Filmmaker Sylvie Rokab grew up in the jungles outside Rio de Janeiro, where she was born and raised. She speaks four languages, and is most definitely a woman of the world. She spent much of her adult life in Miami and worked as a cinematographer for the Discovery Channel and Nat Geo, among other networks.
Speaking via phone from her current home in Los Angeles, she says she credits her parents, who are French and Italian and were both born in Egypt, for instilling a love of nature at an early age. "I had parents that were nature lovers," she admits. She recalls many visits to various forests of Brazil and feeling a profound sadness to watch their infamous destruction by unregulated deforestation. She regularly visits family there and shot many scenes of her new movie, Love Thy Nature, in Visconde de Maua, which lies at the intersection of Rio, Sao Paulo, and Minas Gerais.
Her film essay will have its Florida premiere at the 29th Annual Fort Lauderdale Film Festival this weekend. It's a movie with a conscience that stems from her life-long appreciation of Mother Earth and her desire to make a movie that examines the primal connection between humans and nature.
In the movie, scientists not only speak of the problems of global warming and the history of evolution on the planet but also man's place in nature. To set a mood of exaltation, Rokab uses slow motion and time lapse sequences that celebrate nature, featuring bears, lions, and butterflies in various habitats as well as people enjoying the outdoors. Some scenes are shot in Miami Beach and the Everglades, among other locations that South Florida residents might recognize, like downtown Miami and Jonathan Dickinson State Park in West Broward.
Rokab also travelled to Africa and Alaska to shoot footage. She says the project was eight years in the making, and she moved from Coral Gables to Los Angeles to make sure she could get close to the film industry in order to finish it. This is clearly a passion project.
She reveals that she turned down a job at a major cable network that had a very different outlook on the subject, so she could make Love Thy Nature. "When I was conceptualizing this film, I was offered a high paying job -- it was triple what I was making previously working for television -- with a top TV network to direct, write, shoot and edit a documentary series about nature," she notes. "At a personal level, it was enticing: I would get a high paycheck to travel to exotic places around the world doing what I love to do most: film nature. But the goal of that series was to evoke viewers' fears instead of love of nature. The concept was about portraying the creepy animals with wide angle lenses to make them look as large and scary as possible -- spiders, snakes, scorpions etc."
She says she has no regrets of turning that show down. "Certainly my bank account would have been larger today if I had chosen the other path, but I feel that making this film enriched my spirit, especially when I hear viewers say they leave the theater inspired to connect with others and the world around them."
The film offers more than a tribute to nature. One of the first experts who speaks in Love Thy Nature is Jay Harmon, an inventor who has used something called "biomimicry" in industrial design. It is a concept as old as Leonardo da Vinci's consideration of human flight based on his observations of birds. Rokab says Harmon has a successful business in the Bay Area that thrives on the concept of biomimicry. She says, "They sell turbines that are mimicked after hurricanes, so these turbines are used in different cities and different industries. They hardly need any energy to turn, like hurricanes. Once they start, they continue moving."
There's another distinctive voice in the film that many will be familiar with: that of Irish actor Liam Neeson. Rokab says though she had a long wish list of several voiceover actors, Neeson was always her number one pick.
"In my daydreaming time I would close my eyes, and I kept hearing his voice," she recalls while making the film. "I talked to his voice agent, and of course I drafted a very carefully worded email that took me a couple of hours," she says and pauses to laugh. "I just told him myself that intrinsically, I felt that Liam would really resonate with this project, and he did ... He's has that amazing combination of talent and kindness and being real. He's a very real kinda guy, a wonderful, wonderful human being."
Ultimately, Rokab hopes everyone who sees the film will feel inclined to go outside and enjoy nature, both for personal health and a symbiotic relationship that can also benefit the planet in the long run. Rokab sums it up saying, "It's about making people realize their need for nature and awaken them to the realization by needing nature, by loving nature, by connecting with nature, they have a personal benefit from it, and absolutely they would be inclined to want to protect it."
Love Thy Nature will have its Florida premiere at the 29th Annual Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, Saturday, November 15, at 6 p.m. at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood and it will play again Sunday Nov. 16 at 1 p.m. at Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. Rokab will introduce the film and host a Q&A afterward. For more information visit fliff.com
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.