Poisoning Paradise – how 2 brothers highlighted the 1080 issue on film

Seeing a weka feeding on a possum that had died after eating 1080 poison proved to brothers Clyde and Steve Graf that the issue of secondary poisoning had to be highlighted. Clyde talks to Steve Hart about their documentary Poisoning Paradise.

This feature was first published in April 2010.

There can be few people who don’t have an opinion when it comes to the poison 1080. It’s a subject where there is little in the way of middle ground.

While its supporters will tell you it is an effective way of killing possums and rats, others will tell you it is an effective way of killing everything. It’s a poison with no known antidote, a fact that doesn’t sit well with people whose pets and livestock have died as a result of eating the poison – directly or indirectly.

Brothers Clyde & Steve Graf grew up in the country and learnt about the land and wildlife from their father Egon, a professional deer hunter.

“In the early days of deer control there were three types of hunters,” says Clyde. “Cullers were paid by the government to reduce numbers, and did not recover the deer they shot.

“The second was the helicopter hunters. These guys used choppers as their platform, were very efficient and often recovered high numbers of animals. This was where the big money was made.

“The third type of hunter was the meat hunter, like our father Egon. Meat hunters only received money once they recovered the animal and sold the whole carcass.

“Dad began his hunting career in 1966 and continued selling deer up until about 1997. He based himself in the Te Urewera National Park and used SH38 as access. The Urewera is a dense, wet, undefined and jumbled bush country, with no open tops, and no wide open river beds (like you might see in the South Island) making navigation an important skill.”

All was well, says Clyde, until about 1997 when the wild venison industry started to disintegrate.

“The use of 1080 put stress on the export market because the fear of poison residues in the meat – which actually happened in 2002, when 17 tons of wild venison had to be recalled by MAF,” says Clyde.

The use of 1080 became an all- consuming subject for Clyde & Steve in 2006, when a group of concerned people in Taupo suggested the brothers make a documentary on the subject.

“DoC were planning to drop 1080 carrots, and cereal bait into 55,000 hectares of the western side of the Te Urewera National Park in 2006, which was a virgin drop,” says Clyde.

A meeting was called and their first documentary A Shadow of Doubt was completed in time for the ERMA hearings in 2007.

“Steve and I were not born into the film industry, nor did we have any connection with it,” says Clyde. “In 1996 Steve went to Canada and the US for six months and took a video camera.”

Using skills he learnt in the bush, Steve recorded a range of wildlife, including bears; bear cubs and a cougar in the wild. His interest in making videos was born and shared by Clyde.

“For us, there is no greater thrill than getting a mighty red stag charging in to within three metres of the camera, or a crazy wild Kiwi literally running into the lens,” says Clyde.

“Capturing the true wildlife experiences on video is what we value more than anything. Anyone can go to the zoo, or an animal park, or behind the wire at a hunting ranch and get good footage.

“But to us, the ultimate test, the ultimate adrenalin rush, the ultimate truth – is the wild stuff.

“Everything comes down to the wind, the ability to understand your quarry, and split second decisions. You have only a few seconds to capture your footage.

“There’s no retake, no second chance. You either get it or you don’t. It’s very painful, and often fruitless. Don’t tell anyone, but it can take weeks to get over our stuff ups.”

Steve and Clyde Graf circa 2009. Photo supplied.

One of the brothers’ early films was a 1997 DVD called Hunting for a Living. They have since made five hunting and outdoors titles – including one for the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council and the police called On Target.

But their latest works are about the poison 1080; A Shadow of Doubt (2007) and Poisoning Paradise – Ecocide in New Zealand, are the videos they are best known for.

“We were videoing and doing some photography in the Kahurangi National Park, in the north of the South Island, when we happened across a weka feeding on a possum carcass,” says Clyde.

“This blew us away, because we were not aware that this endemic species was carnivorous. This is what triggered the making of Poisoning Paradise.

“We were disgusted that this country could permit one animal to be targeted and poisoned and left in the forest for other non-targets to feed on and be poisoned. Of course, as we were to discover, the non-target damage was to be much more extensive.”

Clyde says it is “unfortunate” that the subject of 1080 is a divisive one as it has brought him and Steve lots of ridicule.

“It’s negative, and we cop a lot of public ridicule,” he says. “However, we do not regret it, and we believe it had to be done.

“We’re effectively taking on the government and trying to change policy – so she’s an uphill battle. Once the use of 1080 poison is banned the truth will be presented, without ridicule and condemnation.”

With 1080 being such a controversial subject, Clyde was surprised to find so many people keen to go on camera and talk about their personal experiences with the poison.

From those who had seen 1080 pellets in fresh waterways to people who’s pets and livestock had died as a result of eating the poison, drinking water contaminated with 1080 or pets who may have eaten a bird or animal killed by the poison.

