Elemental perseverance

David Briggs
Jazz musician Emmanuel Vaughn-Lee debuts his first documentary, Elemental, this Saturday.
02/21/2013

It has been said that you cannot make a living playing jazz. It has been said that you cannot make a living as an environmental activist. It has been said that you cannot make a living filming documentaries. You probably cannot make a living in those fields, but Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee can and did. (He says the toughest was jazz.)

The Point Reyes Station resident’s first feature film, Elemental, makes a West Marin premier in his hometown on Saturday at the Dance Palace. Mr. Vaughan-Lee says he found himself interested in environmental activities in part because of how much time he has lived in West Marin. He says he fell in love with the “small-town dynamic” and environmental policies here. “It’s still very protected and very untouched, it still feels wild sometimes,” he said. “And I think when you spend a lot of time like that—and I did growing up—where it was surfing or mushroom hunting or hiking with friends or just being outside a lot, it sinks in. You’re not even thinking about it, but you start to have an appreciation and a connection with the natural world around you.”

In 2005 Mr. Vaughan-Lee, the son of mystic Sufi author and speaker Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, founded the Global Oneness Project, an online multimedia environmental publication that rode the early wave of interest in online video. The project, which includes a number of short films and articles on environmental topics, has ended up consuming a lot of the attention he developed towards jazz, which he says he dropped out of high school to play. He ultimately attended the Berklee College of Music and went on to produce two albums. Then he largely moved away from jazz, despite seeing it as the most profound of his artistic endeavors, while his career was hitting its stride—with opportunities to record CD’s as a bandleader and composer, tour and work gigs with other musicians.

The 93-minute documentary, which interweaves the stories—as well as personal and professional challenges—of three drastically different environmental activists in three dramatically different places: Rajendra Singh, an activist for rehabilitation of the Ganges river in India; Eriel Deranger, a professional campaigner against the Canadian oil sands development; and Jay Harman, a San Rafael-based developer of an outside-the-box invention to forestall climate change. The crew hopscotched around the globe and captured each character’s tortured journey—combatting government intrigue, fighting personal setbacks and seducing reluctant investors—and even beautiful shots of environmental catastrophes like an off-color, debris-polluted Ganges. Mr. Vaughan-Lee co-directed the film, helped shoot scenes and capture audio and scored the film’s orchestral soundtrack with former Berklee classmate Scott Salinas.

Mr. Vaughan-Lee says that, despite Point Reyes’s relative seclusion, even people here will be faced with environmental challenges. “Everybody in our lifetime is going to be faced with tremendous adversity. Even if we’re in the comfort of Point Reyes Station compared to Northern Alberta or a village in India, everybody’s going to be facing changing times and scarcity of resources and learning how to persevere and deal with challenges is something that everyone is going to need.”

In that premonition lay the crucial reason Mr. Vaughan-Lee wanted these stories told: these characters show us that people can endure, and the way their stories are told are intended to demonstrate that they are challenged just like us. “They are flawed because they’re human, and I don’t think that makes them less than anything,” he said. “I’m always concerned when people aren’t flawed and aren’t presented as flawed because I don’t believe it, and I don’t know anybody who isn’t flawed.”


Elemental plays Saturday, February 23 at 7 p.m. at the Dance Palace Community and Cultural Center. Tickets are $15 and are available at Point Reyes Books, the event sponser. The film opens in New York City on May 17 and in 10 other markets, online and on DVD on May 31. More information on the film and the Global Oneness Project is available at globalonenessproject.org.