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'State of Planet's Oceans' Explores Ecosystems in Dire Straights
By Rosanne Skirble, Washington, D.C., 19 March 2009

A new documentary film narrated by actor Matt Damon that explores the health of the world's complex ocean ecosystems debuted on public television in the United States this week. It portrays stories of hope and courage in the face of dire threats to human and aquatic life.

The State of the Planet's Oceans opens in Aveiro, Portugal, a coastal town where 400 years ago fishing fleets first set out across the Atlantic. These fertile waters have fed generations. At their peak at the end of the 20th century, the fishing grounds yielded 1.4 billion kilos of Atlantic cod each year.

Eventually, fishermen were catching fish faster than the fish could reproduce. The cod industry's collapse came as no surprise to Carl Safina with the Blue Ocean Institute, who is a commentator in the film.

"It's human nature to kind of overdo a good thing, and fisheries have done that repeatedly. The history of fisheries is pretty much boom and bust. You find one thing and you drive it down, deplete it and find some new thing, drive it down and deplete."

Fishing industry collapse decimates communities

But filmmakers Hal and Marilyn Weiner say the fishing industry collapse is more than an economic disaster. It also destroys the fabric of a community like Aveiro. The couple went with a cod fisherman who dragged his nets "for hours and hours."

"And they pulled up their nets, and there was nothing. There was nothing," says Hal Weiner.

What interested the filmmakers, besides the fact that a species had been decimated, is the culture.

"It's not only the loss of culture, but it is also a connection to a fishing way of life that is being lost, the basis of existence," adds Marilyn Weiner.

One sign of hope is a chain of islands off the coast of Florida called the Dry Tortugas. As the largest reef barrier in North America, its grasses and corals nurture 250 species of fish.

Marilyn Weiner says the area's designation as an ecological reserve will help to protect it from human encroachment and overfishing.

"It is a start in regenerating, but what they don't realize is that you can't leave a reserve. You have to patrol a reserve, and fishermen go after fish."

The Weiners follow the story as a high-speed boat of law enforcement officers pulls alongside a potential violator of the restricted fishing codes. Over a loudspeaker, they notify the vessel that they are coming on board to conduct a marine fisheries inspection.

Melting Greenland ice sheet threatens world's coastal regions

The cinematic ocean journey continues to the great arctic island of Greenland, where we join a research expedition. Scientists find that the glacial ice covering much of the Danish island territory is moving quickly, about 40 meters a day - an ominous sign, says Gordon Hamilton, research associate professor at the University of Maine.

"That would start to collapse the ice sheet very rapidly in ways we don't yet appreciate, and that could remove a large amount of the Greenland ice sheet quite quickly," he says.

The ice melt in Greenland will eventually raise ocean sea levels and impact coastal regions of the world, says filmmaker Hal Weiner, who took his crew to Bangladesh in monsoon season to document the problem.

"Every year, monsoons flood Bangladesh, and sometimes as many as 10 million people are displaced for a finite period of time, and then waters go down, and they are used to this."

The problem, he says, is that sea level rise could displace up to 70 million people.

Film aims to inspire action

But the documentary shows that people, applying the right policies, can address these looming problems. Local officials in Belize established a coastal reserve in partnership with the environmental group Friends of Nature to bring back an underwater celebrity: the whale shark, the world's largest fish at nearly 20 meters long.

The shark had left the habitat because its food supplies had been overfished. Marilyn Weiner says the measures now in place employ former fishermen in a new industry: ecotourism.

"If you just modify behavior a little bit and give the fish a chance, there is a huge payback. You can make a huge difference."

Marilyn and Hal Weiner hope The State of the Planet's Oceans will educate and inspire people to take action to protect the marine environment, a message that resonates with moviegoers at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington.

"I don't think that it is an exaggeration to say that the environment and in particular the health of the oceans is the critical issue of our time," says one man.

A woman standing close by adds, "Unless people are educated, they don't know and can't make decisions."

Another man nods in agreement, saying, "I think that a film like this can make a difference by raising people's awareness of not only the problems that are out there, because a lot of films are gloom, but solutions that are out there."

The State of the Planet's Oceans will be distributed as part of a popular public television series now being used in schools and broadcast in major television markets around the world.

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PBS' 'Journey to Planet Earth' gives a dire warning on Earth's oceans Article Rating
NY Daily
By David Hinckley , March 18th 2009


At least no one can say this latest documentary on what's happening with our environment is too dry.

