“There are no silver bullets. Critical metals are not the solution, they’re the new oil.”
At the bottom of the ocean lay strange, black objects, like alien sentinels waiting for technology robust enough to go visit them. They are sediments built up over millions upon millions of years, microscopically accruing materials of tremendous value to our modern economy.
The “Green Revolution” wishes to move beyond a fossil fuel-based economy, yet the core elements that constitute battery production are also limited resources and are currently being extracted using methods that belie the notion of sustainability. This paradox between environmentalism and pragmatism that’s at the heart of Deep Rising, a remarkable and nuanced look at the subject by Swiss born, Montreal based filmmaker Matthieu Rytz.
His previous film, 2018’s Anote’s Ark, focussed on the small island of Kirabati. Here his scope is more global yet he maintains the same level of intimacy and specificity. As our discussion showed, Rytz makes great effort to ensure that the people most deeply affected by the new rush for resources have a say in their story being told.
POV spoke with Rytz while he was attending the Sundance film festival.
POV: Jason Gorber
MR: Matthieu Rytz
The following has been edited for concision and clarity
POV: When did you become fascinated with the underwater world?
MR: I worked for 5 years on the Pacific island of Kiribati. That’s where my connection to the Pacific started, not really with the deep ocean, but understanding the Pacific culture and the challenges they are having with the rising seas. When filming then, I talked with the chief scientist of the Republic of Kiribati. He came to me with the polymetallic nodules that you see in the film. He said, “Look, Matt, this is incredible. This is all of the nickel and the cobalt that we need to power a green revolution. It’s sitting four kilometres down on the ocean floor and we are going to open the seabed for extraction. That’s going to solve all of our energy problems.” That was five years ago, and I knew that there’s a story here.
Back then, there was nothing in the media about this subject, only very few, very specialized articles in scientific reviews. I just started digging into it like an investigative journalist. It’s interesting because in Deep Rising, most of the footage had never been seen by any human outside of a few scientists because they’re doing that for scientific purposes, not for storytelling purposes. They’re not filmmakers. They try to map the seabed, categorizing the different species, so they need a visual reference. These are all derived from different deep ocean science expeditions from the US, Europe, and Japan. That opened a Pandora’s Box of content, and it became that great natural history content. I could have done a film, like kind of a BBC style Blue Planet, “The Deep” episode. What I attempted to do was a film that had the same quality of BBC Natural History, but with the addition of geopolitical investigative journalism. We follow the money and the future of energy, uncovering the international seabed authority and following characters.
POV: You weave these disparate elements, but you also provide no simple answers. There’s sort of a simple answer that we could go with hydrogen, but on a fundamental basis, even that opens up other challenges. I want to talk about you threading that needle, about weaving those stories together, and finding a way of making something that feels informative but not overtly, didactically political.
MR: There are two aspects to it. One aspect is my relationship with industry. That was extremely complex. Obviously, the industry players would never let me in such an intimate meeting with investors if they thought I had an agenda. I never ever see this type of scene openly in documentaries. Rather, it’s often hidden cameras when talking with people in the mining industry. My whole process with the industry players was that I’m not here to blame. They’re here to fix a supply chain and they think you have a better solution. I think the greenwash around some companies like Tesla is way more damaging because they’re hypocritically building the “clean” narrative. The one who builds the narrative should be the one to be challenged, not the one who provides the solution to the supply chain in the generated crisis.
On the industry part, they of course wanted to be sure that I’m not twisting this content to show the public how bad or evil they are. All of the industry partners you see have signed off on the film. The cut I’m showing tonight at Sundance, they watched it and we have documents signed by the CEO giving their blessing. That was one of my biggest challenges, to bring everyone in, from the conservation to industry players. I want to bring in all of those voices, and we need to find a consensus so we can bring this debate further.
POV: You avoided the massive pitfalls of leaning too far to one side, making something that simply inspires people to feel good, or something that makes people feel bad. Can you talk about the challenge of doing that specifically? Maybe a cut that didn’t work, maybe a road that you went down and then you realized this?
