Published: Jul 18, 2017
Updated: Jul 18, 2017

Kathryn Bigelow makes movies that make a difference

Author: Christy Roland
Kathryn Bigelow on stage at AT&T SHAPE

When National Geographic tapped Kathryn Bigelow to work on their first virtual reality (VR) short, they didn’t just get an incredible and versatile filmmaker, they got someone passionate about protecting animals. Her VR short, The Protectors, Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes, isn’t long, but it’s powerful. In just five minutes, it tells the story of the Garamba National Park rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who stand between poachers and the extinction of wild elephants.


Attendees at AT&T SHAPE had the opportunity to view this film the way it was meant to be seen: wearing Samsung VR headsets. Watching the movie in this fashion, we didn’t just learn the individual stories of the rangers, who were severely underequipped (they didn’t even have radios to let anyone know they were in trouble), we actually got to walk in their virtual shoes. Before we watched the film, Kathryn encouraged the audience to look everywhere—even behind them and on the ground. Indeed, we quickly learned what these rangers faced everyday—imminent danger around every blade of grass, not just from poachers who had helicopters, heavy artillery, and night-vision glasses, but also from wild animals. The narrative speaks to the hallmark of Bigelow’s work: creating empathy for her characters. She’s not interested in a passive audience experience. She prefers creating an experience that actively engages the relationship between the viewer and the screen.


“In the case of The Hurt Locker, there’s very little score. The repetition of rhythm is kind of comforting. If you take that away, you sort of put the audience in an uncertain place. With The Hurt Locker, it made a lot of sense,’ explained Bigelow during a conversation with Greg Hittelman, Director of Communications at the Enough Project. “In Iraq in 2004, 2005, and 2006, it was an incredibly volatile area, and I wanted you to understand that. At the time, it was an underreported war.”


Content Driving Technology

Kathryn Bigelow at AT&T SHAPE intro

Whether it’s an Oscar-winning movie, short VR documentary, or a 2D animation short, Bigelow strives to pick the right medium to tell the story she wants. Shooting in 360 was an opportunity to let us know the rangers in a way that we haven’t before. The content drove the decision to film in 360 and not vice versa. It always starts with the story and what medium will serve it best. In fact, prior to creating The Protectors, she worked on Last Days, a film that looked at the demand for ivory. She saw that there was a connection between terrorism and the extinction of elephants. “They were looked at as slow-moving ATM machines,” Bigelow said.


Telling stories like Last Days and The Protectors shines a light on a devastating issue, so people can help. Case in point, Bigelow and the Enough Project took Last Days to Washington and screened it for the House of Representatives. Five days later, the House passed the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act that would put an end to elephant (and other wildlife) poaching. The Senate passed the bill shortly after.


Similarly, Bigelow was on a Tribeca VR panel during which they screened The Protectors. After the event, activity on the African National Parks website increased dramatically. People wanted to learn more and see how they could help. “Garamba is under siege by poachers. The elephant population is dwindling now. This park used to be a vibrant home for them. In 10 years, we could lose all the wild elephants in Africa and lots of other animals,” says Bigelow. “There is something we can do, even as storytellers.”


Bigelow’s latest project is a movie called Detroit about the Detroit riots of 1967.


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