It focuses on the planet's oceans, and it won't surprise anyone who's been paying attention that the news is not encouraging.

The waters are rising, which could have dire consequences for tens of millions of people, and we're heedlessly destroying many of the ocean's critical resources, like, for instance, its fish.

All this is hardly a new warning, meaning it may be dismissed by some skeptics as either reheated Al Gore or overheated panic.

But the program makes a persuasive case that significant change is under way, and suggests that with environmental crises, as with our current economic downturn, those who pay attention to early warning signs find themselves better equipped once the problem becomes acute.

It doesn't hurt the program's appeal that Matt Damon does the narration, though he isn't out in the field talking with research scientists. He's more the connecting voice, setting a tone that's firm and at times ominous.

This "Journey" breaks roughly into two parts, with the first focusing on our reckless exploitation of ocean resources, most prominently fish.

Overfishing of cod on the Georges Bank in the North Atlantic has led to such depletion that there is almost no cod industry left. That has devastated New Bedford, Mass., and cities in Portugal that were built on this industry and now find much of their economic support gone.

The possible ray of light, that in the future we could try to maintain a sustainable level of fishing, is dimmed by a couple of other facts. For one, scientists calculate that worldwide we have caught 90% of the ocean's large fish and are now working on the last 10%.

The second part of the show focuses on our good friend, global warming. It breaks no new ground but serves more as a primer that tries to explain the human consequences of major ice melts that raise sea levels.

If the seas rise 3 feet, which could happen within decades, half the rice fields of Bangladesh would be submerged and useless. That would drive tens of millions of people out of their coastal areas and into cities already morbidly overcrowded.

As with most environmental warnings, "Journey" tries to paint a dire picture without suggesting we're doomed and there is nothing we can do about it.

It does suggest, however, that if we stay the course, we will hasten the day when that will be true.

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The Washington Post LIVE On-Line Transcript
The Washington Post On Line, March 26, 2003

'Journey to Planet Earth: On the Brink'

With Geoffrey D. Dabelko, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Hal Weiner, Writer, Producer

"Journey to Planet Earth" returns to PBS for a second season to explore the balance between the people of the Earth and the world they inhabit. This season's first episode, "On the Brink," investigates a growing national security threat throughout the world: how environmental pressures can lead to terrorism and regional conflict.

Geoffrey D. Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and "Journey to Planet Earth" writer/producer Hal Weiner answered question Live On-Line March 26, 2003 to discuss "On the Brink."

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Making Movies and Dodging Bombs

The Washingtonian, March 2003

Hollywood couples could learn something from Hal and Marilyn Weiner. For 34 years, they have lived and made films together: He writes, she produces, they share the directing.

Since starting their company in 1969, the Weiners have made more than 225 documentaries, three feature films, and four public-TV series. Their latest is Journey to Planet Earth, about the relationship between the environment and national security, politics, and world health. On the Brink, the first of the three episodes, narrated by Matt Damon, airs March 26.

In their travels to more than 35 countries, including Haiti, Kenya, China, Argentina, and Uzbekistan, the Weiners have stayed in homes without bathrooms and hotels with armed guards. They've had their share of food poisoning and almost been thrown in jail. "It's a daily adventure," Hal says.

While shooting Journey to Planet Earth, they'd chosen a location near a New Year's party in Bangladesh when Marilyn told the crew she wanted everyone to leave; "it was a sixth sense." Minutes later two pipe bombs exploded where they'd been standing, killing ten.

Hal and Marilyn are part of a Washington community of filmmakers. They grew up five blocks apart in Brooklyn, met after college, married in 1968, and came here a year later when Hal landed a production contract with Head Start.

Marilyn had taught French and was contemplating law school: "I didn't realize Washington did not need another lawyer." She started working with Hal and soon became partner. They've won 130 film-festival awards and two Emmys.

They like using Washington as a backdrop: They shot their NBC documentary Streets of Sorrow in Anacostia and The Imagemaker, a 1986 drama about media and political corruption, all over DC. Hal is now writing a murder-mystery screenplay set in DC.

Other projects include a history-of-basketball series with Jane Leavy (whose Sandy Koufax book is a bestseller), a documentary on Betty Friedan, and Decker, about CIA involvement in the drug trade.

They spent four months in Los Angeles in preproduction on K2, a 1992 Paramount film about mountain climbing, but never considered a move west.

