Jason Taylor is a filmmaker that combines technical prowess with a strong mission.
He’s been a staple of the STALKR library for many years and we often find ourselves captivated by his films, as well as by his work for The Source Project, a social venture he founded in 2010. Much of his work is set in isolated, rural areas talking to local residents -especially farmers- about their communities and the difficult issues they face. His goal is to genuinely portray the realities of these communities that so few people have access to. We at STALKR celebrate and promote Jason´s work and unflinching motivation for positive change.
We talked to him a bit more about his background, work, filmmaking passions, and the gear he uses to beautifully convey these unexplored communities.
How did you get your start in filmmaking?
I was a photographer, self taught, naive and living in India as it was financially impossible for me to continue living in London. I began picking up jobs here and there, UN, Save the Children and Concern. I landed a big job with the Canadian government and all of a sudden I realized what a real budget was. I had sent in a quote for a project and it was returned to me with a request for me to increase my day rate by 30% or I would not be eligible. It was the first time I had been paid so much. All of a sudden I had spending power. It seemed to get the better of me and a few days later I was sat on the floor looking at boxes of Sony camera parts and wireless microphones.
For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to become a filmmaker. I had the kit, all I needed now was the knowledge. Hours and hours of fiddling with buttons and touch screen options and tape transfer followed by days in the field trying to make it all happen. Three months later I had shot and edited five films, from Pakistan to Kerala. I remember watching them with a friend and suddenly realizing that this was the next logical progression in my career.
How did The Source Project come to fruition? Was it in response to anything you saw in the industry?
After years of working in development, I finally realized that the people commissioning me were some of the most disconnected from the realities of life in the communities they were sending me out to. I realized that there was something missing from what I was doing. I felt like sometimes I was just entering a human zoo, with so little time to observe and connect to these communities. I was not understanding who they were and what they felt and what they required in the form of assistance. One time working for UNICEF most of my images from a shoot were rejected because the girl, I was told, looked too happy. The communications person in Delhi told me that the family were poor (financially) so needed to look sad for the donors. This was the moment I realized that it was an industry like any other, and what I seemed to be involved with was little more than the management of poverty.
I decided to set up a project that, rather than going into a community with preconceived ideas, would just listen to what people had to say, just a few simple questions and then allow the community to speak about what was important to them. Then I would allow the films to be shared, downloaded and used by anyone, everywhere. There were no agendas or corporate logos, no TORs or contracts. I wanted the focus to be on the people and get away from the Western money-driven projects I was surrounded by. This was the Source Project.
What is your preferred equipment to shoot on/shoot with?
My kit is old and basic. Everyone keeps telling me to upgrade but it all works well and when you see how 95% of people view the films, on a laptop or personal device, it seems pointless to spend thousands on a new camera. So I shoot with a Canon 5D Mk3, an old Zeiss 50mm 1.4 and a Canon 85mm and 28mm 1.8. I use Sennheiser wireless mics and now a DJI Phantom drone. I have a carbon tripod, 50cm slider and an old Merlin Steadicam. That’s all, and it all fits in a bag and onto my back. It makes moving around so much easier, particularly when you are traveling to remote areas.
Let’s talk about Dr. Debal specifically. How did you discover this farmer’s story and how did that film start to take shape?
I had heard about Dr. Debal from an activist friend in Odisha, Eastern India. I was told that he was a maverick scientist living in a mud farmhouse-cum-laboratory, that he had built in the middle of paddy land, West Bengal. I was warned that he didn’t take kindly to media and to expect a rather hostile reception -it was fine, I wasn’t a journalist, so I packed up my gear and headed out- but when I arrived he received me with almost the opposite reaction; he was a warm, smiling and happy scientist surrounded by his homemade biodiversity. Strange-looking plants with their Latin names were dotted around the garden, beetles, butterflies and birds seemed to be in abundance and weird homemade objects hung from trees and leaned against plant pots. This was the world of Dr. Debal Deb and his crusade to save and protect as many indigenous rice varieties as was humanly possible. To date he has conserved over 1,400 rice varieties. Debal alone has been the biggest inspiration to how I work and the way I understand so many of the issues I work on. Debal, shocked at the fact that India had lost 90% of its pre-green revolution rice varieties which stood at around 110,000, decided it was time to find and protect what was left. Some of the varieties are so saline tolerant, he could grow them on a beach in the sand. Others will grow in up to 10 feet of water or stop growing when flooded and then begin growing again in a month or so when the water recedes. This, he argues, is the future if we want to talk about global food security and climate change: millions of small farmers doing what they have done for thousands of years; working with nature and producing an abundance of healthy, nourishing food for their communities.
I have made a couple of short films on Debal, the most recent being ‘A Common Sense’ in which the narrative that directed the film was taken from a speech he made on bio-piracy at the opening of his laboratory in Kolkata. I hope to continue making short films although it’s a little more difficult now I have returned to the UK to focus on many of the agricultural and environmental issues we are faced with here.
If you could spend unlimited time and resources on one project (in regards to filmmaking), what would it be?
If I had unlimited funds and time I think it would have to be on food and climate change. I would make a film that focuses on farmers around the world, a film that demonstrates that small farmers and a massive reduction in chemicals is the future. A film that illustrates how we have to tear ourselves away from the industrial systems that have been established and support the farmers who supply our local communities. It would be about the psychology of food and how this is central to everything: mental health, physical health, environmental health and the glue to the communities it nourishes. I want to focus on the positive as I feel people are now only looking for solutions and are overwhelmed by the negative.
What’s up next for you?
As for the future, I plan to stay put. I have a child now and want to bring him up in the UK. I want to embed myself with some of the progressive organisations in the UK. I just shot a short film on a farmer in West Pembrokeshire and this will form the beginning of my new project looking at farmers and asking the question “who do you trust to grow your food?” I want people to begin to reconnect to the people we need to produce our food for future generations. We need to start a food revolution and stop this corporate capture and destruction of these natural systems that have sustained us for thousands of years. I want to tell stories and stimulate consciousness around many of these issues.