5 min read

Q&A: Elise Hugus, Intricate Stories on Climate Change

Elise Hugus interviews the executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, in a marsh in West Falmouth, MA.

Elise Hugus recently produced a short documentary on climate change activists as they attempt to shut down a coal mining plant — and the district attorney who could have prosecuted them, but instead joined them.

Storyhunter: When you first heard that MSNBC was producing environmental-themed series, how did you come up with your particular story?

Elise Hugus: I was attracted to this assignment as soon as I saw it, but wasn’t sure that a story about climate change activism would be relevant. However, I’d been following the trial for at least half a year and felt that a positive story about citizen-politician teamwork was just right for the broad yet progressive audience that MSNBC serves.

I knew Jay, our focus in the MSNBC the story, from high school and would run into him at a coffee shop from time to time. I hadn’t been aware of the lobster boat action until after the fact but was immediately intrigued by the person he’d become and his combined passions for climate activism and the Quaker faith. The ambitious plan he had for the trial — attempting to use the “necessity defense” to justify civil disobedience basically puts climate change on trial — seemed potentially groundbreaking, if it worked. Also, knowing that Tim DeChristopher (aka Bidder 90, who “illegally” bid on public lands for oil and gas development in Utah) had gone to federal prison for a similar action made the stakes pretty high. So in all, this seemed like a story worth following.

Strange bedfellows: Accused lawbreaker and the law make odd power couple

SH: You had been following the story for a while, but was it hard to convince them to let you shoot it?

EH: I’ve been following the efforts of various climate activists in Massachusetts for some time, looking for creative activism that alerts people to our shared connection to the climate problem. Funny enough, I went to high school with one of the subjects, activist Jay O’Hara. Though we never talked back then, it has been interesting to reconnect now! I made contact with the other subject, Mayor Sam Sutter, following the after-trial press conference in which he explained his reasons for dropping the criminal charges and announced that he’d be joining the People’s Climate March in New York a couple weeks later. I’d produced a rush story for Democracy Now about the trial, and Sutter actually contacted me to thank me for the coverage. I was impressed he’d taken the time to do that. Even though he was in the midst of a campaign, he made time for an extensive interview with us.

SH: You mentioned you had already started shooting this story, even before getting it sold.

EH: I had hopes of being commissioned for a longer-form (10 minute) doc by Al Jazeera/AJ+. They declined but I decided to shoot the trial anyway. I ended up giving the footage to Democracy Now, which covered the story as breaking news and then followed up the next day. The plot thickened the next month, when DA Sam Sutter announced his candidacy for Fall River mayor in a rather suprising recall election. So when I saw the assignment from MSNBC for environmental stories I knew it would be a great destination for the story. But honestly, we shot lots more for the MSNBC piece and barely used the trial footage.

SH: What challenges did you encounter with producing a story for this assignment?

EH: By the time I first pitched the story, I thought I had a majority of the filming already done. We planned to get some B-roll of the power plant and gather some images from the action (which was another challenge, due to the poor quality/low resolution of the amateur images we had to work with). But in the month between pitch and acceptance, the story had evolved: one of the subjects, the Fall River district attorney, decided to run for mayor in a surprise recall election. That’s not the kind of development you can ignore, but it added another layer to the story, and actually shifted more of the focus to the DA/mayor. We ended up filming our other subjects (the activists) campaigning for the mayor, his election party (which didn’t make the cut), and working it into the story when he finally became mayor (there were some hiccups due to the unusual nature of the re-call election). This delayed our completion, and added significantly to the shooting time, but ultimately gave the story more impact.

SH: How did you approach visual storytelling? What creative tools do you use?

EH: This story had some unique opportunities for visual storytelling. The Brayton Point coal plant is visible from a busy highway, although few people actually know what’s behind the cooling towers. So that provided an important opportunity to show the scale and emissions of this coal operation, without anyone having to say “it’s ugly, it’s polluting.” Also, we used action to develop O’Hara’s character — showing him biking in the cold, praying at the Quaker church, and working in a sail shop — so that viewers would have an understanding of who he is, without verbal elaboration. Having access to the Chris Hayes footage also made another important point in the story — that the DA’s stand on climate change became a national story. This would have been hard to illustrate otherwise, and was free due to the MSNBC connection.

SH: Have you always reported on climate change? Why is this topic important to you?

When I’m not doing news journalism I produce short docs for science and environmental organizations. Many of these stories relate to climate change, or the task of understanding its implications.

Everything we take for granted is thrown into question by climate change, so I’d say it’s the most important story in history.

As far as the MSNBC story, the human element was really essential in showing how two human beings, with different backgrounds and different approaches to life, share a common interest in not just letting business as usual dictate, taking a stand, however small or large it was. And that’s the kind of example I think we need to see more of, because even if there are already climate refugees or the IPCC lets us know we’ve surpassed the CO2 tipping point, or 500,000 people march through New York, none of us are making the changes necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And that is more dangerous than the few people who still claim to not believe climate change is man-made.

SH: Do you have advice you would give to other video freelance journalists/independent documentary filmmakers?

EH: Even if you’re not in a hot market like New York, there are still lots of important stories out there. See where local issues intersect with national/global ones, and get creative with pitching to assignments/outlets that don’t immediately seem like a good match. Also — and this is a lesson I learned on this particular story — don’t get discouraged if your pitch isn’t accepted but there is still a story to follow. In other words, shoot now, ask questions later!

SH: What made you get into freelance video journalism/independent documentary filmmaking?

EH: Perhaps it all started when I took television production classes at my local cable access station and got involved with film festivals as a teenager. Fast forward a decade: I had been working as a radio and print journalist until it seemed like a doomed career path. I’ve always been attracted to video journalism/documentary filmmaking, but it’s extremely difficult to do as a one-woman show. So I teamed up with my husband Daniel Cojanu, a talented cinematographer, a partnership that has allowed us both to explore our abilities without sacrificing the image or story.

Elise sound recordist