His passion for wildlife filmmaking led him to trace the footsteps of the Masrican Brown bear in central Italy. Constantinos Christou, a wildlife film director, has spent the past three months at the Abruzzo National Park in the Apennine Mountains at the invitation of a local organisation for the protection of the local Brown Bear, also known as the Marsican of the Apennines. It is a subspecies of the Eurasian Brown Bear which is listed as an endangered species. Constantinos discusses with Politis the documentary he is currently preparing alongside local experts, set in the highlands that the bear call home, and he describes the mission of the organisation and its plans to protect the Marsican. Meanwhile, Constantinos’ latest film shot in Cyprus travels to international wildlife festivals, raising awareness on the subject of sustainable conservation in the small village of Deneia inside the buffer zone, where researcher Haris Nicolaou introduced barn owls to the community, tackling the uncontrollable growth of the rodent population without resorting to harmful pesticides.
P: How did you decide to focus on wildlife cinematography?
CC: There has always been a love for nature and the environment in my family. My father studied Oceanography and my sister Zoology so my fondness for this field grew early on. When I first came to Italy two years ago with the Erasmus student exchange program and stayed for three months to practice wildlife filming, I found it to be a genuinely fulfilling experience. With these initial impressions I got in Italy, I was confident that this is what I wanted to do.
P: You devoted your efforts to this field relatively recently, however you set out with great ambition. Relying on extroversion, you’ve gone ahead and captured through your lens not only Cypriot wildlife but that of other countries as well. Could you tell us about this inclination of yours?
CC: It’s important to be aware of what’s happening around the world. Not just in Cyprus, but wherever I find an opportunity to film I’m willing to go. Nature has no borders, on the contrary, it’s diverse and it thrives under different conditions. Wherever you are, whatever you can do to support the wildlife, will only enrich the world. At the same time it’s rather impressive to observe the various habitats of countries like here in Italy where I am now. It’s a radically different experience coming from the Cypriot wild boars, the barn owls and turtles, which are all beautiful in their own right, but here I’m faced with the challenge of filming bears, wolves and deer!
P: Do you take any risks while working in these conditions?
Constantinos: No. Not yet (laughs). Although these animals are probably more afraid of us than we are of them. The brown bear subspecies found here is very wary of humans. If you try and approach them they’ll just turn the other way and run off. There’s never been a record of any person being attacked by this bear.
Helping the bear.
P: Tell us a little about this particular bear, which is the subject of the documentary you are preparing.
CC: The Marsican Brown Bear of the Apennines, is a subspecies of the endangered Eurasian brown bear. Today there are around 50-60 bears located in the Abruzzo National Park, in the central Apennine Mountains. Because their population was isolated in this area for thousands of years, without encountering another brown bear population, they became a subspecies and therefore the way they respond to different situations, and even some features on their face and body, are notably different.
P: As is the case of the Cypriot mouflon.
P: What is the purpose of this documentary?
CC: To describe this bear and the surrounding area and to talk about what this group that commissioned me has set out to do. The ultimate goal is to raise awareness and to discuss the different ways in which we could help protect these bears.
P: How many hours do you spend getting the shots you need?
CC: Countless. Two days ago, our team, which also consists of scientists and members of the organisation, found a cow corpse and stayed out all night in the cold, waiting for predators to notice it – ideally a bear – so that we might film it. Eventually, a fox offered to end our stakeout. On another occasion though, we happened upon a dead deer. A bear came along, followed by wolves and a fox, making for a nice round of shots.
The Italian Interests
P: How would you asses the treatment and management of the environment in Italy? Could you make a comparison with the conditions in Cyprus?
CC: Matters are a bit worse, since a lot of interests are at stake here, which isn’t to say that it isn’t the case in Cyprus – but, for example, the province recently approved a permit for a ski resort to be expanded – even though it stopped snowing in the area – relying heavily on snowfall to support the venue. They devised a solution by using groundwater to produce artificial snow. On the other hand, Italy has more animal welfare organisations and conservation areas are looked after rather well.
P: Have there been any difficulties in filming the documentary due to the pandemic?
CC: I was supposed to be here by early May, but it took an additional two months because of travel limitations. As soon as I was able to, I flew out to Italy. Because we are so far away from the city, in a small village in the National Park, COVID concerns as well as protective measures haven’t really impacted the documentary. I can assure you that I am safer here than in Nicosia. There’s a one in a million chance of being exposed to the virus.
