Watch the Film That Reveals the Pollution Crisis You Didn’t See at the Rio Olympics

‘The Discarded’ director Annie Costner talks about telling the stories of Rio residents fighting to clean up an environmental disaster in Guanabara Bay.
Trash floats in Guanabara Bay, site of sailing events for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Aug 16, 2016· 6 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

With the Summer Olympics under way in Rio de Janeiro, the global media has focused on athletes’ fears about the horrific pollution of Guanabara Bay, the arena for swimming, sailing, rowing, and windsurfing competitions. Filmmakers Annie Costner and Adrienne Hall wanted to tell a different story—one about the impact on Cariocas, as Rio’s residents are called, of the untold tons of untreated sewage and garbage that pour into the bay, litter its shores, and clog its tributaries. Their 18-minute documentary, The Discarded, juxtaposes ethereal drone-captured images of the city’s spectacular natural setting with images of trash-strewn streets, creeks, and favelas (hillside slums where a quarter of Rio’s population lives). Narrated by Cariocas—from a boy who sails the garbage-choked Guanabara to an elderly man who recycles detritus into art—in the film ordinary citizens, scientists, and policy makers speak about the seemingly insurmountable challenges of Rio’s pollution crisis and reasons for hope.

In the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, Costner made eight trips to Rio in two years to consult with Brazilian petroleum giant Petrobras on behalf of a company owned by her father, actor Kevin Costner, that made a device that cleans up oil spills. “I just started noticing the trash issue—it’s hard not to notice it,” said Costner, 32, who worked as a campaign organizer and lobbyist for conservation group Clean Water Action before starting Sound Off Films with Hall. “There’s a highway that takes you from the airport to downtown Rio, and you see it and you smell it. It’s really shocking, as it is one of the most naturally beautiful city locations you’ve ever seen. And it’s terribly polluted.”

“When I left that job to work on documentaries, the story just kept coming back to me. I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she added.

TakePart spoke to Costner about the making of The Discarded and her journey from environmental activist to environmental filmmaker. You can watch the full documentary below.

TakePart: What was the impetus for making The Discarded, and why did you decide to focus on Rio de Janeiro?

Annie Costner: When I was in Rio for my father’s company, I just started asking questions at every meeting about the trash issue. What’s the cause? What’s being done about it? I was wondering if there was anything we could do on that front.

I knew the Olympics would be happening down there and that the world was going to start to look at this issue. This is such a beautiful city, and it would be very unfortunate if this issue was only told from one perspective. The headlines I was reading were like “the dump that is Rio.” I just wanted to dig deeper and show the other side of that story.

TakePart: The film’s story is told entirely through a cast of Rio residents, from ordinary citizens to activists to policy experts. How did you find those characters?

Costner: Some of it was through Project Grael, which takes kids from the favelas and teaches them how to sail and develop life skills. We also forged a partnership early on with the Plastic Pollution Coalition. They have an international alliance of activists working on plastics issues all over the world. The contemporary art museum there has been working on a big exhibition on Guanabara Bay. They got wind of me poking around down there, so they turned me on to some other artists and activists they were including in their exhibition. The other piece was that I got lucky with my codirector, Carla Dauden. She’s originally from São Paulo. I dropped her on the ground in Rio with a shot list and some basic story lines, and she really found it. I give her a lot of credit for what she was able to dig up.

TakePart: Who is the audience you want to see The Discarded, and what do you hope the film will inspire them to do?

Costner: Primarily it is intended for a local audience; that’s why it’s in Portuguese with English subtitles. A lot of the people we interviewed could have spoken in English, but we wanted them to speak in their natural language. The film is going to be shown through November at the contemporary art museum. A lot of people down there told me that Cariocas love their natural environment, but there‘s a literal disconnect between the environment they love and the way they consume and throw out trash. They’ll sit there and tell you how much they love their water and the ocean and the fishing and swimming and then will drop a Coke can right in front of you on the beach and walk off. A lot of people said the most important thing we can do is get this film out to them and create that connection and start inspiring change.

TakePart: For such an ugly topic, the film is beautifully shot, particularly the aerial photography and the contrast between Rio’s natural beauty and the extreme pollution. What message did you want to convey with the cinematography?

