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climate refugees
A still from Michael Nash's 'Climate Refugees.' Image credit: Climate Refugees film crew

EXCLUSIVE: Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Nash join forces on new climate change documentary

February 14, 2022

Award-winning environmental film director Michael Nash took a new approach to covering the climate crisis with his 2010 film ‘Climate Refugees.’ And it was an approach that immediately caught the attention of the UN, the US Congress, and the film industry elite.

Nash wanted to uncover the human face of climate change.

“At that point, there had been a lot of really wonderful films made on climate change; most of them really focusing on the cause of it,” he tells AFN. With ‘Climate Refugees,’ Nash wanted to investigate how people were being impacted – inspired in part by the concept of environmental refugees that he’d learned from a Japanese news article. “I’d never really heard that term before, and I was like, ‘What does that even mean?'”

The result was a film that was privately screened in the Capitol to US policymakers from both main parties before it was even complete. On the movie’s official release at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford called it “an agent for social change.”

Nash is now preparing to film a sequel, and has some high-profile backers on board: Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio and his father, performance artist George DiCaprio, are both executive producers.

AFN‘s Louisa Burwood-Taylor (LBT) caught up with Nash (MN) and DiCaprio senior (GD) to learn more. (Parties interested in supporting the film can contact Elizabeth Riley at [email protected].

LBT: How did you set about filming ‘Climate Refugees’ after you’d decided what approach to take?

MN: We traveled to 48 countries in search of the human face of climate change. And our focus on that film was, what does it look like? Does it exist? If it does, what can we do about it? We spoke to a lot of politicians and a lot of scientists, but we really wanted to speak to farmers and fishermen and people who had lived on the land for generations, hundreds of years, and sometimes up to thousands of years in some of the places that we went. We wanted to see how their lives had been altered from these shifting climate patterns.

What we found, was this intersection and civilization where a growing population, overconsumption, lack of resources and a changing climate are in collision with each other. And out of that collision, and that intersection of these forces coming together, we learned that there’s millions of people that are being forced to relocate from where they once lived. And when you look deep into this, there’s all sorts of reasoning for what fueled the change. At the very core of it, no matter where we went, it really came down to water. Some places were getting too much water; some places were getting too little water.

Years ago, when you ran out of water or there weren’t as many fish in the bay as there once was, you packed up your bags and you moved the family north or south or whatever direction it was, to where you could find the resources, feed your family, survive.

Now we live in a border nation society, and those people that are being affected and no longer have clean drinkable water or water to grow food, are crossing borders and creating conflicts.

LBT: How was the response to the film? 

MN: The first test screening of the film was to the House [of Representatives] and the Senate. And quite frankly, the film wasn’t even ready to be screened at that point; we didn’t have an ending to the film. The film was well-received by both the left and the right, which was always a goal of the film team. About a month and a half later, we screened it at COP19 at the United Nations’ climate summit in Copenhagen.

The world premiere of the film was at Sundance in 2010. At that point, there had been a lot of really wonderful films made on climate change. Most of them really focusing on the cause of it, whereas this film examined the human face of it. Climate Refugees helped illuminate an additional narrative to this whole storyline of our earth really, being challenged by a changing climate.

LBT: There were some heartbreaking scenes in the first film, such as with a Chinese farmer whose rice paddies had been completely destroyed and I believe he’d also lost his family. Did you see similar scenes and scenarios like that come up over and over again?

MN: Yeah. And he was such a sweet man. He lost his family, he lost his farm, he lost his hope. And when one loses hope, it becomes incredibly challenging.

One of the really interesting decisions that we made early on in making the first Climate Refugees was, we knew we were going to be flying into a bunch of places. We were trying to minimize our carbon footprint as much as we could. So in a lot of places, it was literally myself that flew to the remote locations. In bigger places like China or Africa, it was me and one other person, producer Justin Hogan.

We also wanted to hire local talent. We found in hiring local talent, we ended up tracking stories that had never really been talked about, like the gentleman that you’re referring to in China, who lost his farm, his hope.

