A Film on the Arrogance of Man: Josh Murphy on His Environmental Doc, Artifishal
“We are on a path to where eventually there will be no fish, and we will have spent billions of dollars to get to that point.”
This dire warning is from one of the many experts in Artifishal: The Road to Extinction is Paved with Good Intentions, a new documentary from director Josh Murphy and Patagonia that opened on multiple platforms this past week. It premiered last spring at Tribeca, followed by screenings at Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride and the Seattle International Film Festival, near the heart of the film’s action. From there it’s moved into a series of 550 festival and community screenings to at least 60,000 viewers, and in an effort to reach as many viewers as possible it’s now available online at Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, and other platforms.
All of this demonstrates the filmmakers’s desire to stretch beyond a traditional bricks and mortar release to engage with the widest possible audience. In fact Patagonia has long reached past its outdoor clothing line into other areas of environmental activism, with nonfiction filmmaking becoming a vibrant part of the company’s output in recent years. Their first feature doc DamNation dealt with the destruction to ecosystems caused by man-made dams, particularly for salmon, and Artifishal starts from the same premise, including dams but placing its focus on a variety of human threats facing steelhead, other species of trout, and especially salmon. This is because dams, which break up habitats and impede salmon spawning, are only part of the problem: well-intentioned businessmen and environmentalists have introduced fish farms and hatcheries in an attempt to supplement wild populations and sustain tourism and the commercial fishing industry, but in the view of the film the negative externalities of these operations have come to far outweigh their benefits.
On May 6, the day after Tribeca closed, the United Nations issued a devastating report on the acceleration of the current global mass extinction crisis, of which global warming is only one part. For fish there is also a more direct human threat, as direct human predation through overfishing threatens the existence of fish more than any other phylum of animal. Many documentaries have dealt with that threat, such as The End of the Line, Blue Planet, Troubled Waters, and Mission Blue. Because of stark warnings like these, for years I’ve considered farm-raised fish to be the only sustainable means of seafood production and on those rare occasions when I’ve eaten fish at all made sure it wasn’t harvested from the wild. Artifishal robustly challenges that assumption, making the case for how human intervention of any kind leads to unforeseen problems and how re-wilding—removing humans from the equation entirely—is the best path forward for both river and coastal fish species. Salmon hatcheries, whether housed in buildings on dry land or in net pens in the open ocean, have led to gene pool depletion in wild salmon (as they interbreed with hatchery-raised fish), the loss of wild instincts in salmon populations, the introduction of diseases and deformations, and even the introduction of entire invasive species of salmon as Atlantic salmon have escaped their pens in the Pacific ocean and then out-competed the native variety. The film focuses on the Washington coast down to California but travels as far inland as Montana and as far afield as Norway to show the global nature of the threat to salmon diversity and numbers. It also addresses such important issues as Native American culture that has had a centuries-long relationship with salmon runs, and the broader food web as renowned orca expert Ken Balcomb discusses how pods are essentially starving with the loss of salmon for their diet. It also chronicles on-the-ground (and on-the-water) activism that has led to legislation in Washington banning net pen hatcheries in that state’s waters. There are also economic issues: the film calculates that in one area it costs $68,000 for one fish to be raised and released, prompting the question of whether this is a good use of public and even private funds. Given our age of global warming and the Sixth Extinction, responsible environmental documentaries now must address such human issues, and Artifishal does so with insight and expertise. Of course, the aquaculture industry has already begun pushing back against the film’s narrative, but even having this conversation will be beneficial.
I was able to have a conversation via email with its director Josh Murphy, co-founder of the bi-coastal production company Liars & Thieves!, about his process in making the film, some of the issues it raises, and what he hopes it will be able to accomplish; his answers are erudite and insightful not just about the production process but also the larger environmental issues the film raises.
Filmmaker: How did this project originate, and where did the idea come from?
Murphy: Even though I don’t believe in destiny, Artifishal seems like it was destined to happen. I was directing a short piece for 1% for the Planet, a non-profit started by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and friend Craig Mathews that encourages businesses to give 1% of their gross receipts to grass roots environmental organizations making change, and over lunch someone asked Yvon what he was working on. He replied that they were just beginning a film about what he likes to call “the arrogance of Man.” He went on to say it was about the way we’re mistakenly trying to control nature and manipulate salmon, one of the most iconic symbols of wild. Through fish hatcheries and fish farms we’re trying to make up for the degradation of rivers and waterways by producing manufactured salmon instead of protecting wild salmon and the environment that supports them. The effects are devastating, and salmon continue to slide towards extinction.
