The first time Céline Cousteau visited the Amazon, she was nine years old. As a child, the trip seemed normal to her, but in reality it was the most complex of her grandfather’s expeditions according to his 1983 documentary, Amazonie: au pays des milles rivières. It also had a lasting effect. “I flew down with my grandfather [Jacques Cousteau], spent two weeks on the boat on the river, and it’s undeniable that that experience connected me to the Amazon for life,” she explains.
An accomplished filmmaker, humanitarian, and ambassador for the TreadRight Foundation—a non-profit established by the Travel Corporation that is dedicated to supporting sustainable tourism projects around the globe—Céline Cousteau is working on her own highly anticipated documentary about the Amazon, due for release this fall and tentatively titled Tribes on the Edge. In contrast to her grandfather’s environmentally focused work in the region, Cousteau’s documentary takes a more anthropological approach, taking aim at the plight of six tribes in Brazil’s Javari Valley.
She first visited them in 2007 while filming Return to the Amazon with her father, Jean-Michel Cousteau. She was present at a conference of the tribes, and upon hearing about their astounding rates of hepatitis and malaria, and the inadequacy of the government health organization tasked with providing them medical care, she was moved to figure out a way to help. So, when members of the tribes asked her to tell their story, she didn’t hesitate.
“The documentary started as much more of a cinema vérité following their stories and letting them use their voice,” she explains, “but as the years went by, my story is so interwoven in the Amazon that I was really encouraged and pushed to make my story part of the whole. It’s relatable to an international audience in the sense that they can identify themselves perhaps more in me. I take the audience on this trip and we learn about what the tribes are dealing with, we learn about who they are and what their challenges are, but the bigger story is that this is the human tribe on the edge.”
As Cousteau tells it, these Amazonian tribes have been threatened ever since the first rubber tappers and gold miners invaded their land in the late 1800s, bringing contagious diseases not native to the area, killing half the population. Today, the Javari indigenous territory is home to the largest number of uncontacted people—the most vulnerable people—in the Amazon and perhaps on the entire planet. Their ecosystem is under constant stress from logging, fishing, hunting, gold mining, and other illegal activities. Medicine is scarce and there’s no refrigeration for vaccinations. Invited into their world, Cousteau filmed hours of footage documenting their daily lives and conducted countless interviews with the help of a translator. Nothing was crafted or contrived. “I was there not to just show the beauty of the people and the place, and how they live and what they look like, but to have their voices heard,” she says. She didn’t request that people do anything specific—whether a ceremonial dance or a hunt—but simply observed like a fly on the wall, quickly mobilizing her production crew of six if, say, a group of women suddenly headed off into the jungle.
“This isn’t just about indigenous people in the Amazon. By protecting indigenous people, we can prevent deforestation.”
Yet, as Cousteau explains, “This isn’t just about indigenous people in the Amazon. By protecting indigenous people, we can prevent deforestation, as there is no deforestation [allowed] on indigenous land, and we can mitigate climate change and safeguard the biodiversity that might introduce future medicines to the wider world.” By putting a spotlight on these larger environmental issues, she hopes to push viewers to ask, “What do we stand to lose if these people die off?”
If it seems natural that Cousteau would become an advocate for endangered people and environments because of her family’s legacy, it wasn’t always a given. At Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, she studied psychology and studio art. After graduating, she worked in psychiatric hospitals in Saratoga Springs and Santa Fe, New Mexico, before returning to school and doing a master’s at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. Her studies included doing an internship at the University for Peace in Costa Rica. For a while, she led hiking and biking trips. She has even designed jewellery for Swarovski and with British fashion designer Deborah Milner created a sustainable collection around coral bleaching and regeneration. Filming documentaries was never really part of her plan, but when her father was filming his Ocean Adventures series for PBS in 2006, she offered to help. “I started helping on the logistics, planning, and production, and then they shoved me in front of a camera,” she recalls.
At the time, Jean-Michel was documenting the grey whale migration from Baja California to Alaska, and Cousteau joined him in Oregon. It was her first real taste of the filmmaking life, and she loved it so much that she kept doing it. She made a series of 12 documentaries called Oceano: Chile Frente al Mar about the oceans of Chile for Chilean television. She founded CauseCentric Productions, whose mission is to “amplify the voices and communicate the stories of solution-focused grassroots organizations and individuals working on environmental and socio-cultural issues.” With CauseCentric, she has produced short films about people in Peru, Uganda, Papua New Guinea, rural New York state, and Mexico, in addition to the Amazon.
When we meet in New York on a sunny morning in May, Cousteau has just returned from a five-week trip to Patagonia, where she was filming Céline Cousteau, l’aventure continue for French television network France 3. She will soon start filming a yet-to-be-named 10-part series with her father and her older brother, Fabien Cousteau, that will air on the Science Channel in early 2019. Meanwhile, Tribes on the Edge won a Special Jury Award at the Brazil International Film Festival in May, and Cousteau has launched a crowdfunding campaign to secure finishing funds for the film and hold an impact strategy meeting in the Amazon with indigenous leaders, NGOs, and project partners.
Though her work in the Amazon isn’t what most people do when they’re on vacation, Cousteau encourages travellers to get out of their comfort zone and explore the remote corners of the world. As an ambassador for the TreadRight Foundation, she has been instrumental in choosing which projects to support and raising awareness about them. Since being established in 2008, TreadRight has supported more than 35 sustainability projects, including Wilderness Foundation Africa, the Cape Leopard Trust, the Sustainable River Cruising Project, the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative, and Venice in Peril. The organization recently announced a new partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Big Cats fund aimed at protecting big cat species across Africa, Asia, and Latin America—a project Cousteau is especially passionate about.
“As an accomplished storyteller and passionate humanitarian, Céline’s work has inspired countless individuals to forge a deep connection between themselves and the world,” says Brett Tollman, founder of the TreadRight Foundation and chief executive officer of the Travel Corporation. “She has an incredible understanding and deep appreciation for the symbiotic relationship between travel and how that helps one to develop a true appreciation and respect for the planet.”
Cousteau may have inherited her drive and passion for preserving the planet from her family, but she’s certainly making her own mark on the world.
Though she’s often on the road for work, Cousteau tries to spend at least two weeks at a time at home in Ulster County, New York, with her husband, Çapkin van Alphen, a camera operator and drone pilot, and her six-year-old son, Félix. She tells me she used to take Félix on a lot of her trips before he started school. She hasn’t yet brought him to the Amazon, but she plans to. “As a child, you just see the monkeys, the butterflies, the frogs, the piranhas. You don’t intellectualize it, you just experience it, which I think is all the more reason why if parents can take their kids to have travel experiences, they should,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be as exotic as the Amazon, but just go and experience new places. Eat street food. Don’t worry about every single little bacteria or whatever it is. Your kids will be okay. Keep them safe, but take them everywhere. Because that experience influenced who I am.”
Cousteau may have inherited her drive and passion for preserving the planet from her family, but she’s certainly making her own mark on the world. “I feel that we can always do more, and my only frustration in my work is there’s so much more to do,” she says. “But waking up every morning and knowing that I’m doing something and I have a purpose is pretty big.”
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