MR: Of course, we wrote the film in the editing room, as with any documentary. The editing process was a very long one, but the principle was always there. The editing process was to get to a point where I was perfectly happy with the balance. It’s a very polarized story, where the conservationists hate that I’m talking to the industrialists, and they believe these people just want to destroy the planet for capitalist gain. For me, it’s not as black and white. After all, conservationists drive Teslas. You guys are driving the car that’s taking down the rainforest. They don’t want to see a problem with the rainforest go to the deep ocean. Whether you like it or not, we’re still in a free market. I don’t know what the next system will be, but it’s naïve to think it’s just going to stop.
POV: Your film challenges the naïveté on all fronts, with capitalism and environmentalism shown in all their complex contradictions. Were there moments of despair in the editing room where you thought you weren’t going to be able to get that balance?
MR: It didn’t occur really in the process of editing, but more like putting a cut together and then stepping back for a week or two, watching the cut again, and thinking, “Shit, that’s a bit pro-mining.” The message is that we should go for the deep-sea mining. It’s a good solution. Or [we’re] cutting, trying to fix this same process, and then we’re like, “Oh, now the miners look like the bad guys. Shit.” [Laughs.]
I’m anxious about the reaction of the audience. That’s already happening, on some viewings, some people get back to me and are like “I think your film is celebrating the industry!” Many are going to watch it and it’s going to trigger different reactions that I cannot control.
What is important is to understand that the extractive industry provides solutions to the supply chain crisis. You have miners, as shown in our film like Gerard Barron, who are trying to be good. Then you have on the extreme some other mining companies that don’t give a shit. They pollute water, they pollute rivers. I try to bring out this contradiction. Yet with a lot of people this is a mind fuck, the contradiction of being at the same time an environmentalist and a miner.
POV: Many people who respond to environmental docs do not want to believe in these contradictions or paradoxes. They want to believe that if they buy a Tesla, they’re saving the world. When you’re putting all of this together, is it through voiceover or through montage, working with the actual text of the film, to let people know that their prejudices are going to be upended?
MR: Absolutely. I think the first pass on a film, the first content we had was very character-driven. It was fly on the wall, and we followed two characters who are really opposites. What is very interesting is that they both start with the same message: that we need to save this planet. They’re coming from the same premise, but they absolutely disagree on the way to do it.
POV: Speaking as a film guy, your film, for me, would possibly be better with no narration. If all I saw were these two people and it was a contradiction shot in verité, I’d probably love it, but it was probably a very smart idea to hire that other Jason with long hair to be your narrator to help the audience understand these contradictions.
MR: Absolutely. So, there are really three layers in the film in terms of where we landed. I absolutely could have done a film with those two characters as a fly-on-the-wall doc, simply exploring their contradictions. I think it would be a really great film, but that film would have been more for a specific audience, perhaps a more European audience. Americans need to be held by the hand a bit more. I think they’re too much into the hero/anti-hero narrative. It’s just the way Europe and American cinema is different. I’m Swiss, European, and I spent the last 20 years of my life in Quebec, which is the most European place you can get in North America, but I still understand how America works. Basically, the first draft was character-driven: two characters, amazing – I have a film, story, access, boom. Perfect.
Then I watched the deep ocean footage and I’m like, “This footage alone is worthy of standalone film. This is BBC Blue Planet kickass content!” This was the most amazing stuff I’ve ever seen in terms of deep ocean footage, so I needed to use it. I then had to interweave this character-driven story and follow the money in an investigative type of film with natural history, with BBC-level production values.
The narration was the last part, and it came late in the process. I was fortunate enough to work with Hellen Scale who is a brilliant marine biologist based in Cambridge in the UK. She published this amazing book called The Brilliant Abyss and I started pulling some very interesting quotes from her. I’m quite happy the way we co-wrote the narration because I think it’s quite on point, but not too much so. Then fortunately enough, through this process, we cast Jason Momoa.
POV: And what drew you to him, other than the obvious, that he’s a comic book superhero who is famous for being underwater? Or was it in part because of his own background?