I nearly dropped my sandwich in my lap. Filmmaker/environmentalist Jacques Cousteau was my childhood idol, and before a career in film I earned two degrees in fisheries biology and worked on a fish farm and managed a hatchery. I understood the issue inside and out. We shared food and stories on the tailgate of an old Toyota pickup, and talked more about the film and issues before getting back to the shoot at hand. At the end of the day Yvon asked me for my number and said he’d call. I was flattered, but I never thought I’d hear back. Two days later a producer from Patagonia Films called and said Yvon wanted me to direct the film. That casual lunch began a two-and-a-half year journey that just culminated in a month-long Patagonia store tour that began in Reykjavik, Iceland and Oslo, Norway before returning to the States and premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Filmmaker: What was the relationship like working with Patagonia Films? I’m curious about creative direction and control, and whether it was very similar to other clients you’ve worked with through Liars & Thieves.
Murphy: Working with Patagonia Films was liberating and challenging all at once. We had immense creative freedom, and the Patagonia producing team of Alex Lowther, Monika McClure and contributing producer Dylan Tomine were supportive and direct as they recognized what the film needed to be in order to capture attention. But working with a brand, even one as unique and special as Patagonia, is not the same as independent filmmaking. It’s difficult to make a feature documentary and find the story while still managing budgets, calendars, hard deadlines, significant notes and internal buy-in, meetings, and creative expectations similar to those of our commercial clients, but the benefits are obvious. In addition to funding, Patagonia brings an amazing marketing savvy to issue-based film and their audiences are willing to invest their attention in nuanced and demanding subjects.
We operated on a fixed budget that was proposed and approved at the outset of the project. This is a tough reality when making a highly charged feature-length film that inevitably takes longer and costs more than planned. When the story became more elusive and we realized we needed to shoot more than double the days we originally estimated, we couldn’t just raise additional funds through grants or by asking investors to stretch. Liars & Thieves!, the production company I co-founded with editor Collin Kriner and producer Laura Wagner, did the stretching by re-envisioning how to make the film and the sacrifice needed to produce something better than good.
We all agreed to do whatever it takes, and the production got really small. It was often just me and a cinematographer on location. I directed and recorded audio, sometimes shot solo, and we rarely checked more than one bag of gear when traveling. With films like this, fewer costs means more story. It was a valuable reminder that the basics of good imagery and storytelling are more important than the technical bells and whistles we get accustomed to in commercials and larger productions. It also reminded me that process is paramount.
Filmmaker: What are your current distribution plans? I know, for instance, that Patagonia placed their first feature doc, DamNation, in theaters. But beyond that, many environmental and social issue documentaries are really intended as advocacy. Are there any plans to use the film in any campaigns for legislation or other goals?
Murphy: Premiering at Tribeca was a true honor and allowed us to introduce the film and issue to a broader audience. This is only the second feature film Patagonia Films has made, and it’s my hope that the Tribeca premiere helps establish it as a studio capable of making engaging, audience-focused films of any length. Apart from the continued in-store activist screenings, the film now begins a festival tour and plays a number of fests including the Mountainfilm Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival. ICM signed on as our sales rep and we’re aiming to land on a streaming service by early Fall and exploring broadcast and limited theatrical opportunities. After seeing the visceral audience reaction when played on the big screen at Tribeca, I’m confident it can can play in theaters.
We also have a unique opportunity by working with Picture Motion to partner with individuals and communities who want to share the film locally and create a dialogue around the issue. For me, this is where film gets personal. The idea that stories can motivate real action, and do more than simply entertain is a powerful reality.
Within the first week we had over 300 requests for screenings and over 150,000 signatures demanding protection of wild fish. We already have interest from a half dozen states that want to take the issue to their legislators to demand action. When we began the project we referenced films like The Cove, Blackfish, and Chasing Coral. If the film can follow in their footsteps, and be known for focusing our collective psyche on the future of wild salmon, then we did our job as filmmakers.
