Worldaware Award for Effective Communication
Shell International Petroleum Company Ltd.
Shell decided, 50 years ago, to make films not just about itself but about the world it works in. It helped create a new genre that showed what life was like in what were then colonies and evoked a better appreciation of their problems. its first film on malaria appeared in 1941.
Later, The Fate of the Forests and The River Must Live raised issues of today's environment long before their importance was generally recognised. Max Michie, head of the Shell Film Unit and Video Unit, remarks: "It was quite revolutionary that an industrial organisation was willing to look at such problems as dumping effluent in rivers."
The rationale behind the unit's long history of making environmental films, he says, is probably as near to altruism as a commercial entity can reasonably be expected to get.
Shell films about the world were widely shown in the news theatres of the 1940s. These closed with the coming of television, which is unable to show films made by commercial bodies. The unit distributes free to schools, colleges and non-government organisations and through Shell subsidiaries all over the world. Films are translated into several languages from French to Swahili and River pidgin.
The Rival World (1955) looked at the threat from insects and tropical disease, a subject to which Unseen Enemies (1959), made with the help of the World Health Organisation, returned. Escape from Hunger (1985) looked at Africa, Nepal and China after the green revolution. Nutrition: The Global Challenge (1992) was made in Chile and Bangladesh for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The latest film, Thirsty World, which is being premiered at the Worldaware awards ceremony, looks at approaches to water shortage in Boston (USA) and Cyprus. Bostonians have voted to save water rather than build a new reservoir. Cypriots are bringing water from the mountains direct to the trees and crops on lowland farms.
"We're making a film at the moment about renewable energy. Perhaps you may think that a rather odd thing for an oil company to do. But we need to look far ahead at what society will require in 50 years time - photovoltaic energy, biogas and so on," says Max Michie. He used to work for Shell in the Far East and East Germany but was always interested in films. He joined the unit in 1984.
"I am the executive producer. Making a film is a team effort, comprising dozens of skills. The producer's job is to keep the thing on the rails and get it completed at the right price and fit for purpose. It's a mixture of creativity and management."
Michie chooses the subjects and goes with a director (who is also often the scriptwriter) on reconnaissance. Scenes and participants have to be chosen, permissions obtained. He has two assistants and four technicians to help him, and this small staff also covers other Shell film-making, training for people appearing on TV, and even maintenance of security cameras in the Shell Centre. Outside firms are contracted to provide directors and film crews.
The switch to video is important. "A film used to cost £200 a copy. Now a video cassette costs £2 to £3 and video has helped to widen distribution enormously, making cassettes widely available."