Lindsey Parietti: From Altamont to Africa to a (British) Academy Award

– Photo from Lindsey Parietti
An award-winning Altamont native: Lindsey Parietti, a Guilderland High School graduate, took home a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for her documentary, “Blood Island,” the story of a group of chimpanzees that had been captured and bred for medical research only to be abandoned.

ALTAMONT – Sure, she’s a big-time muckety-muck now.

But growing up in tiny Altamont, Lindsey Parietti offered her parents no hint, nary a glimmer, of her future as a globe-trotting, intrepid journalist and award-winning filmmaker.

“She was into sports and cheerleading, and did very well in school, the usual teenage stuff — other than she liked big cities” said her mother, Janice Catino. Her father, Richard Parietti, said that Lindsey “wasn’t all that adventurous, but now she likes to be on the cutting edge.”

She’s now living in Bristol, England, about two hours west of London. She doesn’t watch “The Great British Baking Show,” or as its known over there, “The Great British Bake-Off.”

She’s busy. She has a job in the natural-history unit of the British Broadcasting Corporation, where she’s working on a follow-up project to her British Academy of Film and Television Arts award-winning documentary, “Blood Island.”

She was 19, she said, when she made her first trip abroad.

The father of a friend from school, Boston University, was working on a Marine base in Germany. “So I went to visit her; that was the first time I ever left the U.S.,” Parietti said. “My dad doesn’t like to fly; so we went places we could drive, but we never really went abroad.”

Parietti’s first trip to Europe took her to Germany, Switzerland, and France.

“Then, I think, after that, I just had the travel bug,” she said. “I don’t know; maybe that started this process of me wanting to have a job that pays me to travel.”

From Altamont to Boston

At Guilderland High School, Parietti said, she played sports: cheerleading, cross-country, skiing, and track and field. She was in the choir; in the 10th grade, she played an instrument. “I tried a bit of everything,” she said. She graduated in 2003.

She liked to write, but that was in her English and social studies classes. “I didn’t ever write for the school newspaper — I mean, if we even had one; I think that we did,” she said. “I didn't really know what I wanted to do until I was already at Boston University.”

She started at B.U. as a political-science major. Did she see a future for herself in politics?

“Yeah, I think when I was growing up, I considered it,” she answered. “I thought I would be president or a Supreme Court justice.”

But, she said, journalism had been in the back of her mind since high school.

“I think it’s funny to pick what you want to do for the rest of your life when you’re 19, you know?” Parietti asked. “So, I just wanted to try everything.”

She did.

She took language classes, she said, and classes in history and the sciences.

“I can’t remember exactly how I settled on journalism but, once I started taking those courses, I really enjoyed it,” she said. She liked the pressure, the immediate deadlines, meeting different people, and being able to satisfy her natural curiosity.

After covering politics — and also going to Egypt where she reported on the 2011 revolution and seeing what happened there — Parietti said of politics, “I thought it was a lot of hot air; a lot of money being spent and time being wasted talking, and not a lot of action happening. I’m glad I didn't go into politics because, I think, I would just be banging my head against a wall at this point.”

Her first job out of college was covering the Massachusetts Statehouse, a political body that has elevated spending, talking, and inaction to its highest form.

But it wasn’t the banality of Beacon Hill that led Parietti to seek adventure and employment abroad.

It was the economy, ghabi.

From Boston to Cairo

“Pretty much every media company was bleeding jobs, laying off a lot of reporters,” Parietti said.

Worried about job security as well the lack of opportunity at home, Parietti said, “I thought, if I went abroad and learned Arabic that I’d be more marketable.”

She found an editor’s job in Cairo; when she arrived in Egypt, that’s about all she was certain of.

“I didn’t know where I was going to live,” Parietti said. “I did have a job lined up, so they sent a taxi.” And after a two-hour ride in “nightmare” traffic, Parietti’s African adventure had begun albeit with some unique fits and starts.

“When you go to language classes in the States, you study Modern Standard Arabic, and what they speak in Egypt is the Egyptian dialect — which is nothing like Modern Standard Arabic,” she said.

Arabic, according to the University of Pennsylvania,“is characterized by an interesting linguistic dichotomy: the written form of the language, Modern Standard Arabic, differs in a non-trivial fashion from the various spoken varieties of Arabic, each of which is a regional dialect.” The three main regional dialects are Levantine, Gulf, and Egyptian.

Modern Standard Arabic, according to UPenn, is the only variety of the language that is “standardized, regulated, and taught in schools.” Whereas regional dialects are “used primarily for day-to-day dealings and spoken communication, are not taught formally in schools, and remain somewhat absent from traditional, and certainly official, written communication.”

Arab Spring

In December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was, arbitrarily, told by police to hand over his cart to them because he did not have a permit to sell his fruits and vegetables. He refused to do so and was slapped by a policewoman.

Humiliated and angry, Bouazizi protested his treatment by setting himself on fire.

