“Snows of the Nile,” a short film by National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee Neil Losin and fellow filmmaker and explorer Nate Dappen has received third place in the Action4Climate documentary contest. The film was one of 230 contest entries from 70 countries. To celebrate the award and the culmination of their work on it, Neil and Nate are releasing it free-to-watch on Vimeo (you can also view it at the top of this post).
The film was made on an expedition to reach the glacial origins of the Nile River, high in the mountains of equatorial Africa. The journey was made possible when the pair won the first-ever “Stay Thirsty Grant” from Dos Equis. We talked with Neil to find out more about the expedition, the film, and what it’s meant for the adventurous duo.
What’s your perspective on the film now after the award and after some time has passed?
NL: I think if you ask any filmmaker about a past project, they’ll be able to come up with some things they wish they’d done differently. This project is the same—there were some lovely moments that we just didn’t film very well, and so they didn’t end up in “Snows of the Nile.” But we’re proud of what we were able to capture during such a short expedition.
It’s been especially rewarding for us to attend many of the screenings of “Snows of the Nile.” Our audiences have been really engaged, which is all a filmmaker could ask for. Not surprisingly, one of the most common reactions goes something like, “Whoa, there are glaciers on the Equator?” But once people get past the initial shock, they generally have really smart questions to ask, which means they’re paying attention!
What do you hope people take away from it?
NL: I love the message that one of our climbing guides—Kenyan alpinist James Kagambi—has for us toward the end of the film:
“A lot of times, people think that ‘I’m only one in a billion people.’ But a long journey starts with one step. If you want to save our world, that journey can start with one person. Do what is right, and maybe your family will follow suit, your clan will follow suit, your tribe will follow suit, and maybe your whole country will follow suit.”
I think he’s exactly right. It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of a global threat like climate change. But everyone has a role to play. We can all make changes in our daily lives that reduce carbon emissions. We can all support policies, at local and national levels, that will help bring our atmosphere back into balance.
I also hope that people understand that climate change doesn’t just threaten polar bears and penguins. That’s why we wanted to tell a tropical story. It’s about people and wildlife all over the world. It’s a tragic irony that some of the worst impacts of climate change are already being felt in developing nations with very low carbon emissions.
How did your ideas or goals change from when you set out to when you had a finished project?
NL: Our expedition goals were very ambitious! We set out to re-capture dozens of historical images from the first ascent of the Rwenzori Mountains in 1906. That expedition was led by the Duke of Abruzzi, a legendary Italian explorer, and it was beautifully documented by photographer Vittorio Sella. If we could recapture those images, we could create a visual record of a century of climate change in these mountains.
But we didn’t anticipate how bad the weather would be. The Rwenzoris are infamously wet, even in the dry season, and they didn’t disappoint. A few days into our trek, we had to scale back our expectations. But when we started seeing the modern landscape and comparing it to the Vittorio Sella photos we were carrying with us, we knew that the changes were huge, and all we needed were a few really good images to show how much the mountains had changed.
What was the coldest, wettest, or most uncomfortable you got?
NL: Since the Rwenzoris are frequented by climbers, there are some huts for sleeping, which makes it possible to dry out a little bit overnight, but it rained, or snowed, or both, almost every day of our expedition.
The worst was our last planned climbing day. We had hoped to spend one final morning climbing a minor peak where Vittorio Sella had taken several photos, but the weather was absolutely dreadful. It ended up raining on us the whole day, and we were slogging through mud up to our knees in places. We could hardly even take our cameras out of their bags to capture the experience.
What were some thoughts you had when you reached “the top?”
NL: On our first two climbing days, we reached our target summits in dense clouds, so we literally couldn’t see a thing. At that point, the weather had us pretty worried. If we couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of us, we weren’t going to capture any of the repeat photos we came for!
On our third climbing day, we had spectacular blue skies for the first few hours of daylight, and we could see the entire glacier-covered plateau of Mount Stanley in front of us. To the east was the rugged Bujuku Valley; rain that fell there would eventually flow into the Mediterranean via the Nile River. To the west, the mountains dropped precipitously down to the dense rainforests of the Congo Basin; rain falling there would end up in the Atlantic Ocean, traveling via the Congo River.
“On top of the world” is one of those phrases that’s so overused, it’s almost lost its meaning. But surrounded by glaciers and rocky pinnacles, with Africa’s two great rivers on either side of us, that’s exactly how we felt. It was breathtaking.