Costner: I’m not the kind of person who would go shoot a documentary on an iPhone, even though I respect people who do that and do that well. We got really lucky—we worked with another Brazilian, Filipe Bessa, an L.A.-based [director of photography] who is originally from Rio. We hired a local drone operator who was fantastic. It’s hard to raise the money and shoot these stories and tell these stories at the quality they deserve to be told at. We tried to get very intimate with those shots of garbage. It was purposeful. There’s a line at the end of the film that says that people think that when they throw something away, it goes away. But there is no “away.” When you have to look at trash you’ve created up close and personal, it’s horrifying. And only by looking at that will you be moved to take responsibility for your own consumption. So we didn’t want to shy away from those scenes. And there’s something oddly beautiful about those shots. These objects have a life of their own that goes beyond the descriptor of trash.

Watch The Discarded.

TakePart: You also worked on the movie Racing Extinction. What drew you to environmental documentaries?

Costner: I’ve always had an inclination toward environmental issues. When I was in college I read an article in Rolling Stone by Robert Kennedy Jr. that was in support of his book Crimes Against Nature. It moved me beyond words. I wrote him a letter saying you have given me a purpose and direction in my life. I got a letter back from the guy who ran his organization Waterkeeper Alliance, and I interned with them in college and eventually went to work for them for a while after college. I can pinpoint that article as a pivotal thing in my life. I worked for Clean Water Action first as a campaign organizer and then a lobbyist. I watched a lot of documentaries on water and got interested in the idea that they were doing the same thing I was—telling a compelling story to move people toward progressive action. I just sort of jumped ship from lobbying to documentaries, hiring myself out for free to a lot of different directors because I had no production chops; I just had research capabilities at the beginning. I got really lucky. I worked for Jessica Yu and Elise Pearlstein on their film Last Call at the Oasis. [The film was produced by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company.] Then I worked for Louie Psihoyos on Racing Extinction. That film is where I met my producing partner, Adrienne Hall. Finally, we were able to start our little company together.

'The Discarded' producers Annie Costner and Adrienne Hall. (Photo: Sound Off Films)

TakePart: You have a famous father who is an environmentalist. Did that influence your interest in water issues?

Costner: It’s funny, as at the time I read that Rolling Stone article, I don’t think I understood my father was an environmentalist. I went down that road and didn’t even know he had been investing in environmental technology for years. As I graduated college and became an adult and pursued my own career, we started talking about it more. He put me and my sister in the outdoors a lot. He’s a hunter and fisherman. We spent a lot of time camping and on boats and doing things like that. I think I had a natural love of the environment. But we had a very cool exchange when the Gulf oil spill happened. I was working for Louie Psihoyos on Racing Extinction. My dad got called down to D.C. to testify on all these technologies he had that had been seen by the government and different oil companies and passed up. He called me up and said, “I need your help.” He was unsure how to navigate that space in D.C. We got to work together for the first time as equals.

TakePart: Much of the media attention paid to water quality in Rio has focused on the impact on Olympic athletes. Do you hope to leverage the global spotlight on the games to refocus attention on the people who actually live in Rio?

Costner: Yes, absolutely. That has been one of my gripes with all the attention on the Olympic athletes and the water quality issues. Look, if I were an athlete, I wouldn’t like it either, and it’s fair of them to complain. But I do think there’s a bigger picture. There’s 12 million people who live around Guanabara Bay and live with those conditions, have been living with them, will continue living with them. How does that affect their quality of life, and how does it affect tourism for Rio even going forward? It’s an environmental health issue and an environmental justice issue. It’s a story that matters.

TakePart: One of the challenges in telling environmental stories is that the topics can be so depressing and can leave the viewer or reader feeling helpless. How do you educate and empower people with these stories?

Costner: I don’t have the answer to that. I think anyone that tells you they do is blowing a little bit of smoke. It sounds trite, but feeling a little hopeful always helps. One of the problems is that environmental issues can feel large and boundless, and you don’t even know where to attack it. All you have to do is see one person making progress in one avenue and one area, and that can empower you.