced great fear, as well as a moment of pure joy?

Marilyn: Let’s deal with the fear first:  In April of 2001 we were in Dhaka, Bangladesh to film a celebration called Pahela Baishakh –- the Bangla New Year. The day before the celebration, we had scouted locations and were given permission to film in a small area set aside for journalists in Suhrawardi Park near the Sheraton Hotel.  When we arrived the next morning we found the entrance to the park jammed with thousands of people.

For some inexplicable reason, I felt terribly unsafe –- and insisted that we not go inside the park. In fact, I didn’t even leave the door open for any discussion or dissent. We quickly found a new location to set up the camera on an overpass overlooking the entrance — just a hundred yards away from the location originally set aside for us.  Just seconds after we began to record the festivities, we heard and felt a loud blast.  About thirty seconds later there was a second blast.

At first, I thought it was power transformers blowing up, but Hal immediately knew they were bombs.  We later learned that a suicide bomb went off in the exact area where we had planned to be.  Nine of our journalist colleagues were killed instantly — more than thirty were badly injured.

We spent the next hour filming the wounded and body parts.  No one claimed responsibility but most thought it was the work of Taliban fundamentalists.

We watched the aftermath of a suicide bombing in stunned silence asking ourselves: how could this happen?  Is it possible that a country’s national security could be closely tied to severe environmental problems?  By the end of the day, safely back at our hotel, we realized how lucky we were to be alive, we also realized that we finally discovered our story which was coincidentally about the links between environmental degradation and national security.

You asked about moments of joy. Over the years there have been dozens but the one that stands out most was dancing with sea lions in the Galapagos.

Lindsay: Thank you for sharing that story. Speaking of the Galapagos, you and Hal were on the Galapagos Islands when a tsunami hit Japan. You were forced to evacuate to the highlands and were then told that a tsunami had destroyed your waterfront hotel. Rather than return to the States shaken up, you fearlessly carried on in Ecuador, searching for hopeful “environmental stories.” Can you describe that experience to us, and why you felt it was important to carry on despite the turmoil and grief surrounding you?

Marilyn: First of all, we were never in harm’s way in the Galapagos. We had actually finished our trip (which was spectacular) and ready to leave the islands on the morning of March 10th. Early the next morning a tsunami alert was sounded and instead of going to the airport, we were suddenly evacuated into the highlands to escape a surge of water that was expected to hit the Galapagos Islands in a few hours.  It was only later that day we were told that a tidal wave just slammed into and destroyed our waterfront hotel.  We were given no other option but to remain on high ground, hunkered down in primitive shelters along with dozens of other tourists.  Most had come to the Galapagos Islands expecting an exciting eco-adventure — not a close encounter with a deadly force of nature.  To pass the time we searched for giant land tortoises and hiked through underground lava caves carved into the landscape by ancient volcanic eruptions.

Lindsay: I attended the Clinton Global Initiative recently and listened to a discussion about the importance of engaging boys and men as allies for the sustainable empowerment of girls and women worldwide. You popped into my head during the discussion because I realized that you’ve probably seen firsthand such a change in the way men across the world view women through all of your travels. My question for you is two part: What specific changes over the decades have you witnessed for the better? What area of the world do you feel women are most devalued still?

Marilyn: No question that we must engage men and boys as allies for the empowerment of women worldwide but there is still so much work to be done in this arena. In our latest film, Plan B : Helene Gayle, the Executive Director of CARE, USA said: “Women and girls are the ones who are disproportionately impacted by poverty around the world, but also are the ones that can have the greatest impact on catalyzing change within communities.” She then mentioned that “If you educate a girl she is more likely to marry later, have fewer children and her children are more likely to get an education.  And so you really create a virtuous cycle that starts by changing the life of a girl who becomes a woman and having an impact on whole communities.”

Lindsay: “Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization” delivers a very clear message that we must confront the realities of climate change or suffer the consequences. Does it frustrate you that “climate change” is made into such a political debate? Is a goal of you and your husband’s to make those who perhaps might be on the fence on climate change wake up and see what is going on in our world with Journey to Planet Earth?

Marilyn: The rest of the world does understand the realities of climate change. We are a little slow here in the US because we have made it such a toxic political issue. I guess I am an optimist since we keep coming at this subject from different angles and from different aspects with the idea that sooner or later, we Americans will have accepted the realities and have moved on to the more critical solutions, meaning adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Lindsay: What are your thoughts about the proposed, and very controversial, Keystone XL pipeline?

Marilyn: I am no expert in this but I am not in favor of the pipeline, I think we should take the road that Germany has chosen, i.e. move away from all fossil fuels and substitute cheaper, cleaner, and safer sources of renewable energy.

Lindsay: If you could share one piece of advice with a recent graduate , what would it be?

Marilyn: Get involved. Find issues that you care about and then mobilize your friends and do something, don’t just sit around.

Lindsay: What exciting projects can we all look forward to from Screenscope?

Marilyn:  Our next Journey to Planet Earth episode is in production. Called “Extreme Realities”, the documentary will investigate a rarely understood, though often discussed critical issue of our times: the link between global warming, severe weather events, and national security issues.

Hal is also writing a feature film script with our son Andrew, who is an LA based  feature film producer/director. It’s based upon the Katrina Dolphins story. Stay tuned.

Lindsay: Thanks for this interview, Marilyn.


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