Telling nature's stories: Interview with wildlife documentarian Kevin Zaouali

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Right whale, Puerto Pirámides, Argentina. Photo: Kevin ZaoualiRight whale, Puerto Pirámides, Argentina. Photo: Kevin Zaouali
 
 
Peninsula Valdes, in Argentine Patagonia, is internationally renowned for its whale watching. It is an exceptional spot for observing whales due to its sheltered bays, which offer safe harbor for migrating southern right whales to mate, birth, and raise their calves away from the harsh elements and most predators. 
 
For many visitors, it’s enough to stand on the beaches of the El Doradillo Natural Protected Area, or take a boating tour out into the waters to see whales spouting and maybe breaching. But for wildlife photographer and documentarian Kevin Zaouali, he wanted to do more than capture a moment: he wanted to tell a story.
 
Zaouali, a 26-year-old film director from Buenos Aires, has been taking photos and videos of the wildlife and elements of Patagonia and other places around the world for the past four years, turning them into award-winning short films with his production company Lyra Films. His latest project is “Ballena Franca” (The Southern Right Whale).
 
The short film offers an intimate look into the lives of southern right whales at Peninsula Valdes, particularly focusing on one individual whale as the protagonist of the film: a mother named Aoni (which means “south” in the Tehuelche language). Zaouali and his team, with the help of the monitoring program at the Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (Whale Conservation Institute), were able to track Aoni and her calf, capturing beautiful moments of the two together. The documentary is a touching story about emotion, beauty, and connection.
 
Patagon Journal’s Cristóbal Pérez spoke recently with Zaouali about his film, what draws him to Patagonia wildlife, and what he hopes to capture next through his lens.
 
Cristóbal Pérez: What is your relationship with nature, and with the sea in particular?
Kevin Zaouali: I just feel a part of it. Since childhood my parents taught me to admire, understand and feel nature. My intimate moments with the sea started on the shores of Oman when I was 6-years-old, where I spent hours watching the fish swimming under the pier of the town where we lived. Silence, contemplation and hours spent admiring life in all its forms.
 
When did you realize that you would dedicate your life to this?
It's something that happened very naturally and from a very young age. I was always "the family photographer.” At 14, I started taking pictures regularly thanks to the teachings of Luis Calizaya, my great mentor in photography. With the passage of time, and thanks to the support of family and friends, the road only became more evident. It is a passion that was there forever, and it is not something that will ever stop.
 
 
Southern right whale, Puerto Pirámides, Argentina. Photo: Kevin ZaoualiSouthern right whale, Puerto Pirámides, Argentina. Photo: Kevin Zaouali
 
 
How was the documentary “Ballena Franca” created?
After I finished my studies in biology and cinema, I decided to create a short film that would allow me to express my way of looking at and feeling nature. After talking with Santiago Sainz-Trapaga, my partner at Lyra Films, we decided to focus on the southern right whale, because of our connection with the Patagonian seas and especially with this majestic animal. For us, the whale occupies an important place in our lives for the simple fact of having lived in Puerto Madryn. There, the whale occupies an almost central place in the life of every person; in some way or another we are all linked to it.
 
We worked daily for six months to create a script, plan the shoot, put together a team of artists and get the necessary funding. With winter approaching, when we had to start filming, and without having found a collaborator to finance the film, we decided to create a crowd funding campaign to cover the filming expenses. A month after starting the campaign, and thanks to the help of dozens of people and organizations that donated, we were able to begin shooting.
 
What is the message you want to convey with the documentary?
What we want to transmit is a message of love toward the sea. For us, it is not enough to know to conserve, we also have to love. The message is as simple as that.
 
In the film, there are seven voice passages with texts taken from different poems by different authors from all over the world. The whale is never mentioned. The narrative is not there to cover any holes in the story, rather it has its own value. It is not a film that concentrates on information, quite the contrary, we put aside the data to make the emotions the main focus.
 