"This is an easier place to live," says Marilyn. "You can have friends that do something else besides make movies."

Cindy Rich, March 2003

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"Ages 12-adult. This ambitious three-volume set explores the fragile relationship between people and the world they inhabit. Actor Kelly McGillis' sincere narration guides viewers through the programs.

Land of Plenty, Land of Want examines how farmers in Zimbabwe, China, France and the US are producing crops and raising livestock without destroying natural resources; Rivers of Destiny focuses on the effect of the local environment and economy on the Mississippi, Amazon, Jordan and Mekong river systems; The Urban Explosion visits Mexico City, Istanbul, Shanghai and New York to explore urban development pollution and related issues.

Computer-generated maps, satellite images and photographs accent abundant international footage and interviews. Competently produced and lavishly shot, this series introduces worldwide environmental concerns to students and other interested viewers."

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Journal of Academic Media Librarianship

"This is a three-part series dealing with the human impact upon the environment. The Urban Explosion explores four cities: Mexico City, Istanbul, Shanghai and New York. In each, a brief history of the metropolis, as well as a resume of the environmental problems ensuing from population growth is given. In all but New York the handling of sewage and industrial effluent is the chief threat to human health; air pollution is a factor in each megalopolis's determination to improve the quality of life for its citizens. Concerted government and individual action in community appears to be key in solving these cities' dilemmas.

"Rivers of Destiny concentrates on four rivers: the Mississippi, the Amazon, the Jordan and the Mekong. In the case of each, human attempts to provide water and flood protection have resulted in unanticipated problems; dumping of untreated sewage and industrial by-products into waterways has destroyed fisheries, and deforestation due to urbanization has exposed soil and made it more liable to erosion. In the case of the Jordan, political turmoil has resulted in the denial of precious water resources to all the residents of the Jordan Valley.

"Land of Plenty, Land of Want focuses on four countries: Zimbabwe, France, China and the United States. El Nino, a weather phenomenon estimated by many climatologists to have been exacerbated by human factors like the production of greenhouse gases, has caused drought in Zimbabwe, but the innovation and hard work of a few determined farmers to provide irrigation water and avoid the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has resulted in far less suffering than would otherwise have been the case. France's agricultural regions suffer from poor soil and the ability of small landholders to compete with corporation farming; pork and chicken production has resulted in massive amounts of animal waste products that cannot easily be disposed of. Industrial development and agricultural runoff have polluted more than half of China's rivers. The U.S. has been subject to many of these problems as well but some farmers' successful attempts to use cover crops, "no-till" agriculture and fewer pesticides is looked at.

"The series is a colorful, insightful and succinct introduction both to the environmental problems occasioned by burgeoning human population growth and our species' ability to solve even monumental problems given enough understanding, determination and willingness to cooperate for the common good. Highly recommended for high school and undergraduate collections in ecology and environmental sciences. A highly informative series which belongs in the non-book collections of many high school and academic libraries." Buzz Haughton, Shields Library, University of California, Davis

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Journey to Planet Earth

Superbly narrated by Kelly McGillis, this series illustrates the desperate need for a balance between the needs of people and the environment to ensure a healthy, productive society. Three main themes are intertwined, dwindling farmland due to urban development, a shortage of water for the residents of huge cities, and the pollution of and human intervention in waterways.

Farming in Zimbabwe, France, China, and the mid-west United States is the focus of Land Of Plenty, Land Of Want. Footage shows how healthy land is necessary to feed the ever increasing world population and how urbanization has taken thousands of acres of producing farmland.

In The Urban Explosion, the mega-cities of Mexico City, Shanghai, New York, and Istanbul are examined, with illustrations of each city's struggle to combat water shortages and pollution crises.

Rivers Of Destiny examines the Mississippi, Amazon, Jordan, and Mekong Rivers. The positive and negative effects over time of human intervention are illustrated. Pollution, flooding, and loss of wetlands are major causes of concern.

Employing live live-action, computer animation, satellite images, archival footage and an excellent script, this series enjoys excellent video and audio qualities, and far surpasses its teaching objectives. Classes in economics, history, civics, geography, social studies will benefit from watching this extraordinary production. 

It leads the way for discussions about the pros and cons of responsible land and water use. A must buy for libraries serving students in middle through high school to support a variety of curricular areas, as well as for libraries supporting home based education. — Kathy Dummer, Newcastle Middle School, WY.

