Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow talks conservation and career

May 26, 2015, 11:43 p.m.

Filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow showed a short documentary to students and spoke about her career in filmmaking on Tuesday. Bigelow has directed films including “Zero Dark Thirty” and the Academy Award-winning “The Hurt Locker.”

The event, held at CEMEX Auditorium and sponsored by the Stanford Speakers Bureau, began with a special screening of “Last Days of Ivory,” a documentary-short about terrorism funded by the ivory trade. Animated but interspersed with clips of real footage, the film traces how the weapons and equipment used by terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab are funded by elephant poaching.

Bill Guttentag, Oscar-winning filmmaker and Graduate School of Business lecturer, and David Hayes J.D. ’78, expert on wildlife trafficking and visiting law lecturer, then moderated a discussion on conservation and filmmaking.

Bigelow said she drew inspiration for “Last Days” from her travels in Africa and while researching and filming “Zero Dark Thirty.” An animal lover herself, she became interested in how conservation intersected with terrorism and felt that she should bring more attention to the issue.

“[Poaching] is very much an American issue,” Bigelow said. “There were Americans in the Westgate Mall massacre.”

Hayes added that, although the major markets for ivory goods are in East Asia, Americans are also complicit in its continued existence. New York City, for example, is the second largest ivory market in the world.

“Go to the jewelry district and it’s on the tables,” he said.

Bigelow recommended better equipping rangers in African national parks as one promising method to fight the ivory trade. She also advocated for heightening the felony status of smuggling ivory.

The conversation then moved toward the power of film in effecting social change. Bigelow said she chooses films that can potentially stir public interest in certain topics that need more attention. “The Hurt Locker,” for example, drew attention to the concept of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams and their work during the Iraq War.

“Present as much information as you can and hopefully allow the audience to make their own judgments about the war,” she said, talking about her filmmaking philosophy. “I find [the Iraq War] incredibly futile and infuriating, but it’s not my part to make those judgments.”

Similarly, engaging with curiosity as to what exactly happened during the struggle to find Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” was an attempt to bring light to events that were shrouded in an air of secrecy, according to Bigelow.

“My intention was to shine a light on a really black period of American history in the hopes that it never ever happens again,” she said. “It’s a movie, not a documentary. In a sense it’s a kind of parable.”

Reacting to a comment by Guttentag that many of her movies seem to be “high testosterone” flicks, Bigelow talked about her attraction to graphic, kinetic and content-driven filmmaking that is honest and authentic. This is part of the reason why she tends to cast lesser-known actors and actresses, she said. She also emphasized a desire to be “informational” and almost educational in her films.

At this point, the audience was permitted to ask questions. Bigelow said that she had not yet decided on a next project and is considering several films. She also revealed that one of her favorite movies is “Battle of Algiers,” a war film from the 1960s era of Italian neo-realism cinema.

“If you haven’t seen it, then you have to,” she said. “It’s one I watch once a year. It’s a good one to keep as a focus of inspiration.”

Bigelow then discussed her appreciation for hand-held camerawork and advised aspiring filmmakers to remain persistent.

“Don’t take no for an answer,” she said. “Things for me took years and years between films. It was always very difficult getting things financed or putting them together. It became slightly less difficult as I had a body of work behind me. You have to really believe in what you’re doing.”

Contact Victor Xu at vxu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Victor Xu '17 is an editor and graphics designer. An economics major, he hails from Carmel, IN. He is interested in international development and Kanye West. To contact Victor, email him at vxu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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