 
Elephant seals at Caleta de Valdés, Argentina. Photo: Kevin ZaoualiElephant seals at Caleta de Valdés, Argentina. Photo: Kevin Zaouali
 
 
What is the southern right whale like? What makes it such a special animal?
Personally, what most excites me about right whales are the relationships between individuals, and their social lives. They make huge migrations from their feeding sites near Antarctica to the waters of the Peninsula Valdés, meeting there with other whales of its kind. The rituals of seduction, copulation and then the upbringing of newborn calves are very complex and wonderful to watch. The love between the whales exists, and it is very strong.
 
Can you tell us more about the production itself?
It took us six months to study the whales, write the script, and plan the shooting of the film. Once winter arrived, we concentrated on a month and a half of intense shooting in the Peninsula Valdés area. The story required different filming methods to capture the different aspects of the life of the whale: under the water, on the surface and from the air.
 
The time of the day and weather would dictate how the filming for the day should proceed. On very windy days, for example, you could not fly the drone or go sailing, so on those days we dedicated ourselves to filming from the coast. The sunrises and sunsets worked well on the surface of the water, so we took advantage of the soft light at those times whereas during mid-day we worked underwater. For the underwater shots, we had access to the Yellow Submarine, a semi-submersible boat that allowed us to film everything we needed underwater without having to dive. This helped us to spend more hours underwater and to wait for the right moments where the curious whales would come to interact with us.

In addition to the Yellow Submarine, we had the support of numerous organizations such as the Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas, The Conservation Land Trust, Bottazzi Whale Watch, Southern Spirit, Scuba Duba and the environment ministry of Chubut province, just to name a few of the organizations because it is impossible to name all of the individuals. About 300 people have been part of this project in one way or another, and each has been instrumental in achieving our goal of bringing the history of the right whale to film.
 
 
Photographers in the afternoon, Península de Valdés. Photo: Kevin ZaoualiPhotographers in the afternoon, Península de Valdés. Photo: Kevin Zaouali
 
 
What was the most difficult thing that you had to overcome in the production?
During the planning, we identified that the moment of copulation was the most difficult to capture and the one that could not be missed in order to tell our story. Then, during shooting, things would not go as planned: for example, the copulation was filmed just a few days after the start of the campaign, and other relatively simple situations, such as the whale jumps required more effort to capture than imagined.

There is a sequence where orcas appear for about a minute in the documentary that required a full month of filming with this species because we wanted to maintain the same quality of visual narration that we had achieved with the right whales. Those days sailing, surrounded by orcas, were some of the most exciting and happiest days of my life.

What do you like most about South America, Argentina and Patagonia?
That I can still find a place away from all traces of humanity and be surrounded by wildlife, a place where I can still have moments of silence and contemplation. It does not seem like a big deal, but in reality, it is, and you have to value it and take care of it. Wild places are disappearing in the world every passing day, and everything is becoming more artificial.

Patagonia is also a special place in the world to me because it has impressive energy. It has a strong character, and it’s not for everyone. At times Patagonia is calm and silent, and at others it becomes a storm of wind and sand with huge waves on the coast. That moment where everything seems to fly through the air is when I enjoy Patagonia the most.
 
 
Sea lion colony at Caleta de Valdés. Photo: Kevin ZaoualiSea lion colony at Caleta de Valdés. Photo: Kevin Zaouali
 
 
Sea lions, Puerto Pirámides. Photo: Kevin ZaoualiSea lions, Puerto Pirámides. Photo: Kevin Zaouali
 

What are some of your future projects?
I still have a lot of work to do and dreams to fulfill. I am in love with my land and with all the life that lives in it. To bring our stories and our way of seeing nature to the big movie theaters of the world is without a doubt my biggest dream. Personally, the islands of southern Patagonia and Antarctica are pending for me and I will include them in my next project. Right now, we are working on a documentary film for cinema about animal evolution and behavior. A very poetic film that aims at a global audience.
 
Do you think society is on the right track in protecting ecosystems and wild places?
Sincerely, I don’t know. There are many passionate people working tirelessly to put us in a better situation with respect to the environment and the future. Personally, I believe that what we need is a revolution of love; between humans and also with the rest of the creatures with which we share the planet. Maybe that is where we will put the focus of the next movie!
 
To find out where you can see the film and for more information, go to www.lyrafilms.org. Below, the trailer for Ballena Franca.


La Ballena Franca - Trailer Oficial from LYRA FILMS | Wildlife Cinema on Vimeo.