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Journey to Planet Earth: The World Through Very Human Eyes

By Nancy Camp (Icom Magazine)

Journey To Planet Earth, Hal and Marilyn Weiner's new documentary series, brings a fresh slant to environmental issues by showing the interconnections of ordinary lives in different world ecologies. Rivers of Destiny, The Urban Explosion and Land of Plenty — Land of Want premiered on PBS in April as the first season of what the film makers expect will be a continuing program. 

With substantial support from a fleet of underwriters, the series is both ambitious and noble in its intent to make complex issues understandable and personal. Each episode explores a specific problem from scientific, economic, political and historical perspectives. More unique, perhaps, is the attention given to how different communities are addressing these problems. Unlike so many well-intended environmental documentaries, Journey To Planet Earth frames its concerns with hopeful answers.

It was the Weiners' Emmy-winning Earth Summit Pledge, commissioned by the United Nations to open its Environmental Summit in Brazil, that was the impetus for this series. Designed to pique North American interests, it will likely have substantial overseas distribution as well because of the many world regions it encompasses. And even the most casual viewer will sense the Weiners' love of travel and adventure which has sustained them through three decades of work.

Wanderlust still propels them. "With our children grown and on their own, we're free to pick up and go whenever we want," muses Marilyn Weiner. As husband and partner Hal notes, "We're very lucky that we're not jaded, so if an idea presents itself that looks like fun to pursue, we say 'Let's go!'" 

When they say go, they mean it. For Journey To Planet Earth they visited twelve different areas around the globe. With an equally ambitious shooting schedule in the works for the next series, one might assume they've got the logistics process nailed down. In fact, it's old fashioned leg work that gets them through. That and a willingness to jettison plans to accommodate surprises along the way.

"I do what every producer does, spending lots of time researching and talking with experts," Marilyn says. "We also hooked up with NGO's (non-governmental organizations) with staff in the locations we wanted and that's a tremendous help to gain access to programs and people. But even with lots of planning, something else happens and you must be prepared to deal with it. Besides, it's the accidents that often yield the best stories."

With some 225 documentaries, 12 PBS "After School" dramas and another four PBS series to their credit, Hal believes it's their three feature films that help them turn those accidental encounters into serendipitous moments. "Our work on features has given us a heightened sense of the drama of an event and how it can shape the overall story that we're seeking. I think that influence shows in how we develop a scene, how we put a cap on it and in our overall pacing and tempo in telling the story."

Years of travel have also made them particularly adept at field work. For all twelve series locations, they maintained a four person crew: Producer Marilyn, director & location sound specialist Hal, director of photography, Dennis Boni and his assistant — either Scott Carrithers or Rich Consalone. Streamlining the operation kept them in one vehicle and under Marilyn's watchful eye.

"At first we were going to be economical and pick up crews overseas as we went, but I really wanted the luxury of a team we knew well, so we just worked that much harder to raise the money to make that happen," she says. "More than a luxury, a tightly knit crew can work more efficiently with maximum creativity."

"There needs to be a fundamental trust between the producer, director and cinematographer," Boni observes. "Hal and Marilyn's trust is evidenced by the fact that they don't use a monitor to see what I'm doing in the field. It's my responsibility to make sure that when we get back they have what they need to build the story, and it's a big step on their part to let go and trust that I'm doing my job."

Trust underpins the couple's relationship as well. "I had my own career success earlier, so the idea of working in a close collaboration was foreign to me in the beginning," says Marilyn. "Luckily, Hal was patient with me because he was convinced it would work. He let me find my natural niche in the partnership." 

"By now, we have such a foundation of trust that we're comfortable allowing for some pretty stormy confrontations. We've both walked out of editing sessions, but we know a creative clash is not the end of the world. In fact, if you both think the same way all the time, then one of you is dispensable."

Each show took about four months to put together. The shooting was done on Super 16 Kodak with a variety of stocks. To give the shows a cohesive look, Boni worked with Sue Rush who did most of the Telecine. Ralph Quattrucci handled the majority of the series' editing, and Hal also credits the final color correction done by Fritz Roland at Roland House.

Some locations, mainly cities, were pre-scouted, while the majority of places were approached cold. "Half the scenes in the show were never planned, so we know to take more film than we'll need," Hal notes. "We don't go crazy with unlimited shooting, but we shoot as much as we want. It works out to about a 20:1 ratio. On a good day, we'll shoot about an hour of stock and wind up with two or three usable minutes." 

