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The well-loved Wes Anderson film “The Life Aquatic” offered a parody of the ocean-bound family— the patriarch with his zeal for the open sea, and a family following in his footsteps, some with enthusiasm, some begrudgingly— and it worked so well because a generation knew the love-object of its satire, the Cousteau family. The real Cousteau family, now in its third generation (or fourth if you count their children), has wavered a bit from their grandfather Jacques’ mission, but they have never stopped putting the earth and the oceans first.
And so on Wednesday night, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival honors father Jean-Michel, along with son Fabien and daughter Céline for the many documentaries, non-profits and awareness they have brought while carrying on the family name. The Richard Attenborough Award, which the festival has not awarded for five years, will feature an evening of interviews and screenings.
“Every opportunity we have to get together is welcome,” says Jean-Michel, now in his 70s. “The three of us are honored to be together for this award.”
He set up base 23 years ago in Santa Barbara with his Ocean Futures Society, and has produced over 70 films on the oceans and the environment. His son Fabien has focused on sharks, producing many documentaries on the creatures, and then turning to other challenges, such as beating his grandfather’s 30-day record for staying underwater for 31 days.
“Getting the three of us in a room together is an extraordinary thing to do,” says Fabien. “The fact that we can reunite in Santa Barbara . . . I can’t think of a better place to do it.”
His younger sister Céline has had her share of diving as well, but she has turned her attention to protecting the Amazon and the tribes that live near it. She sees the Amazon River as contributing to the ocean, so though she’s mostly on land, it’s not too far from the same goal: preservation.
“This award is a testament of what you can do as a legacy and a collective and in collaboration,” says Céline, who says the family name can be an equal help and hindrance.
“I love to think pitching a story is enough but it’s a very competitive filmmaking world,” she says. “Fundraising for films is really tough . . . So in that case the family name helps. It opens doors for as long as you’re truthful about the goal and not abusing the legacy but in some ways it can be hurtful. There’s the assumption that I have access to funding and that it comes easy. It’s tough.”
The whole family has grown up in the legacy laid down by the man who brought the ocean into our room through television.
“There was a specific moment when I realized my grandfather was well known,” says Céline, who spends her time between the East Coast and the south of France, “I remember walking through the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco (where Jacques was director at the time) and I was holding my grandfather’s hand, and a crowd of people surrounded him. I remember him letting go of my hand to sign an autograph. To me that was very symbolic. I knew his films were on television, but that specific moment made me realize I shared him with a crowd. I still do. Anywhere I go when people hear the last name people will tell me they grew up with him.”
Fabien remembers putting a dinosaur jigsaw puzzle together with his grandfather, and receiving an education on that particular beast in a heightened way, much like his television narratives. “He would be very passionate about youth, and after a while I realized that was not just for us, but he was about sharing stories with the world at large. I was so proud that he was able to influence hundreds of millions of people into caring. Looking back, that was a marker as to how it influenced us as the people we are now and carrying on the same philosophy of sharing invaluable stories.”
“Dreaming of the impossible is a Cousteau trait,” says Fabien, as he looks over his full plate of adventures for 2015. “Most people on the planet have dreams. But most people think of the challenges when they should be thinking of the possibilities.”
The Attenborough Award
Honoring the Cousteau Family
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St.
Information: (805) 963-0023, www.sbiff.org
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