My outlook on life is largely based on this upbringing. You always need to remain optimistic, there is just no alternative.
- Dawson Dunning
In early September of 2009, Jack Kent Cooke Scholar Dawson Dunning received word that his film on ancient Maya culture, “Ceiba: Nature and the Maya Creation,” had captured a pair of “Telly” awards, which honor excellence in American media production, and was slated to be broadcast and screened at a number of film festivals. But Dawson wasn’t readily available to accept any awards or attend the screenings. He was already in New Zealand making his next documentary.
A native of Montana where he grew up on a small family cattle ranch some 40 miles from the nearest town, Dawson is no stranger to the wilderness. “I’m fortunate,” he said, “to be a ranch boy at heart, and a conservationist and filmmaker in practice,” he said. He has filmed on the remote islands of New Zealand, in the depths of Amazon jungles, and the most remote backcountry of the Rocky Mountains. Dawson believes filmmaking is a tool underused by scientists in explaining the mysteries of nature.
His new film explores wildlife conservation from the perspectives of both Western science and the indigenous Māori culture. It focuses on the preservation of offshore island ecosystems and wildlife in New Zealand, delving into their cultural importance and significance as ecological reserves.
Supported by a Fulbright fellowship, Dawson is following a young New Zealand scientist as she researches the ecology of sooty shearwaters, or muttonbirds, which were traditionally harvested by Māori in this region, and investigates the sustainability of the practice. “The film will emphasize the need for a diverse conservation ethic that includes many cultural perspectives,” he said. Dawson will complete the project in time to resume his graduate studies at Montana State University in the spring of 2010.
Dawson’s love of nature is matched by his love for filmmaking. He is an eternal optimist, a trait inherited from a family that weathered droughts, fires and every other natural disaster since his ancestors began ranching in Montana in the 1800s. “My outlook on life is largely based on this upbringing. You always need to remain optimistic, there is just no alternative,” he said.
The sky is the limit for this young, talented filmmaker. There are an infinite number of stories in nature that need to be documented. Dawson is telling them, one by one.