"I'm familiar with the footage and all the sequences, so I write to that," he says. "I usually do location sound and the off line editors oversee the final mix. For original music, I send our composer a fine cut and then we'll talk about what's needed for each sequence. At times we'll bring in studio musicians and this series runs the gamut from Paul Simon's percussionist to a jazz trumpeter to an intriguing female vocalist."

The Weiners are also savvy about getting their products to the marketplace. For years they made films on speculation and sold them through their own distribution company to the educational market. They plan to tackle that audience through their own efforts with this series as well. Their company's web site (www. is hotlinked to the PBS site on the Internet and a comprehensive outreach program in partnership with several environmental organizations supports the broadcasts.

An overseas distributor launched the series at the huge and prestigious International Television Program Market (MIPTV) in Cannes and expectations are high. "We have no problem with reversioning or renarration of our products to gain viewership in other areas," says Marilyn. "I've never felt any of our other programs were harmed by this." By the second season, the Weiners expect to have enough material for a companion book and are evaluating the timing of a music CD as well.

But that second series won't start shooting for another six months or more, so they're busy with a series on sacred music and then there's the next feature film in development — though that may idle a bit while they participate in a cultural exchange visit to Iran. There's little chance their passports will gather dust.

Journey To Planet Earth is underwritten by NASA, the Kellogg Foundation, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, Continental Airlines, the World Bank, The Rockefeller Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agriculture Program and the American Honda Foundation.

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Superb Environmental Miniseries is Must Viewing

At 9 p.m. today, and continuing at the same time the next two weeks, WNEQ-TV will air a remarkable documentary, "Journey to Planet Earth." Produced by Emmy Award-winning filmmakers Marilyn and Hal Weiner, 

The first episode is about rivers: the Mississippi, Amazon, Jordan and Mekong. The second turns to urban communities: Istanbul, Mexico City, Shanghai and New York City. (Critics of the Big Apple will be shocked to find that New York, despite some problems, is identified here as a major success story.) The final episode is about farming in Zimbabwe, the Auvergne and Brittany regions of France, the YangtzeRiver Delta, Iowa and Pennsylvania.

Many scenes are breathtaking;the images gorgeous. But neither they nor the soft, understated narration of actress Kelly McGillis hides the series' basic message: We face very serious environmental problems, many of them due to past misjudgments, that demand immediate attention and response.

As I previewed this series, I was constantly reminded of the old cartoon by Bill Mauldin. In it, a cigar-smoking industrialist looks out a window at his factory belching pollutants. Beside the factory is a billboard announcing, "Within 30 years we will have completely destroyed our ecosystem." Obviously relieved, the boss turns to a colleague andsays, "Gosh, for a minute there I thought it said THREE years."

The presentation of these huge environmental problems is set against some mostly small and obviously only partial solutions. These are wonderful responses, many of them by tiny villages or neighborhoods or even individuals. They turn the series' overall impact from disturbing to one of hope. I found two segments in particular most heart-warming and encouraging. In Zimbabwe, where 13 million inhabitants are faced with famine due to drought, David Jura, a village elementary school principal, foresaw the problem and set out to address it locally.

Working alone in his spare time for almost four years, he built a dam across a stream, creating a water source for irrigation that has saved his community. This sparked memories of a time when my father identified a neighborhood problem and set out tosolve it. A tiny, usually dry ditch behind our home flooded each spring, filling many neighborhood basements. My dad didn't call on town engineers. Instead, he spent an hour each morning deepening the waterway until he finally dug through to the larger drain a quarter-mile away. At the time, I was a reluctant helper, but I honor my father for that smaller-scale individual contribution just as I do David Jura for saving his village.

Another episode focuses on a young Pennsylvania Mennonite farmer, Steve Groff, who is confronting the enormous problem of soil erosion — half of regional soil already has washed down the Susquehanna River. He has adopted "no till" cultivation, a kind of management that plants directly into cover crops. Groff's is the definitive success story. His methods have reduced soil runoff by 90 percent with two bonuses: a 10 percent increase in the family's tomato production and a reduced need for pesticides. Groff leaves us with an uplifting statement, "My mission in life is to leave the soil in better condition than I found it."

My one concern about this excellent series is its lack of stress on the ultimate source of most of the difficulties presented in the documentary, our ever-increasing population. I would like to see this fine production team now turn its attention to this profound and politically sensitive problem.

Copyright (c) 1999, The Buffalo News

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