So for me as a filmmaker, my own personal experience in the journey of traveling around the world and meeting all these wonderful individuals, what became crystal clear, we’re all the same. Yes, we may live in different parts of the world, we may have different skin colors, different accents, languages, religions, but the fact is, we all just want to be able to feed our family. We all want to be able to educate and love our family. We want to be able to be loved and love. We’re really just all in this together.

LBT: Food and farming are hugely relevant in the case for climate refugees. Now you’re coming back to this 12 years later; are you going to go back to the same places again and see if there’s been any progress, or if things have gotten worse? What do you think is going to have changed? 

MN: There will be part of the film where we’re going to go back and see what has happened. Are some of those islands that we were on in Tuvalu underwater now? Yes, to answer your question, we are going to go back to a lot of these places to do an update.

LBT: Do you see there being any positive changes? Thinking about the impact of your first movie […] how that young boy in the film talked about how much they needed America to come and help them. Do you think any of that has happened? 

MN: I hope so. I hope this film along with so many other great films that have addressed this on a large scale has created some change. If you look back in the early nineties and what an environmentalist was, people had this vision of someone hugging a tree and now it’s Elon Musk and Ironman. So it’s becoming cool, but as we do go back there, our process has always been to not create an Eco-Horror film, rather to create a solutions-based narrative that helps people understand a better way forward, in a more sustainable world.

LBT: What do you think some of the solutions are?

MN: There are two different categories. One is handling the whole carbon aspect of this issue. And the other platform is handling the humanitarian aspect of this issue. And so on the carbon issue, the science is clear. We need to minimize our carbon footprint. I think there’s all sorts of great technology that’s coming out, that’s allowing us to do that.

I think from a humanitarian standpoint, the answers that they did not have a decade ago on how do we process 100 million, 200, 300 million climate refugees.  Legally, they don’t fit within the Geneva Convention, and are termed, “environmentally-induced migrants.” It’s a very, very complex issue from a humanitarian standpoint. How do we litigate, mitigate and adapt to this storm rolling toward us.

I think a lot of the solutions come down to just smarter farming and figuring out how to control our water supplies better.

If you just look at China; there’s the river system in China that’s drying up, and many of those rivers leave China and go into Laos and Vietnam and stuff like that. You can see what’s happening with the Colorado River in California. Imagine when you have that same scenario where there’s billions of people and different countries with different ideologies and philosophies. So these are big questions that we’d like to address. I think some of the other folks on the call here are really working on the regenerative aspect of farming. And that’s a big part of it, just being smarter from an agricultural standpoint on how to minimize the use of water and maximize the nutrients in the food that we’re all eating.

LBT: Are you going to showcase any of these innovations and techniques and solutions in the sequel?

MN: We will. Just like in the first one, we ended with a very positive, “Yes, we can fix this.” There’s enough sunlight that hits certain parts of the desert in Africa to power the world. So we do have the opportunity to change to a more sustainable future. The question is, will we, and when will we? Because every decade that we wait, it just complicates the issue more.

LBT: George, I’d love to find out what your involvement is with the film and why you’re getting involved.

GD: Well, of course, I’m working in concert with my son [Leonardo DiCaprio] and it’s quite a story. One of the primal documentary films that Leo noticed years ago, and he kept talking about was ‘Climate Refugees.’ That led to a chance meeting with Michael six or seven years back. And we’ve all been having this conversation about possibly doing a more advanced and up-to-date version of Climate Refugees, because it’s an immense problem. I’ve read books with even more dire predictions about how many Climate Refugees will be created by mid-century.

And this is definitely something that people have to face, but it has to be faced with the idea of the heart. And it has to be faced with the idea of social justice. In a way, anyone could be a Climate Refugee. And that realization is dawning on people here in the United States. How many people in Texas are dying from the cold today? It’s just crazy what’s happening with the climate disruption at the level that it’s happening.

It’s happening on a planetary scale, but it’s dawning on people that we have to have some just way of handling this problem. And of course, it has to start with education. And I would think that Michael’s film already has its foot in the door, as far as making people aware of this oncoming global problem. So Leo and I have already had several conferences with Michael and Laura, and now Elizabeth is in the group. And we’re all kind of teaming up to figure out how we finance this and the clearest way we can present this problem to people, because it’s really a universal problem. It’s even more universal than COVID; it’s reaching everywhere and we’re hoping we’re going to get some backing from good-hearted people.