“For such a political subject, you would think you would never get anyone to offer a whisper,” says Clyde. “But this was not the case. Across the country we had people willing to offer their evidence and experiences.

“What was surprising was the number of scientists, doctors, and experts who were willing to put their careers on the line by speaking out. The people in our doco are the hero’s of New Zealand, in my opinion.

“That’s not to say these people weren’t concerned about going public. They were. Some have been victimised, warned and threatened.

“However, when you have the truth on your side, it certainly is more comforting.

“Another thing that helped us was having made A Shadow of Doubt. In that doco we demonstrated that we weren’t out to misconstrue people’s evidence so I believe we had built some trust in the community.”

So, are the brothers environmental campaigners or moviemakers?

“We are both,” says Clyde. “We don’t enjoy being the opposition to government policy, or DoC practice, but we believe our stance is essential.

“We love the wildlife, and the wild places of New Zealand, and are dedicated to defending them. Using our bush skills and filming experience allows us to present the truth about this practice in a compact way.”

The video is causing a great deal of trouble in government departments.

“And so it should,” he says. “Since Poisoning Paradise was released, Westland district council has banned 1080 in its water catchment area, Taupo district council has called for a ban of 1080 for all of New Zealand and Kaikoura district council is also calling for a ban in their district.

“In addition, Rotorua is now looking into the issues of 1080 and regions such as Dunedin and Thames-Coromandel are singing from the same song sheet.”

Clyde says the authorities have used the media in New Zealand as a propaganda platform for years.

“It is our freedom of speech that allows for that propaganda to be delivered, and thankfully, challenged,” he says.

“Film is a great medium for delivering a message in a compact and powerful way. Probably the best.”

Clyde and Steve started work on the doco in March 2008 and recorded more than 60 hours of footage. There are currently two versions, the New Zealand DVD version, which runs for almost two hours, and the 90-minute film festival version.

“The first rough version we showed at Hokitika in February last year (2009) was nearly three hours long,” says Clyde. “The hard part was squeezing so much information into 90 minutes that presents the evidence in a worthwhile way.

“Unfortunately, much important footage has been omitted to get the video to a duration people are comfortable sitting through.”

During the past few months the brothers have been travelling the country holding community film nights to raise awareness of 1080. Some regional TV stations have broadcast the doco and the brothers are in talks with a “major broadcaster” to broadcast it later this year.

Clyde says neither he nor Steve had any training in moviemaking but learnt from experience.

“Our biggest adversary was our editing computer,” says Clyde. “We had so much footage to load and edit that it would hardly operate.

“It would frequently crash we’d lose the project we were working on, even if it had been ‘saved’.”

Steve and Clyde do most everything themselves when it comes to their videos to help keep costs down.

“It also has served to teach us the ins and outs of film production,” says Clyde

So what would the brothers do differently if they were to make their two 1080 docos again?

“We would probably be more ruthless and controversial,” says Clyde. “With A Shadow of Doubt we took an approach that wouldn’t offend anyone or point any fingers. The result was that it had no affect.

“So this time we took a harder road. The result was much more effective as it has resulted in rigorous debate, strong support and persistent condemnation.

“After all, we are trying to introduce evidence and facts that dispute what the public have been fed for more than 20 years by government authorities. It’s a hard line to take and goes hand in hand with great resistance.”

1080 poison being collected for an aerial drop (circa 2009). Photo supplied.

With the work on Poisoning Paradise all but over, Clyde & Steve are looking forward to working on new projects.

“We are currently working on a wildlife production that will introduce the public to some secret ways they can talk to the animals and birds,” says Clyde.

“We are also looking at the possibility of a TV series which has been a goal of ours since first kicking off. Although we understand the difficulties of realising such a goal in a country with only a few national TV channels.”

Clyde says his best piece of advice for people thinking of making a movie is to simply get on with it.

“Do the thing, as the great philosopher Emmerson stated,” he says. “You have to just get started and do it. Be prepared to be ridiculed, hassled, laughed at, but do it! If you really want to have a go at making movies, you’ve just got to start.

“As you progress you’ll realise that parts of the process start to jump out at you. It may be something you’re reading, it may be something you’re watching, but it will happen.

“Your subconscious starts to pick things up without you even being aware of it. It may be an editing technique, a new idea, but it does happen.

“If you’re creative person then making movies and DVDs is the way to go. “Films take you to another place, another reality, another life. Films are a mode of escape, an inspiration, an expression.

“Take the shot when it presents itself. Project your point of view because you are unique, being different is something to be coveted, not ashamed of. Don’t be afraid of ridicule.

“And it helps if you know and enjoy your subject. If the project is something that has deep meaning for you, it will propel you.“We have been fortunate in this regard, as we are closely engaged with the outdoors of New Zealand.”

First published in Viewfinder magazine April 2010.