David Conover
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David Conover

Filmmaking Outside the Box: David Conover Fights for the Environment through Video

Without video, it can often be difficult to visualize the impact humans have on ecosystems. But it's a challenge that filmmaker David Conover has made his life's work. Combining a passion for oceans and energy conservation with a unique storytelling style, Conover hopes to catalyze change through visual media.

Take for instance, Conover's short film, "Hands Off Our Bottom" about deep-sea bottom trawling in the northeastern Atlantic, near the United Kingdom. The title may be tongue-in-cheek, but the subject matter is serious. This fishing method—where industrial trawlers drag nets behind boats at depths greater than 650 feet—is recognized by scientists as one of the most destructive in modern history because it threatens a vast array of species and wipes out coral on the ocean floor.

In the film, nude performing artists appear to undulate like the ocean against a black backdrop as beautiful corals and sea sponges painted on their bodies dance in brilliant hues of orange, red, and purple. Then, between interspersing footage of actual trawlers scraping the seabed and emptying countless organisms from huge nets onto their decks, the artists scratch the paint from their faces and torsos—revealing nothing but a colorless void underneath. The message: thousands of years of ocean life, gone in seconds, and lost forever. The film supports an online petition calling on UK government officials to preserve these vulnerable creatures and their deep water habitats by supporting a proposed ban on the fishing practice near their coastlines.

"Oftentimes when it comes to crafting a video, filmmakers take the safe road," Conover says, referring to some objection to the use of nudity in film. "But you need surprise. Sometimes video reaches awareness but it doesn't reach the engagement threshold. It needs to stand out in some way."

"Hands Off" isn't the only work of Conover's that has stood out. He says he took heat from politicians and utility groups when visualizations in three short films about the controversial Northern Pass project predicted what the future of New Hampshire would look like after the creation of transmission lines over neighborhoods. The videos drew thousands of supporters to sign a "Bury or Stop Northern Pass" petition online.

"They didn't like seeing the impact," Conover says. "They were trying to discredit the film. But we based it on exact reports on their projects."

A Future Transformed

Conover says his love for the environment is firmly rooted in his experiences growing up in the idyllic highlands of western Massachusetts, a region known as the Berkshires.

"We lived on a hill in a house that my dad built," Conover says. "My parents were both adventurous spirits and looked for opportunities for us to be outdoors. Every winter we'd go into the mountains. During summers, we'd go out into the ocean."

Conover says he and his three siblings spent a lot of times on their father's small boat. He attributes most of what he knows about boating to his dad, a former navy man.

"We'd set off, and to me it was a great example of getting out there and trying something new."

After graduating from Maine's Bowdoin College in 1983, Conover embraced life as a professional seaman—spending time in both the Atlantic and Pacific, and making two transatlantic crossings on small boats. He spent five years designing and teaching sea courses to young people in Maine and Florida, and then went onto Harvard University to obtain his Master's degree in Education. He found his calling in filmmaking after directing and producing his first documentary, "Outward Bound" in 1987, and launched his own motion picture company, Compass Light Productions. The company, which is based in Maine, has taken him on moviemaking expeditions in more than 50 countries—where he documents the great outdoors and marine life.

Poised to be a third generation member of the family oil business that his grandfather started in the 1940s, it was seeing the world that led him to change the course of his life and become a conservationist.

"I knew it was not the way to go," Conover says. "I just really had the feeling that I was obligated to be a part of something different."

He says he saw his father realize, during his retirement years, the hidden costs of burning fossil fuels. But filmmaking brought Conover an awareness of how the oil enterprise, which was originally intended to improve people's lives, was having a detrimental impact on the environment.

No example was starker than the Exxon Valdez spill, which Conover covered as a filmmaker in 1989. That disaster dumped between eleven and 38 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, killing countless wildlife—including sea birds, otters, harbor seals, bald eagles, orcas and fish.

"Filmmaking has the capacity to generate attention, heat, and be mission-driven," Conover says. "So I shifted from making evocative films covering the beauty of nature to seeing video as a catalyst for change."

Conover established the non-profit organization, Conservation Media Group, last year to provide infrastructure for people working toward conservation efforts and who produce video and distribute film that has a positive effect on urgent ocean and energy challenges. As a 2014-2015 Coastal Studies Scholar and part-time professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, Conover also makes education an integral part of his mission-driven work.

"My goals are for my students to find their own capacity, their own voice, communicate with other people, and move on a problem of interest to them," he says. "As they learn the tools of media, they can build a coalition and work on tough problems."

As for the future of the oceans and our energy problems, Conover says he's hopeful that our conservation challenges are just a blip in our human history.

"I think that the connection to a healthy planet is deep inside people," he says. "With all that we've gone through in the last 200 to 300 years, our connections are deep enough that we can see a way forward and to make a difference—on a bigger scale. That gives me hope. But there's a lot that needs to be done."

Featured in our Summer 2015 E-Newsletter.