Citation of Lifetime Achievement, 2007
Biologist, adventurer and film director and producer
Fondation du Sedna and Équiterre, $5,000 award
"If we want to do something to make a difference about climate change, we have to connect with people in a way that makes them care."
In his 2005 film Whale Mission: Keepers of Memory, filmmaker Jean Lemire
takes us on an expedition to the Greenland coast in search of the elusive
North Atlantic right whale. An elegantly shot conservation story, Whale Mission
celebrates these endangered giants of the deep as well as the scientists who brave
high seas, gale-force winds, freezing cold, dense fog and driving rain in search of
clues to protect them.
In one scene, cetacean researcher Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium
explains that the 21-day trip might, if they are lucky, yield four days of solid
research. It's a sobering reminder of the painstaking work that lies behind every
scientific discovery, whether minor or monumental. On that trip, as it turns out,
a single encounter with a northern right whale earned Kraus and fellow scientist
Canadian Moira Brown a tissue sample that eventually proved the genetic link
between the Greenland and fragile Bay of Fundy populations. "This is a long shot,
but it is what we do," admits Brown. "Every bit adds a piece to the puzzle."
If the long-shot approach is a given for scientists, it also reveals much about the
tireless work of documentary filmmaker Lemire. With a perspective that balances
the patience of an intrepid researcher with the aesthetic of an artist, Lemire chronicles
environmental stories and brings them to breathtaking visual life. "Every time
we make a film," he says, "we take whatever time is necessary to have the authentic
experience. It's a very risky business to invest in. We are out on the water as long
as it takes."
A present-day Renaissance man, Lemire not only boasts broad intellectual
interests and accomplishments in both the arts and the sciences but is a visionary
popularizer of environmental stories that have inspired hundreds of millions of
people around the world. Beyond his impressive list of credits as a film and television
director and producer, the 45-year-old is also a master tactician who has
organized historic expeditions to the Arctic and the Antarctic. With his vivid
portrayals of their endangered ecosystems, he has engaged the world in the fight
against climate change.
Born in Drummondville, Que., Lemire followed an unconventional path
that defines his fiercely independent soul. An ambitious biology student, he
graduated with a bachelor's degree from Université de Sherbrooke in 1985 and
had a list of academic publications to his credit before landing his first full-time
job, with the Canadian Wildlife Service. But summers spent working on photoidentification
of whales at the not-for-profit Mingan Island Cetacean Study shaped
Lemire's research interests. "One day, I was out in a Zodiac and a blue whale
popped out of the water right beside me," he recalls. "I knew then what I wanted
to do with the rest of my life." By the time he entered a doctoral program at
Université Laval, Lemire had field experience and the sophisticated Zodiac piloting
skills required for approaching whales. "In addition to my own research," he says,
"I was being asked to chauffeur film crews around. Eventually, I thought, ‘Why
don't I just buy a camera myself?'"
| PHOTO: MARTIN LECLERC
In 1987, Lemire founded Les Productions Ciné-Bio, a scientific consulting
and script-development firm. He produced his first award-winning film, Marine
Mammals Mission, in 1994 and followed that with Encounters
With the Whales of the St. Lawrence (1996), an acclaimed natural-history documentary profiling the
diversity of marine giants in Canadian waters, which Lemire wrote, produced and
co-directed. In 1998, he produced and directed The
Last Frontier, a groundbreaking
work that allows the audience to see humpback whales through the eyes of artist
Allen Smutylo. "By then, I realized the power of media to touch people," says
Lemire. "My work could become the missing link between science and the public."
He eventually left academia and, in 1998, joined Montréal's Max Films as the
manager of television. There, he was responsible for a number of award-winning
productions, including Lumière des Oiseaux and Seals, On the Rocks! "I was often
told, ‘You aren't reaching your audience through television,'" says Lemire, "but I
always felt that to reach a new public was more valuable. When you're talking to
people who already care about the environment and nature, you're not gaining
anything. But if you can reach more people through a popular medium, then you
are moving the process forward."
Even with all his successes, Lemire still found that environmental themes such
as climate change continued to be a tough sell. "I had made my first trip to the
Arctic as a student, and it had a powerful effect on me," he says. "Climate change
had become the most important environmental issue, and I wanted to tell the
story of its impact on the North." Lemire began to envision an Arctic odyssey that
would prove to be too ambitious for other production companies. So he left his
position as a television executive in 2001 to return to filmmaking, establishing
Glacialis Productions Inc., a company that specializes in natural sciences, arts and
culture. "People said, ‘You're going to quit all of this to make your own documentaries
again?' But I knew if I wanted to do something about climate change, then I
would have to connect with everyone. I realized I could be the eyes of the public."
At the helm of his own production company once more, Lemire was free to follow his instincts. The project he'd envisioned became known as Arctic Mission,
a five-month adventure through the Northwest Passage in which Lemire served as
expedition leader to a crew of scientists and filmmakers. "I wanted to invent a new
model and use money from the movie business to advance research," he explains.
"It's my way of giving back to the scientists. It is closer to my own desires and
values to reinvest in research."
Lemire put together a purchasing group that acquired a three-masted 51-metre
steel sailboat built in 1957. Christened with an Inuit word that means "sea goddess,"
Sedna IV was refurbished as a state-of-the-art merchant boat worthy of
polar exploration. Outfitted with high-precision navigational equipment, it also
had a cutting room for the production of high-definition film, making it the finest
floating studio in the world. "With the ship," says Lemire, "I could combine
adventure and science to tell real stories on film."
The Arctic trip became the basis for Lemire's five-part production Arctic Mission,
which aired on "The Nature of Things" with David Suzuki and on Radio-Canada
and Télé-Québec. Lemire's own directorial contribution to the series, The Great
Adventure, captures the splendour, serenity and vulnerability of the Arctic and the
impact that climate change is having on its people, wildlife and landscape. "These
are the last places where you can see what it was like on Earth before industrialization,"
he explains. "You have that rare chance to be connected to nature. Not just
a weekend walk in wilderness, but a chance to be a part of nature around you."
Nominated for eight Prix Gémeaux and three Gemini Awards, Arctic Mission has
aired before hundreds of millions of viewers in a dozen countries.
Some purists question the mix of emotion and science in Lemire's work. "I feel
the atmosphere, and my goal is to put it on the screen," he says. "If we want to
do something to make a difference about climate change, we have to connect with
people in a way that makes them care." Today, the filmmaker addresses sold-out
crowds across Canada with talks that blend the topic of climate change with adventure.
During his recent 15-month trip to the Antarctic — documented in a soonto-
be released feature film and television series — he maintained 10 direct satellite
links for schools, while another 820 schools logged on through the internet. As
many as 830,000 people visited the Antarctic Mission website each day. "We realized
that if the public had the opportunity to follow us, asking questions, it would
draw people in," says Lemire. "Otherwise, the sad truth is that no one but other
scientists would ever know about this work."
Lemire's incredible reach is proof that the public is, indeed, hungry for environmental
content, and his "new model" is unifying scientists and citizens in the
name of environmental action. "The environment has become the number-one
priority for Canadians," says Lemire. "If we learn to be close to nature again and
think of ourselves as part of it, the problems we face might be solved."