Liz Garbus’ documentary “Becoming Cousteau” uncovers troves of unseen footage from the voyages and explorations of aquatic star and pioneer Jacques Cousteau. But it also charts his own growth from entertainer to environmentalist and provides a framework for how society needs to evolve on similar issues of climate change.
“We are in the middle of a climate crisis, and Cousteau’s journey from explorer and conqueror to protector and conservationist is a really relevant one for this moment,” Garbus told TheWrap’s Beatrice Verhoeven.
The film, which made its premiere as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, starts off by showing how his early TV shows, the “ones we fell in love with,” focused on “introducing us to the wonders of the sea” and were filled with positive messages about the world’s natural beauty. But over time, he noticed the changes to the environment and later in his life took it up as an urgent cause.
“As he matured and began to see, literally before his very eyes, places he had been diving, disintegrating, and the ocean and the water against his skin getting warmer, he changed.” Garbus told TheWrap at TIFF. “I think that his change and his voice and his shows is a metaphor for what the world needs to do. We have to change from that mode of exploitation to conservation.”
Garbus says she and Nat Geo had worked closely with The Cousteau Society over a period of five years to obtain access to the archival footage that had never been seen, even though for years the society had been “fiercely protective” of his work and legacy.
“They appreciated that he was becoming lost, and the time was now to discuss what he did and what he learned, and it was urgent actually,” she explained.
“Becoming Cousteau” also makes a case that Jacques Cousteau was quite the innovator, arguing that he’s responsible for the surge in scuba diving in the world and directly led to the explosion of underwater, exploration, nature films and television that we enjoy today.
But she also includes a line in the film that Cousteau for years hated the term “documentary” because it felt like they were a “lecture from someone who knows better than you.”
“Of course I put that in there as a little wink and my nod to my fellow filmmakers,” Garbus said, adding that if he were making films today with the plethora of options he might’ve seen documentaries differently. “That was the beginning of his journey. He wanted to provide entertainment, it wasn’t about a message. But of course later in his life the message became the dominant thing.”
Check out TheWrap’s full interview with “Becoming Cousteau” director Liz Garbus above.