The Cousteau name is a formidable one in the realm of nature documentary, and for junior members of the family, it’s a brand that comes with a heavy burden of expectation.
Céline Cousteau, whose new film Tribes on the Edge is a highlight of this year’s online Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival (and helps kick it off Sept. 23), has had to wrestle with this auspicious lineage.
Her grandfather is legendary documentarian Jacques, whose films and books taught a love of the natural world to generations of people the world over. Her father is nature filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau, her mother nature photographer Anne Marie Cousteau.
I asked Céline: Given that imposing legacy, is there any chance you could walk up to the dinner table as a teen and say, “I think I’ll be an auto mechanic”?
“When I was a teenager, what I said when I walked up to the dinner table was that I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said with a laugh, speaking online from France.
Though raised in several countries (including the United States) and fluent in several languages, she said France is the “taproot” she returns to when getting her life back in order. This time, it’s followed the completion of the eight-year labor of love that is Tribes on the Edge, a harrowing profile of Indigenous tribes working to preserve what’s left of their corner of the Amazon wilderness in Brazil.
Céline Cousteau, now 49, spent nearly two years in the Amazon as a child, traversing the watershed with her explorer/filmmaker grandfather. The immersive life of a globe-trotting filmmaker was so familiar to her that when she came of age, she always figured she’d make her mark in a different way.
“I knew I wanted to study psychology," she said. “I was keenly interested in why people behave the way they do. Why do some people succumb to stress, for instance, why do some people manage it and thrive? So that’s what I ended up studying, and I must say it has helped me enormously.” She completed her undergraduate work at Skidmore College, and later earned an advanced degree in international relations.
When she finally did turn to writing and film as an adult — she accompanied father Jean-Michel to the Peruvian Amazon a decade ago for the short film Amazon Promise — she brought her training in psychology and culture with her, combining the Cousteau legacy with a perspective that gives her film work its own distinct stamp.
You see it immediately in Tribes on the Edge, with its compassionate interest in the people she introduces us to in the Javari Valley of northwest Brazil, deep in the Amazon, where an encroaching modern world (and an unfriendly Bolsonaro government) threatens the forest they inhabit and the lives they lead.
It’s a complicated and compelling portrait — the modern world beckons and threatens in equal measure, creating a constant push and pull between the desire to adapt and a deeply cultural inclination to preserve the world they inherited. Many of the Javari tribesmen see themselves as warriors fighting to save the wilderness, rapidly shrinking as palm oil cultivation, ranching, and mining claim more of the forest, often illegally.
The movie’s clear implication is that more folks should learn to see themselves as the Javari do — the word “tribes” in the title is a double entendre, taking note of increasing tribalization of societies everywhere.
“Coming back to my family legacy, with me it means putting humans at the center of the environmental story,” Cousteau said. "Yes, we should save the dolphins and the whales, but we need to think about the danger facing our own species.
“That danger is extinction,” she continued. “Twenty percent of the fresh air we breathe comes from the forests the Javari are trying to protect. So we are completely connected to them. Not just theoretically, but actually. They are the guardians of this critical ecosystem. And their fight is our fight.”
Setting her work next to the films of her grandfather illuminates a telling difference in point of view. Jacques showed us a vast, often trackless natural world of ceaseless wonder and possibility. Céline shows us something else — an increasingly finite natural world that is each day more diminished, scarce, fragile.
“I think where we have things in common is that the films are inspirational, in their own way. I think this film is tough, but it is not hopeless. We can choose do something,” she said.
Céline Cousteau also has a third-generation documentarian’s sophisticated and, to some degree, cautious view of what it means to present a view of a people like the Javari. When she was in the Peruvian Amazon helping her father for Amazon Promise, she remembers vividly an exchange with a tribal elder, a man candidly jaded about the parade of earnest, well-meaning filmmakers who’d been in and out of his village.
“He looks at me and says, ‘So you come into my village and take our stories, you leave with our images, you talk to our shamans, and take our knowledge and make your little pills. But for us, things do not change,’ ” she recalls
“And I said, ‘Hopefully people will see this film and see what happened with Indigenous people.’ "
"And he looks at me and says, ‘That’s nice, but in the end, we see nothing.’ ”
This prompted a sea change (pardon the pun) in the way Cousteau looked at her work. So much so that she was reluctant to take up an invitation 10 years ago by a Javari representative to tell their story. She agreed only after Beto Marubo, a Javari elder and organizer for the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley (affiliated tribes representing 7,000 people), made repeated attempts to recruit her.
From the time she took the job, she did so with the idea that she’d create more than a film. In tandem, there would be a funding stream to help the Javari people as they wish to be helped. (The film’s website, tribesontheedge.com, has a donations portal, which right now is providing drones to monitor and record incursions into Javari land, as well as education/activist programs.)
“In some ways, I think this film chose me," she said. “And believe me, I’d rather have been making a movie about dolphins in the Bahamas.”
“But the time is right for this, I feel,” Cousteau said. "The pandemic has made us realize how connected we all are to each other, all over the world, how what we do affects other people. So in a strange way I think the movie came together at exactly the right time.”
Online Sept. 23-27 at philaenvirofilmfest.org.
Individual program tickets, $12. (A program is typically a feature or features paired with a bundle of short films.) Unlimited pass for 13 programs, $30.