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Sharks! New Lecture Series Begins In Middlebury

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Courtesy of Andy Knight Mitchell
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Filmmaker Andy Casagrande shoots footage of a hammerhead shark. Casagrande and colleague Andy Mitchell will give a talk on their experiences filming sharks on November 30.

“The one thing you're not supposed to do when filming sharks is to back up."

The first time Andy Mitchell swam with great white sharks proved to be quite an adventure. The Middlebury-based documentary filmmaker was in South Africa, in an area known as "Shark Alley." He and another cameraman had dropped a cage to the sea bottom and tipped it on its side like a soccer goal to provide some protection if an aggressive shark came at them.

“The weather was crap, and the visibility was horrible. You couldn’t see more than five or six feet. So I slowly edged out of the cage.”

At that moment, a big surge of water pulled Mitchell a good 30 feet from the cage — right towards an approaching shark.

“Obviously the first thing that I do, because I was pulled 30 feet out of the cage, was to back up as fast as I can, which just honed the predator instinct, and he came at me.”

Backing up is a big no-no while filming sharks. It stimulates the shark’s flight response — and that’s when they attack.

Mitchell made it back to the cage and escaped unharmed. And he now remembers the experience fondly as one of his first “adrenaline-filled experiences with sharks.”

"We're going to show some clips and we're going to have a very honest discussion about ... some things that I did that I'm not so proud of, to be honest, in getting really cool shots of sharks but maybe not doing it in the most ethical way." - Andy Mitchell, documentary filmmaker

Mitchell plans to share anecdotes like that at the kickoff event in a new lecture series he is starting in Middlebury on Sunday, Nov. 30. Mitchell and his filmmaking colleague and friend Andy Brandy Casagrande IV will swap stories, offer insight into the unique behavior of sharks and come clean on some of the less savory aspects of animal documentaries. 

“We're going to show some clips and we're going to have a very honest discussion about ... some things that I did that I'm not so proud of, to be honest, in getting really cool shots of sharks but maybe not doing it in the most ethical way."

Mitchell stresses that he's never put a shark or any other animal in danger, but explains that some production companies will stretch the boundaries of ethical filmmaking to get shots that will boost TV ratings. One example he gives is a program based around a pseudo-scientific study looking at whether sharks prefer tuna or baked ham.

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Credit Andy Knight Mitchell
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Andy Mitchell films a great white shark.

"Obviously, it's meat. They're going to eat them all. It's kind of ridiculous, but it gets ratings. People watch it."

Now that he's a more established filmmaker and cameraman, Mitchell says he doesn't take gigs that compromise his ethics.

"It’s a real conversation to be had. I think actually the tide is changing now in that the more legit and more real processes [of filming animals] are more respected, and that people are willing to give up a little of the sensationalism in order to have a more honest production.”

"Sharks!" is the first-ever MUD Talk. Mitchell and his wife Lisa have designed these Middlebury Underground Discussions to be interactive and intimate, so that the audience helps guide the discussions.

“We chose Sharks! as the first one because A, it’s what I do, and because it’s toothy,” Mitchell punned. “It isn’t your typical lecture. I think what we’re kind of getting at is a little bit different, and hopefully it will be rewarding for everybody.”

“We want every single [lecture] to be completely different, to cover a variety of topics. Our priorities are: A, have a good time; B, walk away knowing something little bit more, and then really bringing the community together.”

The second MUD Talk is scheduled for Feb. 21 and will feature the music of The Refugee All-Stars of Sierra Leone. Mitchell met the musicians 10 years ago in a refugee camp in Guinea. He was a part of the team that then made a documentary film called the Refugee All-Stars of Sierra Leone. The film exposed the group to a larger audience and led them to a successful international music career. But Mitchell says the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has made them "refugees again — stuck in Providence, Rhode Island, while their family and friends are all stuck back home. And they can't get back home."

So the Mitchells devised a way to help them. “As close friends, we’re inviting them as the second talk to not only play music, but also begin a discussion about Ebola, and hopefully raise a little bit of money for them to send home to their families.”

Mitchell hopes MUD Talks will become an ongoing seasonal series. Future events might focus on local food and include a community dinner or explore the role of adventure, play and danger in childhood development. Events will raise funds for a local private school and other organizations.

“We want every single one to be completely different, to cover a variety of topics. Our priorities are: A, have a good time; B, walk away knowing something little bit more, and then really bringing the community together.”

Mud Talks: Sharks! is Sunday, Nov. 30 at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury. $12 for adults; $8 for kids under 12 and free for kids 5 and under.

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