LBT: Yes, and you’re right about the whole communicating this and educating people. How do you have a clear, community-focused message? How do you have something that’s going to appeal to as many people as possible? 

GD: I think the main driver of all this is human emotion and human, honest, heartfelt sympathy for the world. We want to get to that point. Possibly, our communication system will allow that to happen. Possibly our own meditations will get us there, but I do believe that it’s within the grasp of everyone to get to these realizations, and education is part of it. Michael, we have to get the message out, you know that’s true.

MN: Yes. It’s very true. Just to add onto what George is saying, when I had finished the first film, I remember screening it at the world premier and another filmmaker coming up to me who had just done a big climate film, and me saying, “I’m so glad I’m done with this. I’m looking forward to moving onto my next project.” And he was like, “You don’t understand Michael, you’re not even halfway done with this.” He was right, I quickly learned when you create a film that becomes socially relevant, it’s important to get it seen. And we spent the next three years at universities and high schools and NGOs and foundations and Americans around the world, trying to illuminate the narrative.

One of the things, Louisa, that excites me so much about ‘Climate Refugees 2’ is what we’re doing even before we start shooting the first shot, in terms of ensuring the film gets as much promotion and exposure as people.

I’ve spent the last decade working very closely with the UN. My company, Beverly Hills Productions is a bridge to Hollywood and the UN, supplying content for good so they can use the films as tools of change. Laura [Cox], George, and Leo made a wonderful film on pollinators, as a good example.

This bridge I’ve built with the United Nations was amped-up three years ago, since I’ve been consulting with them on an advisory panel on the best narration forward with climate change. I know that when this film gets finished, we are going to be able to screen this at a very, very high level to policymakers and heads of state globally, in hopes of illuminating answers to better ways to move forward with this intersection that the film is going to address.

The other thing that we’re doing is having many conversations with key companies strategically located around the world that are going to help us push all of this out from Google to MediaMonks in the Netherlands to NexusGlobal in Brazil. We’re also creating a game plan to find influencers in various regions around the world. They may not have become famous from an influencer standpoint through climate or water issues – it could be at anything – but they are very passionate about climate or water issues.

The influencers will be pushing out snippets of the film that we’re doing and when it’s going to be coming out. Our hope is that by the time the film is actually ready and released, we’ve already illuminated the making of the film to tens of millions of people through influencers located around the world. And of course, with George and his son, just the whole bandwidth that comes along with all of that.

So we believe that we’re situated clearly much better than the first film was, to get this story out as wide as we possibly can.

One of the other things that I should just mention that is really key to this, and something the UN has been asking me about in relation to a sequel for the past five or so years, is the hope for this film to create somewhat of a blueprint for G20 countries that will change international policy on assimilation and mitigation of people being forced to relocate because of climate shifts.

Some sources claim that in the coming years there could be over one billion Climate Refugees; 20% of our population are going to be on the run looking for water and food. They’re going to head to the places that have resources like Europe and the United States. So coming up with a blueprint to help countries with this is one of the goals of the film because right now, there are a lot of countries that are really trying to do the right thing, taking immigrants in. And it’s not working in a lot of places, both for the people that are coming in and the countries that are taking them. A lot of these people are falling through the cracks of society. There are all sorts of cultural issues that should be addressed. So we would love to create this blueprint that helps countries understand the process of bringing someone into your country and giving them the highest opportunity for success once they come into your country, where it should be looked upon as a benefit across the board. Both for the new arrivals and the country.

LBT: Before we finish, can you tell me a bit about the timeline, where you guys are, and when you want to start properly filming?

MN: Our goal is to start shooting April 1st, and we’ll shoot probably for a year to 18 months. That’s a little bit fluid simply because of Covid compliances and getting in and out of some of the countries. Hopefully, we will world premiere the sequel at Sundance again. Yeah, so we’re ready to go, and have an award-winning team to execute at a high level.

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