In Your Palm: An Interview with Carter Kirilenko

By: Michelle Angkasa

I met Carter at the annual INDEV conference, an event organized and run by students in the International Development program. While leading a workshop on how to use storytelling as a tool for educating people about sustainability, I was struck by his evident passion and dedication to his work. As a fellow undergrad student in the Environment and Business program, I knew that aspects of his experience and story would resonate with other Environment students, so I was eager to get his perspective on pursuing passion projects and how to find the human narrative in complicated environmental issues. 

1. Give your “In Your Palm” documentary elevator pitch (tell readers why they should watch it in 3 sentences or less).

In Your Palm is a short documentary series filmed over a span of one year across 5 countries. The film follows stories of families across Indonesia, who’ve suffered from an annual toxic haze that spreads throughout the country each year due to corrupt expansion of the palm oil industry. In Your Palm series brings in world class experts on sustainability (from United Nations, National Geographic, and the RSPO) in order to equip viewers with knowledge on how to support a more sustainable palm oil industry.

2. Why did you decide to pick this particular issue to spotlight in your work?

We consume palm oil every day. It’s in 50% of all packaged goods in our supermarket shelves. Indonesia is responsible for the majority of global palm oil production, however the growth of the palm oil industry in Indonesia is widely recognized as one of the driving causes of deforestation, carbon emissions and biodiversity loss in the country. Due to its lucrativeness and efficiency, palm oil has become adopted into a variety of use cases including oleochemical, biomass, and food applications; making it the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet.

The palm oil industry employs over 7.5 million people in Indonesia and Malaysia, lifting many above the poverty line. It is the most efficient vegetable oil on the global market, therefore requires less land, water and energy compared to alternative oils such as rapeseed or soybean. Past environmental campaigns led by global non-profit organizations have advocated for a full boycott or “phase-out” of palm oil within certain countries.  Due to the pervasiveness and high touchpoints of vegetable oils within consumer products, banning palm oil will only shift the demand to alternative oils which might result in increased consumption of resources and stress on natural systems. This leads to production of sustainable palm oil as the ideal solution, however awareness of sustainable palm oil labels such as the RSPO is still very low – only 5% of consumers understand how to identify sustainable palm oil on the market.

From my perspective, there is a was a clear need to not just raise awareness on the environmental impacts of palm oil; but also find a way to effectively communicate to a mass audience on how (and why) they should take part in supporting a more sustainable palm oil industry. As consumers, we must demand producers for sustainable palm oil rather than cutting it out altogether.

3. Tell me about your team, and how it came together pre-production.

Most of our team was actually formed during the post-production process. When I first had the idea of creating this documentary, I found my cinematographer (Godfrey Cheng) through a friend and I was extremely impressed by his work… so I ‘cold-called’ him and pitched him an idea to go film in some of the remote corners of Indonesia for a few weeks. He accepted and we met for the first time in Jakarta. After production finished, I was able to bring on 6 new talented team members and a few incredible mentors who have all been integral to ensuring this documentary is a success. We now have a Lead Editor (Finley MacNeil), a sound score composer (Danahyah Evans), a post-production coordinator (Alana Cristante), a Marketing Coordinator (Jon van der Veen), Translators (Arian Sukuramsyah & Amanda Rahmadian), a Research Advisor (Jennifer Lynes), and a Post Production Advisor (Tania Smunchilla). We are also fortunate to have Toronto-based TA2 Audio House working on sound design, and Nick Sewell working on Animations. The diversity of this group is nothing short of impressive – we each have very unique backgrounds and areas of study which help foster innovative ideas throughout the post-production process. We are also entirely run by students, so each member of the team has the opportunity to take a lead role and exercise a higher degree of creative input compared to what they would experience working for a larger production. I would encourage students interested in getting involved on our Distribution team to reach out to inyourpalmdoc@gmail.com. We are always looking to bring on excited and passionate students.

