Lending’s Madagascar-set doc wins new Hilton Award

It took docmaker Tod Lending of Nomadic Films five days and nights to travel from Chicago to reach his remote island filming destination off the Republic of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, including “eight hours of a nightmare car ride off road,” he says.

But the harrowing and enlightening month-long mission was well worth the effort.  His 5-minute film, “Vezo,” won the $15,000 prize from the new Hilton Sustainability Award, a partnership with the Sundance Documentary Film Program, and screened at Sundance last week. 

Last fall, Lending was one of five filmmakers selected by the Sundance Institute to receive a $30,000 grant, via The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to produce a 5 to 8-miute film on the issues of hunger and poverty. 

Lending’s proposal was about the ancient Vezo island people whose survival was imperiled by having over-fished, or outgrown their resources from the sea, mainly the octopus they survived on.  

“Scientists from the NGO Global Network, came and taught the Vezo villagers how to turn things around, by learning how to rotate the octopus crops and plant seaweed and sea cucumbers, popular throughout Asian, for income. They’ve been doing better ever since,” Lending says.

“A fantastic experience” on Vezo island

Lending’s many award-winning and Oscar-nominated documentaries had focused on urban poverty. “This time, however, we wanted to branch out and look at international situations that dealt with sustainability and the environment,” he says. 

Last October Lending, producer/director and DP, and field producer Won Bae set out for the remote island of Vezo (which means “to live off the sea”) off the coast of Madagascar. The two-and-a-half weeks spent there “was a fantastic experience,” Lending says. 

“Vezo” is narrated by Narcia, the 14-year old daughter of a Vezo family, using the style of a fable, illustrated by beautiful documentary scenery and the magic of sand animation.”

In simple and poetic terms, Narcia describes how fish were disappearing from the sea when she was born, how her people were becoming desperate and what happened afterwards.

In her story, the solution to the village’s survival becomes an archetypal lesson that can be applied to other situations of poverty and hunger on coastlines throughout the world.

“Winning the award was a complete surprise,” Lending says.  The award, now in its second year, is sponsored by the Hilton Hotels Worldwide, which has been practicing long term sustainability as a matter of corporate responsibility.

Won Bae, who assisted Lending with research and also edited on location is a Columbia College alum currently living in Korea. Melissa Sterne provided additional editorial; Stephen Wilke was sound designer and mixer; Company 3’s Tyler Roth was the colorist and Bhagyashree RaoRane provided stock footage research.

“Vezo” will be shown in Hilton Hotels internationally, while the Sundance Institute and the Gates Foundation are currently formulating global distribution plans for the film.

“Scientists from the NGO came and taught the Vezo village how to turn things around; how to rotate the octopus crops ad to plant seaweed and sea cucumbers, popular throughout Asian, to bring in income and they’ve been doing better ever since,” Lending says.