For tourists, the Philippine island of Palawan is a tropical paradise. For illegal loggers, it's a place to plunder one of the last great rainforests. For residents who defend trees over government action, this is a deadly workplace.
dangerousmeans danger in Tagalog. When Australian journalist Karl Malakunas wanted to make his first film a decade ago, he was then head of the Philippine bureau of Agence France-Presse and wanted to make a film about ecotourism there. But when his main contact was assassinated, the project shifted to land defenders in general and Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI) in particular.
The film follows four characters: Tata Balladares, who leads the group's patrols in the rainforest; "Kap" Ruben Arzaga, a former lumberjack who now defends the trees he used to cut down; PNNI attorney and CEO Bobby Chan, brazenly displaying chainsaws confiscated by the group; and Nieves Roseto, mayor of El Nido, the capital of Palawan, who supports land defenders but is running for re-election against a rival backed by President Duterte, who falsely accuses her of drug trafficking and threatens to kill her.
Tom Bannigan, Sydney-based director of photography, ACS, knew the director from when they both worked in China - Bannigan for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Malakunas as a news editor for Agence France-Presse. An expert in extreme environments, Bannigan has filmed in remote indigenous lands in Australia, in the criminal underworld of Peru, in former ISIS strongholds in Syria and in Afghanistan under the Taliban. This movie was right up your alley.
To dinner:dangerousOpening of the crackdown on illegal loggers
After the introductory text that Palawan has "one of the oldest, largest and most diverse rainforests in the world", the film begins with a raid by the protectors. As the cameraman explains, “this raid establishes what these people are doing; what they are looking for, namely chainsaws; and the danger they face.”
It is dawn and the group is resting on the ground. A prayer follows: “You know, Lord, we fight for the environment.” So for breakfast, hands dip into a shared pile of rice.
A GoPro records how someone positions it on someone else's head. GoPro footage follows of hands cutting a path with a machete. It is difficult. Kap signals the cameraman to listen. A chainsaw can be heard in the distance. As they approach, Tata gives instructions and warns: "If the lookout spots us, we're dead." There's a long exposure of a fallen tree and extreme close-ups of faces listening intently.
Tata signals Bannigan to go first. The handheld camera shakes as the cameraman traverses rough terrain and cuts branches. The tree has already been cut into three long planks. A chainsaw rests on the log. Somewhere nearby, illegal loggers are having lunch. Tata commands: "Time bent... hurry up." Close-ups of the chainsaw being dismantled and hands filling in the papers that were left in its place.
After a few tense minutes, they broke up. As they walk away with the disassembled chainsaw, the camera reveals that most are barefoot on slippery, muddy ground. The scene ends with a drone shot of the group meandering down a trail through the middle of the rainforest.
a spartan approach
Earth defenders trudged through the rainforest for hours. Bannigan was with them, donning his gear in sauna conditions. So he had to keep his equipment light. The cinematographer says, "It was a pretty spartan approach, which hopefully reflects the way the characters act." He continues: "When we started filming these confiscations, we decided there were logistical constraints. We couldn't carry a lot of stuff into the forest. It was too slow. We had to be really mobile.” Regarding the camera style, he notes, "It had to follow the story and have a real sense of vérité. I wanted it to feel quite raw and intimate at the same time.
Bannigan shot on a Canon EOS C300 Mark II “I needed something compact and robust, but with a good picture and XLR inputs for audio. I used to crawl through the woods and needed to be fast and very quiet, so this gear worked well.”
Canon records in 4K (DCI). "The data scramble was a nightmare, but I think it was worth it," says Bannigan. “Our goal has always been to have a theatrical release. [Ed. They did it in Australia.] 4K meant it would look better on a big screen, but also give it some longevity. If it was HD or 2K it would get out of date faster.”
He used two Canon EF lenses. The first was a wide-angle 16-35mm and the second was a telephoto 70-200mm. "I like to shoot in 16mm or 200mm, so it was perfect for that," he explains. I also had to carry all the batteries, audio equipment, water and food so I had to be very frugal about what to take with me as we sometimes walk all day in very uncomfortable conditions.” Polarizers were used all the time. It also brought a 100mm macro EF for that rare close-up of nature. With a photographic vest, he could easily change lenses.
The group also had four GoPros. "We needed that to increase the reach because there were so many characters and we were often spread out," says Bannigan.
Bannigan brought two drones to the Philippines. The largest was a DJI Inspire 2 reserved for the larger landscape and aerial shots of Palawan's resorts and real estate developments. For raids, he used the smaller DJI Mavic 2 Pro, which he was able to carry in his backpack. "If we had the time, I would try to use it to round out the sequences and give it a sense of place. It's often hard to keep track of things in the woods, and everything looks very similar." The drone footage helped alleviate the rainforest's claustrophobia and conveyed a sense of grandeur.
The drone photo that ends this sequence was taken several hours after the attack, when they were away from the lumberjacks and their weapons and Bannigan had time to run ahead and launch the drone. "You have to remember we're going eight or nine hours," he notes. “That was the only scene [in the sequel] that we had time to prepare. Nothing is weaponized during any confiscation scenes. You just have to agree with what's going on with the characters in the scene.”
Despite the stressful scene, Bannigan wasn't nervous even during the heist. "That's where the adrenaline kicks in," he says. "Sometimes it took days to look for a chainsaw, so there was a lot of nervous energy building up in the process of actually getting a release." adrenaline and exhaustion. So if you find a chainsaw, try to focus and take it down, because that's what you're there for."
Malakunas said in a statement from the video's director that he wants viewers to be "inspired and angry" by this film and want to take action. For Bannigan: "I think it's a story of hope and resilience. These people are dealing with direct corruption and the odds are against it, but they still hold on. I hope people feel inspired by this and not overwhelmed."
dangerousmakes its broadcast debut on PBS'point of view on Sept. 26 at 10:00 pm ET. The film will also be available onPBS.organd the PBS Video app.
Patricia Thomson is a longtime film journalist and writer foramerican cameraman.