An interview with filmmaker Cyrus Sutton
Island Earth is a rich tale of a young indigenous scientist’s struggle for truth between science and tradition as he enters an industry that many feel is threatening his homeland. His complex journey through the inner workings of GMO chemical companies and traditional Hawaiian elders reveals ancient values that can save our future. How are we going to feed the world without destroying the planet we live on?
The film brings this question to life by taking us on the ground to Hawaii, the “ground zero” where all of these issues collide in sharp relief. Less than two centuries ago, native Hawaiians fed their large population through some of the most historically sustainable agricultural practices ever documented. Yet modern-day Hawaii now imports 80-90% of their food supply from elsewhere in the world, due to a complex web of public policy and private interests. Within two generations, the Hawaiians have become canaries in the coal mine for food issues that are affecting the entire planet.
Here is a Q+A with director Cyrus Sutton on Island Earth
Why did you decide to make this film?
I’ve always been fascinated by issues that speak to the tension between modern technocracy and nature-based tradition. We live in this world where humans are more and more insulated from our surroundings. For some the pace we are advancing feels reckless. Others find hope in technological innovation. The GMO debate embodies this tension. On the surface it’s an ethical debate akin to nuclear power- do we have the wisdom or the foresight to deploy these advancements responsibly? For a long time, I thought the implications of GMO technology ended there, but when I learned about what was going on in Hawaii I was shocked. I realized that by sharing their story I could potentially change people’s perceptions of GMO’s and their effect on our environment.
What was the experience of making the film like?
It was simultaneously exciting and overwhelming. Even though I was shooting in paradise and learning a lot, the story unfolded with such complexity that it often felt impossible to share in an understandable and engaging way. The inclusion of Cliff Kapono as the main character, a young indigenous Hawaiian scientist and surfer who was studying to work in the GMO industry, really allowed the film to organically inhabit the mix of native Hawaiian culture, technology, health and morality that surrounded us. The fear of making factual or tonal errors was present throughout the process. Luckily I had a great team of researchers and an amazing Emmy-winning editor, Asako Ushio, who helped tighten the narrative and make complex sections more understandable. We made sixty-seven drafts of the film by the time we’d locked picture. Sixty-seven times I thought the l was done! I think the most important advice I got during process was from a well-known documentary editor who told me during our production, “documentary films are just artistic research, you might have an idea at the beginning of the film but you have to detach from our biases and preconceptions to conduct your work with respectful curiosity.”
What did you learn during the making of this film?
I’ve learned that more GMO crops are tested per acre in Hawaii than any other state in the US. This testing involves a multiple combinations of restricted-use pesticides that both our government and the scientific community agree are toxic to the environment and our health. The testing is occurring outdoors right next to low-income communities. In this context it became obvious that the current GMO debate is shifting our focus away from how these technologies are actually being used. The vast majority of the world’s seeds are owned by a handful of very large and powerful chemical companies who are using genetic modification on to alter plants so they can withstand higher doses of the pesticides they manufacture.
Island Earth covers traditional Hawaiian Farming, what methods did they use that you think we could apply in today’s agriculture?
Their farming systems recycled water and nutrients multiple times capturing rainfall from mountains and fertilizing it with organic matter to grow fruit trees and taro before it fed palms and finally fish in man-made coastal ponds. In this age of increasingly severe droughts and erosion that type of thinking is important. They also had a primarily a tree and perennial root crop based agriculture which builds soil fertility. Most of today’s industrial mono-cropping systems, regardless of whether they’re no-till or rotational, deplete soil fertility and rely on man-made fertilizers. Ten years ago a study at Cornell concluded that we’d already depleted one-third of the world’s farmable land through industrial farming. Once we lose our soils and our aquifers they don’t return for a long me. So I think their concept of growing food in perennial biodiverse guilds is very important, and perhaps even more import was their society’s work ethic around farming. Almost all Polynesians participated in growing their food in some way. Cultivating calories in a way that helps the environment really benefits from lot of manual labor which very few of us are motivated or incentivized to participate in today.
What do you want audience members to take away from the film?
I think the little media coverage we’ve seen about the anti-GMO pro- tests in Hawaii paints this issue as one of eccentric hippies getting angry about food that isn’t up to their ideals, when in reality this is a grassroots movement of people from all walks of life coming together to protect their land and water that they hold sacred. What’s happening in Hawaii effects the rest of country and vice-versa. These tiny Islands are a microcosm for the problems we all face but also the solutions we could embody.
Why is there so much confusion around GMOs?
The best analogy I’ve come across is that GMO is simply a technology, not unlike nuclear power. Technology is a tool, devoid of values. Villainizing any technology based on its standalone merit is a problem because it ignores the ethics that accompany its use. Right now GMO technology is being deployed almost exclusively by a handful of the world’s largest chemical companies to alter plants to tolerate higher applications of chemicals that have long been proven to have toxic effects on humans and the environment. At the same time these companies’ PR teams deflect criticism by focusing the debate around the merits of the technology. The technology has been proven that it can be safe in growing food. This doesn’t mean that every variety of food produced will be safe. But the technology itself can’t be blamed, each result has to be tested for it individual merit. So far the vast majority of crops that GMO technology has provided commercially have been altered to be sprayed with more chemicals.
Why did you decide to tour the film so extensively?
I learned film making by making surf films. An important part of surfing culture is getting on the road and sharing your work in person. So past two months we’ve been showing Island Earth across Hawaii, Australia a handful of film festivals. Now we are gearing up for a 25 stop, one month West Coast tour. I’m excited to take this film to many of the places I’ve shared my surf films over the years.
You’ve established yourself in the surf and outdoor industry, why did you choose to step outside of that to make an activist film about food?
Both surfing and outdoor cultures are largely comprised of people with the privilege of thrill-seeking and enjoying nature for fun. But the places we love to play in are under threat. If I ask myself what kind of a world I want to leave for my future kids, it’s one where they have access to the same clean air and water that I’ve gotten so much from. It’s gotten harder for me to justify how going on another surf trip to some romantic destination will contribute to that outcome. The Hawaiians invented modern surf culture because they had all that was necessary for survival. They had leisure me to play and create. We won’t have that luxury if we destroy our soils, poison our water and deplete our atmosphere. Young people in my generation spent so much me trying to master tricks on their boards. It was the challenge and the connection with our bodies and the forces of nature that kept us coming back. Now we face a bigger challenge. The biggest wave of all is looming and it’s environmental collapse. I’ve come to believe that navigating that wave successfully is about engaging with local policy and rebuilding our ecological literacy. Only by learning the existing systems and endeavoring beyond them can we reclaim the future we want. A future that no longer feeds corporations which have proven to not have our best interests in mind.
This interview was provided by the filmmaker. To learn more about Island Earth and Cyrus Sutton, click here.