The boomerang disaster
P: Greek-American filmmaker Louis Psihoyos, a National Geographic photographer and Oscar-winning director of wildlife documentaries, once said that “movies should be made to change the world, not to eat popcorn.” Do you subscribe to that? Is that another reason that you want to make wildlife films?
CC: Of course. And like I said before, not just in Cyprus, but anywhere in the world where I can find an opportunity to tell a story. You know, there are plenty of documentaries that expose the ways in which man harms the environment, but mankind is the environment itself. The hard hitting truth of this realisation is imminent and that is what I think a wildlife director ought to present to the world. That it isn’t just the environment, that these consequences will weigh down on all of us. If each person stops to consider how “if I use pesticides to get rid of rodents, I’m poisoning myself; if I throw away plastic, I eat plastic”, then we might get on the right track and hope for a better tomorrow. This is what we aim for with the people I have worked with, this is our purpose for creating wildlife documentaries.
P: Could you share any encounters you’ve had with endangered species and how you intended to film them?
CC: We were in a village here in Italy, following a mother bear with her four cubs. She caught the smell of food from the village and so she came down from the mountain along with her little ones. Because she insisted on visiting every day, news quickly spread around the area, leading to a lot of people driving up here to view the spectacle, and causing such a big fuss that the bears became irritated and frustrated. That was an unpleasant consequence, but it needed to be documented.
P: A self-defeating task to disturb or endanger an animal. With regards to the way you work, both for filming and editing, do you use a particular methodology?
CC: The fundamental framework that guides me is the simple notion that the animal should always come first. If I come up with an idea that might interfere with the animal’s routine – or annoy it even – I abandon it because, as you say, it’s a “self-defeating task”. At the end of the day, the reason I’m here is for the wellbeing and the protection of the animal, as well as for an unbiased documentation. I wouldn’t trespass inside a wolf’s cave just to take pictures or something trivial like that. Be that as it may, an effective way to tell a story is through sequencing, which is the seamless assembly of dynamic shots from various angles, presenting an animal or a species / subspecies – they may not always be the same – while, for example, they settle down to eat or when they go for a drink of water, or perhaps while climbing, trying to traverse the landscape. The result can be sublime. It’s also worth noting that specialists, scientists and academics should always inform the filmmaking approach, so that the outcome can achieve a high level realism, as they point out what could and couldn’t be done. For example, you’d be filming a different coat of fur on a bear during springtime than in the autumn, so it’s useful to be aware of all the little details and to make such distinctions.
Life in the Buffer Zone
P: Before leaving for Italy, you collaborated with the community of Deneia and wildlife researcher Haris Nikolaou to create a documentary on their approach for regulating rodents by installing barn owl nests. How would you describe it?
CC: Deneia is one of four Cypriot villages that is situated inside the buffer zone following the Turkish invasion of 1974. Near the village is a prehistoric settlement, where exposed tombs allowed for the rapid growth of the rodent population. The rodents had disrupted the community’s agricultural and livestock operations to such an extent that it threatened their livelihood. The farms were filled, they would chew on the watering hoses and the wires, often destroying them. A number of villagers even suffered from typhoid four years ago. In an attempt to address the issue they tried planting pesticides, only to realise that it wasn’t an effective way to repel the rodents, so they reached out to Haris Nikolaou to determine whether their was a sustainable approach to control the situation. That’s how the barn owls came to be introduced to the community, replacing the use of harmful rodenticides completely. At first they installed a few nests and the barn owl population began to grow. There are now about 30 nests set up in the surrounding area. The Department of Forests, the Game and Fauna Service as well as Birdlife Cyprus all got involved in this program and are hoping to implement it in other areas as well. This is generally what’s covered in the documentary.
P: So it was a successful endeavour.
CC: Yes, I’d say so. Both the municipal executive and the residents of Deneia were very happy with the result.
P: The film has been screened at international festivals. How is it going?
CC: So far we were accepted in six festivals worldwide, one of which is especially noteworthy. It’s called the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, based in New York and Los Angeles and it is one of the world’s most popular wildlife festivals.
Some of the stops in an ongoing journey across land and sea, in search of untamed nature and the stories of the animals that endure it, one day at a time.