4. What was the most unexpected moment you had while filming/travelling?

Filming a documentary for my first time in a foreign country .. there were a lot of unexpected moments, especially filming in a remote tropical rainforest. Our cameras spontaneously died due to extreme humidity, we woke up in the mornings with cockroaches and bats next to our beds, and constantly found leeches attached to legs and arms while filming.

Beyond the small moments, I would say the most unexpected was booking a last-minute flight to Indonesia during the middle of midterm season to continue filming (after realizing I hadn’t captured the full story during my first trip). With documentary filmmaking, you soon realize the story doesn’t always end once you stop filming. I spent hundreds of hours at home reviewing footage and realized there is something missing … meanwhile there was a haze crisis still happening in Indonesia, so I returned to capture the rest of my story.

Returning to Indonesia ended up being the most important decision of the entire production – because it enabled me to capture a story which is now the centerpiece of the film. Documentary filmmaking always brings surprises and that is why I love it. You can plan as much as you want, but once you hit the ground and start filming everything changes. New problems will pop up each day and you’re forced to make hard decisions that occasionally could make or break the film. Never a dull moment!

5. Who is one person that you met on your travels who taught you something  new?

Rudi Putra and his team of park rangers in Gunung Leuser National Park. Rudi Putra is a biologist by training and a National Geographic fellow, who works to protect critical habitat for endangered species such as the Sumatran Rhino, Elephant and Orangutan in one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Rudi successfully convinced 26 illegal palm oil plantations to shut down their operations so his team could restore the forest. He also gathered 1.4 million signatures to prevent the Indonesian government from launching a destructive spatial plan to remove millions of hectares of primary rainforest.

Rudi taught me that cultivating strong relationships with the right people and mobilizing your community is the most important catalyst in creating substantial environmental change. Rudi started with a small team and a goal to protect the Leuser Ecosystem in the face of a powerful government. It was truly a “David vs. Goliath” story … and Rudi won because he connected with the right people and tirelessly educated his community on the true value of the rainforest beyond what meets the eye.

6. What’s one reason why you think people don’t pursue their passion projects? What advice would you give them to get started?

Most people don’t pursue their passion projects simply because they haven’t set it as a priority in their life. Pursuing a passion is scary for a lot of people … it means they might have to step outside their comfort zone and remove certain aspects of their lives which satisfy them.

My curiosity is ultimately what allowed me to jump into the world of filmmaking and create a documentary film series with no prior experience in filmmaking. At a young age, I was taught that if you don’t know how to do something, you just figure it out no matter what it takes. If you don’t want to put the effort into figuring it out then you don’t want it badly enough. When starting out, I had zero understanding of how to conduct professional interviews, lighting, sound design, post production, scriptwriting, grant applications etc .. however regardless of how little I knew, I made sure that I found out the best ways to learn. A lot of this learning came from trial and error and finding other people that I could learn from (also a lot of Youtube).

For those people that have a burning desire to chase something…my recommendation would be to express your curiosity, and seek out other people that are already 10 years ahead of you. Whatever you want to get involved in, there’s likely someone else out there that has done something similar. People are willing to help because they know how hard it is to get started. I was surprised by how many filmmakers were willing to help me simply because I was working on an initiative that had a clear social/environmental benefit. Don’t be afraid to cold-call or cold-email people asking to grab a coffee. LinkedIn and social media can be extremely useful tools for this as well. I found a mentor through a simple email expressing my willingness to learn. I would encourage others to do the same.

7. Final plug for your work: when and where is it screening?

We anticipate screenings at film festivals in Canada, however we will also be displaying the film during screening events at universities in Waterloo, Toronto and Vancouver. The University of Waterloo will be the first! We will also bring in speakers from the film during the event to deliver a keynote on topics such as wildlife conservation, Community Based Social Marketing and Sustainable Palm Oil. Dates are yet to be announced, however anyone that is interested can follow us on Instagram @inyourpalmdoc to get notified on the release dates!

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