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Friday 18 June 2021 12:30pm

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Almer, the star of the documentary Growing Up Kiwi
You can view the trailer here:

Otago alumna Madeleine Brennan's documentary Growing Up Kiwi is a finalist in the 2021 International Wildlife Film Festival, and an Official Selection of the 2021 Wildlife Conservation Film Festival.

The film, which follows the story of "Almer", a Haast tokoeka, from egg through his first year and release back into the wild, is expected to be one of the highlights of the Science Communication Student Film Festival which starts on July 10 at Dunedin's Regent Theatre.

Maddy graduated with a MAppSci in Science and Natural History Filmmaking last year, and a BSc in Zoology before that.

question Q Tell us a little bit about yourself – where did you grow up and go to school?

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Maddy with Almer: 'I wanted to show how cool these kiwi are!'

I was born in London but have spent most of my life up in the North Island – I went to school in Hamilton and also spent a lot of my childhood in the Coromandel.

question Q Did you always have an interest in science and the outdoors?

Yeah! I was one of those kids that looked at bugs under a magnifying glass, and I used to make little backyard nature documentaries with my cat. I had some really great biology teachers growing up which I think really helped. One of my primary school teachers used to take us hiking in the forest to identify trees and birds, so I always knew that I wanted to work outside or with animals in some way.

question QWhy did you decide to study at Otago?

It's in the South Island! I'd spent most of my life in the North Island, so I wanted to go somewhere a bit different, and Otago seemed like a great university with a fun student environment.

question QHow did you find your Otago experience?

I loved it. Probably a bit too much when I was studying under-grad!! I really loved the Zoology department and my lecturers, and then it was cool to come back when I was a bit older and do my postgraduate study here in the Science Communication department. I moved out to the beach and got to see a different side of Dunedin, with all its amazing wildlife, beaches and awesome scenery, not just the bars!

question QWhere did the idea for Growing Up Kiwi come from?

I was originally planning on making a film about some of the weird evolutionary quirks that New Zealand animals have, and I was looking into how Rowi kiwis' eyesight has deteriorated due to their nocturnal lifestyle. One of the DOC rangers suggested I talk to Stacey (the Haast biodiversity ranger in the film) about the Haast tokoeka kiwi instead, since they're not a very well-known species compared to Rowi. Stacey then told me about the Operation Nest Egg (ONE) work that they do and that they had one last surprise egg for the season which hadn't hatched, so I just jumped on that idea and ended up following the kiwi chick Almer around for a year!

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Almer emerges into the world

question QWhat did you hope to capture in the documentary?

I wanted to show how cool these kiwi are! Not many people know about Haast tokoeka and how incredibly rare they are, so I wanted to help share a bit about them in a way that not many people get to actually see in person. I also wanted to highlight the huge amount of work that goes into protecting these kiwi. Everyone involved with their conservation are so hardworking and were so friendly and chill about me filming them, so I hope the film shows that as well!

question QTell us a bit about the logistics – time spent in the field, technical set-up, hours spent filming.

It took a long time!! I wanted to capture all the steps Almer went through in Operation Nest Egg, which ended up with me filming for about a year and a half and getting about 4TB of footage, and a whole lot of travelling around the South Island following where he went. The whole doco is mostly filmed hand-held on my Canon DSLR because I didn't want to be carrying a tripod or any other heavy gear with me through the forest, so it was all pretty simple on the technical side of things. I did get to play around with trail cameras at Orokonui though, which meant I could get some shots of Almer's natural behaviour which was pretty cool!

question QDid the storytelling evolve as the filming progressed?

It did in some ways. The structure was pretty much laid out as I was following Almer going through a well-established conservation programme, but there was always the chance that he wasn't going to make it. Even though kiwi chicks have a much higher survival rate in ONE, they can still pass away from disease and injury just like any other animal, and there was a bit of reservation on whether or not he would make it since he was laid so late in the season. So I always had to keep that in the back of my mind, but thankfully he made it through and is now living his best life up a mountain in the Haast ranges!

question QWhat were the main challenges?

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Maddy in the field: 'I was also still learning a lot about filmmaking while making the documentary'

Timing was a big challenge for me. I knew it was going to take me a lot longer than most of the other students given the nature of the film I was making, but that could be quite stressful at times. I was also still learning a lot about filmmaking while making the documentary, as I had no experience in filming before I started the course. There were also some challenges I couldn't have seen coming, like hard-drive failures and Almer going missing on Rona Island. He managed to somehow shake out of his transmitter which is pretty impressive because those things are made to not fall off! But the DOC rangers managed to eventually find him using the kiwi dogs, so that was good – could have been a very different end to the film!

question QThe film has been well received which must be pleasing?

Yup, I'm definitely pleased about that. It's being shown in a few film festivals which is awesome as I hope more people get to learn about Haast tokoeka and ONE. The film ended up as a finalist in the International Wildlife Film Festival student category, and it is being screened at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival later in the year, which I am super happy about!

question QWhat is your next project?

I'm currently working on a new documentary with a friend about another native (but less loved) New Zealand species. It's still early stages and we're trying to nail down some funding, but hopefully it will all come together as we feel it's an important story to share.

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You can view the trailer here:

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