MR: It’s a few reasons. I had another narrator, a very brilliant marine biologist, very well known, Sylvia Earle. She originally narrated the film, but I realized that, with her, I was simply going to preach to the choir again. Then I had the opportunity to work with Jane Fonda, which she was keen to do the film, and again, I was like, “I’m going to preach to the choir as she’s a very strong and vocal environmentalist.” So in a brainstorming session, I thought, “Aquaman!” Not only is Jason perfect as Aquaman, he’s also Polynesian. He has the ocean in his DNA. His father is Kānaka Maoli. There was a very beautiful moment when we recorded in Santa Monica. He got stuck at one point. He’s such a big strong man and he almost started crying, he was so moved. There’s a lot of emotion, he didn’t just do a voiceover gig, he’s seriously concerned about the state of the ocean. We were mixing the film in Montreal, getting the last pass of the song and everything and I played back the mix, I said, “His voice is perfect, it’s the deepest.”
POV: The biggest film in the world right now and one of the biggest films ever made, is directed by another Canadian who’s obsessed with the deep ocean. The world is fascinated by what James Cameron does in a fictional version where we’re exploiting the world for “unobtanium.” I’m watching your film and, as ridiculous as it is, these little nodules on the bottom of the ocean make it feel like we’re going to space to find them. Do you see in popular culture stuff like what filmmakers like James Cameron are doing—weaving popular storytelling into your movie, thinking of a way to speak to an audience that loves Avatar, but maybe doesn’t watch a very academic nature doc?
MR: Absolutely, there’s clearly momentum right now around the ocean. There were barely any films in the ocean besides documentaries. But, like you say, now there are these big blockbusters, the Avatars, all of the DC, Marvel stuff. It’s interesting. Avatar was the biggest blockbuster ever, more than Batman or Superman, it’s quite serious.
I have to confess, I’m extremely disappointed by the failure of James Cameron to change the narrative. He has not been able to actually use the power he has with Avatar to push a new form of storytelling. It’s a shame that when you have the power of Cameron, and the money of Cameron, and you end up with what, in my view, is a quite a bad film. It feels like it’s all gamified. It feels like it’s three hours of PlayStation games with absolutely stunning visuals. Don’t get me wrong—it’s an amazing achievement in terms of the visuals, but it’s fundamentally the wrong narrative.
It’s a similar narrative to my film in some ways in terms of the idea of greedy humans trying to get those minerals to power the energy, to power capitalist greed. With Avatar, you have a First Nation trying to protect the environment from the humans. But where the shit really hit the fan is when you have those white, privileged, military-trained US soldiers infiltrating those Indigenous communities with a neo-colonialist narrative and teaching them how to become white. That’s fundamentally wrong and that’s what we should change right now.
I’m a visual anthropologist by training, so of course, my background is anthropology. I get really nervous with those types of things. In my film, all of the Papua New Guinea footage was filmed by people there. There is no white person in the shot. Not one. With the camera, I direct them remotely and encourage the people tell their story. And I did the same in Kiribati with my previous film. A lot of scenes were shot by people there. I’m even not on location.
POV: Yet to your credit, you also provide space for some the islanders who are pro-mining to speak, which also might not fit a convenient narrative. It is not infantilized, it’s not black and white.
MR: Exactly. That is the way I work as a director and as a visual anthropologist. The world is not black and white, and the narrative of heroes, superheroes, anti-heroes, is why we are where we are now on the planet. There’s a power in storytelling, there’s a power in narrative. We absolutely know that we can shape generations, we can shape so much. That’s why I’m in between. My heart and my views and might be in a very different place from the Hollywood business.
But at the same time, I understand the power it has and I understand the power Jason Momoa has, so I’m using this star power and hopefully being able to bring a new form of narrative, new ideas, to the masses, and not doing the mistakes James Cameron is doing. Maybe it sounds pretentious because he’s one of the world’s biggest directors, but it doesn’t matter for me. He just got it wrong.
POV: While the footage here was from others, do you have any desire, or any plans, to go to the deep ocean yourself?
MR: Absolutely. That’s my next project, actually. I just secured a submarine, the deepest manned submersible with a full glass dome. I’m doing that in the first week of February. I fly to Greece, meet with the owner of the submarine and the boat, and have already designed all of the immersive systems. The next project won’t be a feature doc—it will mostly be immersive content for location-based experiences, going to museums, aquariums, giant screens, and so on. We’ve already signed the distribution deal with educational IMAX, as they do a lot of interesting deep ocean content.
POV: Can you take me with you?
MR: [Laughs] I wish. It’s difficult. Actually, I will take you, with VR!