What happened to the monarchs?: Anna Chahuneau ’18 draws attention to disappearing butterflies through documentary

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Anna Chahuneau ’18 spent a total of two years at the College working on her butterfly documentary, which has since been screened at multiple film festivals. COURTESY PHOTO / ANNA CHAHUNEAU

From its opening shot, “Pursuing the Monarchs” is dazzling. The documentary, written and directed by Anna Chahuneau ’18, opens with thousands of monarch butterflies flying around in the dense green jungle of Michoacan, Mexico.

The film is a 50-minute visual exploration of the monarch butterfly, its habitat and interviews with specialists on the subject. Since its release, the documentary has been chosen as an official selection of the Gottlieb Native Garden Green Earth Film Festival, the Festival de Cine Verde de Barichara, the Strasburg Film Festival and the Santa Cruz Film Festival.

Finding the intersection of science and culture

Before Chahuneau was chasing monarch butterflies across North America, she was growing up in Paris, France. She considered applying to medical school but changed her path when she decided the sight of blood just wasn’t for her. A certain part of her college decision was left to chance — Chahuneau said she remembers looking at a map of the United States and settling upon Virginia.

“I realized that I was really afraid of blood, so medicine wasn’t going to go really well for me, and so I decided to switch and I sort of fell into William and Mary without knowing really anything about this place,” Chahuneau said.

At the College of William and Mary, Chahuneau became involved with biology professor Harmony Dalgleish’s lab, where she was first introduced to the scientific phenomenon of the monarch butterfly migration. Instead of an academic paper, she decided she wanted her senior thesis project to focus on finding a common ground between the scientific community and everyone else.

“So I want to bridge that gap and be the voice in between that explains to the general public why science matters, especially in the light of today’s problems,” chahuneau said.

“What I’m really interested about is bridging the gap between [academia and] people like me, who are interested in science, but think that scientific papers are not always super attainable,” Chahuneau said. “So I want to bridge that gap and be the voice in between that explains to the general public why science matters, especially in the light of today’s problems.”

In the documentary, Chahuneau combines footage of monarch butterflies in their overwintering site in Michoacan, Mexico, with interviews with academics who research the migration of monarch butterflies and field conservationists.

The documentary focuses on the dangers that the monarch butterfly population faces. In the last 20 years, 90 percent of the world’s monarch butterfly population has disappeared, and the film argues that this is in large part due to agriculture and deforestation — partly due to illegal logging in Michoacan — in the butterflies’ Mexican habitat. Increased use of herbicides on corn fields are also detrimental to monarch breeding. The documentary is about butterflies, but it also about how the monarch is representative of a broader deterioration of the environment.

Exploring visual storytelling

While Chahuneau made this project her honors thesis, this was hardly her first time working with film and media to tell stories. Chahuneau was also a teaching assistant for the Communicating Environmental Science with Documentary Film class, and she worked for two years at the Reeder Media Center in Earl Gregg Swem Library. She also participated in the 24 Speed Filmmaking Festival every year. Her final film for that competition, “A Love Letter,” was a three-minute meditation on themes of nature and environmental destruction.

Still, a full-length feature documentary presented some challenges, especially for a full-time student balancing two majors in Chinese and biology.

“I think that that really important link was meeting [Sweet Briar College biology professor Lincoln Brower] — he’s the king of monarchs, essentially, in the scientific world. Everyone knows him,” chahuneau said.

The final product of the film was two years in the making, and involved a significant amount of travel to shoot on-site at various monarch habitats, as well as visits with professors at different universities who specialize in the subject of monarch butterfly migration.

“It was truly a really step-by-step process,” Chahuneau said. “I would take one step, meet one person, and that person would tell me about another person that I should go interview. I think that that really important link was meeting [Sweet Briar College biology professor Lincoln Brower] — he’s the king of monarchs, essentially, in the scientific world. Everyone knows him.”

The people behind the research

Brower, who is heavily featured in the documentary, and whom Chahuneau credits with prompting her breakthrough in the filming process, died this past July at the age of 86. It was after her meeting with Brower that Chahuneau decided she needed to shoot on-site in Michoacan. She said she became so enthralled in that conversation that she became enthusiastic about finding out more about what happened to the monarchs, and she got to scheduling interviews.

“There was no way the film would reflect the true urgency of the problem without me going physically to Mexico and filming the people who are there,” Chahuneau said. “… I wanted to make a thesis about butterflies, but in the end the project ends up being so much more than something about me. It’s about monarchs and it’s about the people who work to conserve the environment.”

Chahuneau also credited her partner Henry Sho Kellam ’17, who worked with her as a cinematographer for the United States shoots and helped with audio design in Mexico, for being supportive throughout the entire process of making this film.

“He’s just been there for me, from the beginning,” Chahuneau said.

After she graduated in May, Chahuneau moved to Cambodia to work with an animal conservation center, the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, as a science communicator and digital media creator.

However, “Pursuing the Monarchs” is only the beginning for Chahuneau, who hopes to continue to work within the medium of documentary filmmaking, even if she predicts that it won’t be an easy field to break into.

“It’s going to be really hard, because documentary making in general, is a very complicated industry,” Chahuneau said. “Even though it seems to be doing well on the outside, there’s just not that much funding for it. I think it’s going to be a hard process, but I know that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. There’s just no way I can do something else and be fulfilled.”