French explorer Jacques Cousteau wasn’t always an environmental activist. National Geographic’s documentary Becoming Cousteau reveals the famous oceanographer and television personality’s evolution from a young sea-lover to an international force of advocacy for the health and protection of the world’s oceans.
Mridu Chandra, a producer on Becoming Cousteau, talked about the dynamic arc of Cousteau’s life and his lasting impact on environmental activism in a recent episode of the Factual America podcast.
“What we wanted to do was to also highlight the growth of his character, of him as a television star and the ardent environmentalist and protector of oceans that he became in his life, and to show that he wasn’t always that way,” said Chandra. “He wasn’t born with this conviction to protect the ocean. And he grew into that. So, I think that’s something we felt would resonate.”
“Some of the scenes in his early films show them dynamite fishing where they would throw in the dynamite and then pull up all the dead fish so they could study them. And they genuinely thought that was the right, you know, that’s what they were — they were excited by the scientific inquiry. But the great thing about him, as we observe in the film, and the great thing about his life, is that as he grew and learned the effects of what he was doing, he was completely happy to change course. And he followed this moral compass,” she added.
“The question that his life story and our film leaves us with is, are we starting to listen?” Chandra said. “He did sound the alarm early on in our history. Fifty years ago, he reached a stage where he was experiencing what we kind of call today ‘climate grief.’ That’s, like, new terminology that we use. But he was genuinely horrified by what was happening in the Mediterranean and sought to protect it.”
As Cousteau’s influence grew from his Emmy-awarding-winning television show The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, so did his environmental activism.
“He activated a massive public information campaign in the late 60s, early 70s, to stop… dumping of nuclear waste into the Mediterranean. And then with his foundation, the Cousteau Society, which he started in 1974, he was heartened by the growing environmental movement of the 1970s. He started these things called Involvement Days, which was a continuation of this public information campaign. Tens [of] thousands of people would go to these events in Houston and Seattle and Boston, and he essentially used his celebrity and his reputation to inform people and excite them about actions that needed to be taken to protect our environment. So you could see that as a positive. You could also see it as, why hasn’t so much changed in these last 50 years?” Chandra said.
“Coming back to today, with what activists and people are talking about is how little has changed, but they’re not necessarily attributing that to — or associating that with — Cousteau. And maybe, you know, to some extent, maybe our film can bridge that connection and make us more fervent today.”
Becoming Cousteau, directed by Liz Garbus, is now streaming on Disney+. Here are timestamps from the Factual America interview:
00:00 – The trailer for Becoming Cousteau.
04:10 – What the film is about.
05:01 – Who Jacques Cousteau was and the effect he had on the world of scuba diving.
07:41 – Cousteau’s love for filmmaking.
09:25 – The challenges involved when working on an archival film.
11:49 – How the idea for the film came about.
13:21 – A clip from the film showing how Jacques Cousteau revolutionized diving.
17:04 – How he changed over time while staying true to his moral compass.
21:11 – The work he did to spread awareness of environmental destruction.
24:26 – How he pushed the limits in everything he was involved in.
27:12 – A clip from the film showing Cousteau’s love for his mother.
Factual America examines America through the lens of documentary filmmaking. Guests include Academy Award, Emmy and Grammy-winning filmmakers and producers, their subjects, as well as experts on the American experience. We discuss true crime, music, burning social and political topics, history, and arts with the creators of the latest and upcoming documentary films in theatres and on the most popular digital platforms. This podcast is produced by Alamo Pictures, a London- and Austin-based production company that makes documentaries about the US from a European perspective for international audiences.
Main Image: A photo of Jacques Cousteau from Becoming Cousteau. Photo Credit: National Geographic/Disney+/Factual America.