Filmmaker: You’ve kind of addressed this, but on that note what was the main goal for you personally with this film?
Murphy: Throughout the entire filmmaking process I never forgot how Yvon Chouinard originally described the film. It’s about the arrogance of Man. While the film uses the plight of wild salmon as its core plot, it’s really about something much greater. The United Nations just published a harrowing account of the speed at which we are extincting species on earth and the effect that will have on people and entire ecosystems. My goal with the film was to confront viewers with the extent of our manipulation and change the narrative about an issue that so many have seen as humanity doing something good. “The Road to Extinction is Paved with Good Intentions” is the tag line of the film, and my way of pointing out that humans need to rethink our techno-arrogance and respect nature’s ability to heal. Hopefully the film leaves viewers wrestling with a disquieting question: Have we reached the end of wild?
Filmmaker: The film focuses on the west coast of the continental U.S. but also travels to Norway and as far inland as Montana, and it describes salmon depletion as a global problem. How dire is it? Do you know if the issues in Cook Inlet in Alaska, for instance, are similar to those they’re having around Puget Sound?
Murphy: The stories in the film are applicable to many areas outside of those we expose in the film. Fish is the last wild food we eat at scale. Loss of wild fish is a global problem, but salmon, steelhead, and trout are especially vulnerable as we’ve literally loved them to death, and our demand continues to grow for commercial, recreational, and tribal use. The problem is the same on the East coast of the United States, where wild Atlantic salmon are functionally extinct and only 1,100 returned last year, in Europe, where fish farms are rapidly proliferating and crashing wild fish populations, and up the West coast to from the mainland U.S. to Canada and Alaska.
Southeast Alaska has the largest hatchery programs in the United States with over 85% of all hatchery salmon releases. Last year Sockeye salmon returns in parts of Southeast Alaska were the worst in over 40 years. Above the Alaska Peninsula, in Bristol Bay where all Sockeye are wild, the number of salmon returning was the largest since 1894. We have to ask ourselves, is this the future we want?
Filmmaker: Dams are shown as one of the major issues causing the depletion of salmon but the film doesn’t delve into the issue of hydroelectric power, which is often seen as renewable energy that can help reduce global warming. Why didn’t you address that paradox in the film, and how do you think conservationists should balance the need to protect river fish like salmon with the need to reduce greenhouse emissions that will have a catastrophic affect on innumerable species? It’s admittedly difficult because one dam’s affect on one species of fish in one river is acute while global warming is more diffuse and abstract.
Murphy: The main threats facing salmon are often described as the 4 Hs: habitat, hydropower, harvest, and hatcheries. The hatchery issue had never been explored in a feature film, and we wanted to connect this issue and the fish farming issue by contrasting the human produced versions of salmon with the wild fish we originally fell in love with. It’s been said that the best hatchery is a healthy river, and we believe that for a sustainable future we should be investing in habitat not hatcheries.
We spent less time on the issue of dams in part because it was so well documented in Patagonia’s other feature film, DamNation. Instead, we focused on the tension between wild and artificial, and the environmental and social cost of hatcheries and certain types of fish farms that threaten wild fish.
Dams were once seen as the salvation of the country in our infinite quest for progress. The thinking was that water always flows so we should channel it and make it work for us. The old adage that the earth, and all its beauty, is really just here for humans to use. There’s a flaw in that thinking. As a brilliant economist once pointed out, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Dams have impact, both positive and negative, and society must decide how best to manage our carbon footprint through power from sources like wind and solar, and innovate into the future. But dams have been falsely promoted as renewable energy that is carbon free. While they may have less impact than coal fired power generation, they’re not carbon free and they’re not really renewable. Dams don’t last forever. Over time, silt piles up behind dams and makes them less able to store water and produce power and actually increases a river’s carbon footprint as rotting organic matter produces methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide. According to the estimates from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, dams are the largest single anthropogenic source of methane, being responsible for 23% of all methane emissions due to human activities. Methane is a much more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide. Dams also scar landscapes and prevent migratory fish species from fulfilling their life cycle and that, in turn, can effect communities of humans and animals that rely on those fish.
Filmmaker: The other issue with reservoirs is human water supply. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park has always been controversial, for instance, because its damage to the ecosystem, including salmon runs, plays against the need for a water supply for San Francisco. Do you see any solutions to problems like these that will allow for the re-wilding of ecosystems with the maintenance of urban areas?
Murphy: You’re not making these questions easy are you! Clean abundant drinking water and water for irrigation is critical for humanity. Fresh water is also critical for a staggering number of species worldwide. Just more that 2% of all water on earth is freshwater, and much of that is held in glaciers and snowfields. Less than 1% the freshwater on earth is accessible to humans and other species. To consider a world that supports humans and other plants and animals we must confront our current use of water, especially in the West. We must consider what kind of world we want to live in. One that is rich in beauty and diversity or one that only serves our economic growth. Humanity is at a tipping point of resource use, and I’m unsure what the earth will look like for my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, much less for the countless species that will be gone by that time.
Reservoirs like Hetch Hetchy may be needed to support growing urban areas, but the seemingly endless availability of water has made us drunk on consumption. We’ve not gotten serious about water efficiency and conservation. Last year in South Africa the drought was so serious that widespread rationing was needed and there was a concern society may fracture into a post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” reality where people were desperate for water. The learnings that came from this were that growing cities cannot rely on reservoirs alone and must consider alternatives in a world with rapidly changing climate.
If we consider our use, and engineer efficiency into a terribly inefficient system — have you ever seen the open aqueduct that leads along the I-5 between Northern California and Southern California?! — we have a chance to achieve humanistic goals and still have vibrant ecosystems that can be re-wilded. But this is a choice, and we first must value wild before we can protect it.
John Muir best summed it up in 1912 when fighting the creation of the Hetch Hetchy Resevoir. “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”
Filmmaker: Apologies for getting deep into the weeds, but that’s fantastic information, and Muir’s more on point today than ever; thank you for sharing it. So let me wrap up by asking this: from a production standpoint, what was the most difficult thing about making the film? What was the most rewarding, or even the most fun about it?
Murphy: Every production has its challenges and from the outset we knew we were going to be upending a story that most had been told was a positive one. For the large part, most people see fish as something they eat or play with while angling and not as wildlife with an important function to an ecosystem. Fish hatcheries and fish farms were seen as a good thing. They helped restore fish where we failed nature through habitat degradation and provided needed, and some say delicious, food. Why would anyone question that? Oh right, then there’s that darned science stuff that proves we’ve been fooling ourselves for a long time.
Our producer Laura Wagner was from New York City and was a perfect gauge of someone who had no immediate relationship with fish. Actually they kind of grossed her out. This was key as we recognized that most viewers knew nothing about the topic and therefore probably wouldn’t care unless we created a connection that they could understand and appreciate. Collin Kriner edited the film, and while he’s from Montana, as an NYU film school grad it never really hit his radar. Both of these close friends were integral collaborators, and their varied perspectives were the key to making the film work. They balanced my obsessive research and endemic knowledge to land at a story that works for a larger audience.
When finally embraced the idea that we could trust the viewers by showing more and telling less, we found the film. It became clear that the sheer absurdity at hand would be enough to make our point. We just needed to see it all and that’s what we set out to do.
We largely shot on RED Epic Dragon in 5K — to save on data and not give away much field-of-view — and some on Alexa, and we used refurbished SLR Leica R prime lenses throughout. The combination makes a rich organic picture and cuts a pretty slim outline without big cine lenses. We trimmed the package way down to make ourselves less conspicuous so hesitant subjects would open up more and have fewer questions about how much the camera must cost. We even dropped the follow focus and pulled focus on the lens barrel and lost the matte box in favor of screw-on filters. All additionally good strategies for the intense soaking we got while shooting much of the film outdoors, on the water, in the winter, in the Pacific Northwest.
The most rewarding part of making the film was first the amazing people who contributed their creative best, too many to list here but I’m thankful to each. Beyond that it’s been the deep connections the film has made with audiences and the issue. Confronting viewers with something they have never seen on film before has a powerful affect in our image-crazed culture. Having people ask “how is it possible I didn’t know this was happening” cut right to the quick.
As a filmmaker you want people to feel something, as an environmentalist I want people to do something. The future of wild is too important not to.