Protests soon engulfed the capital, Tunis, forcing Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s authoritarian ruler for over two decades, to abdicate the presidency.  

Bouazizi’s self-immolation had sparked the Arab Spring.

By January 2011, Egyptian activists began to rebel.

On Jan. 25, thousands marched into Tahrir Square to protest “against poverty, unemployment, government corruption and the rule of president Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for three decades,” according to the Arabic news outlet, Al Jazeera.

Parietti didn’t go to Tahrir Square that first night.

“Nobody thought that it was going to happen; prior to that, anytime there was a small protest, basically, the police would break it up right away,” she said. At this point, in addition to her Egyptian job, Parietti was freelancing for the international news agency, Reuters.

So when did she know this time was different?

It didn’t take long.

“I think the second day when I went to check it out,” she said, “and downtown Cairo was in complete chaos.” That was when she knew this thing had legs.

“Nobody really knew what was happening. People were running from the police,” who were using tear gas and rubber bullets on the protesters, Parietti said. She hid behind a building for cover.

“After that, I think, it kind of hit home,” she said, “something is building up here; then, it just took off.”

Mr. Parietti said that he was proud of his daughter, but it was a nerve-wracking experience. “I thought, I was getting used to it a little, but you really don’t,” he said. “It never gets easy.”

“We were frantic,” Ms. Catino said, “but we got a message from Lindsey that said, ‘Don’t worry, Mom. When you watch TV, I’m OK.’”

Why did she stay?

“I didn’t feel like I had a choice at that time,” Parietti said. “I think, if you’re a journalist, and you have a front seat to history being made, you don’t leave.

“I mean, it’d be completely incongruous to being a journalist,” if she had wanted to leave, she said.

Eighteen days after the first protest in Tahrir Square, Mubarak stepped down as president. The 18 days of the revolution weren’t scary, Parietti said. What came after was.

In 2013, the Egyptian military engineered a coup d’état against the country’s first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

The military cracked down on the media, including Parietti, who by this time had helped found a local news website, which, she said, is now inaccessible from inside Egypt. Parietti said that she is no longer affiliated with the site.

“They were going in and rounding up journalists in their homes, or arresting them and putting them on trial on trumped-up charges,” she said. “If you went to cover the actual street protests, you knew you were taking some kind of risk.”

Covering street protests posed an immediate physical danger to reporters, Parietti said. Escape routes had to be planned in advance, and, she said, you had to “go with people who can protect you.”

Reporting on war and murder took its toll, and, by 2014, Parietti had taken a step back from journalism and segued into environmental work. She soon took a half-step forward: trading coverage of human tragedy for coverage of animal cruelty.

From Cairo to the Congo, to Bristol, to Liberia

“Well I was, I think, just really fed up with politics and people killing each other,” Parietti said. “I joked to [Melissa Hale-Spencer on an Enterprise podcast] that I decided to cover people killing animals.”

What Parietti really wanted to do was to keep telling stories.

“I went on a reporting fellowship to Democratic Republic of Congo with the International Women’s Media Foundation, and I went into Virunga for one of those stories, which is the national park there,” she said. It’s also the name of the documentary that, Parietti said, has had a huge influence on her.

“Virunga,” a 2014 documentary, tells the story of the protected national park where, in 2010, oil is discovered. The subsequent arrival of SOCO International, a British oil and gas exploration and production company, leads to a literal battle, with a rebel group, over oil profits.

The documentary won multiple awards, and was seen by enough of the right people that SOCO International halted exploration. “I just thought, yeah, I want to make films like that,” Parietti said.

“Blood Island” is Parietti’s “Virunga.”

Both films were nominated for a BAFTA award; yet only Parietti won.

Her win was a BAFTA Student Film Award for Documentary. It had been a thesis, or capstone, project for her master’s degree in Wildlife Filmmaking at the University of the West of England. There were 469 submissions from 35 countries for the category, which were then whittled down to nine finalists.

Parietti won her British Academy of Film and Television Arts award at a ceremony on June 29 — in Los Angeles. She was also recently nominated for two Wildscreen Panda Awards: for Emerging Talent and Short Film.

Known as the “Green Oscars,” the Panda Awards “remain the highest accolade in the wildlife film and TV industry,” according to the Panda Awards.

In “Blood Island,” Parietti tells, in 12 minutes, the story of over a hundred helpless chimpanzees that have been stockpiled and abandoned on an island colony in Liberia, West Africa. They had been captured and bred for medical research by the New York Blood Center, a not-for-profit blood bank in New York City.

The island where the chimps had been abandoned, although surrounded by water, was completely devoid of fresh water or fruit. The chimps savior took an unlikely form: Joseph Thomas, who, for 30 years, had worked in the medical-testing facility as the chimpanzees’ jailer.

At first, Thomas was paid to take care of his former captives. Soon, the checks stopped, but Thomas did not; he continued to take care of the chimps, paying out of his own pocket until a humane society took up the cause.

Parietti had heard the story of the blood chimps of Liberia at a talk at the Bristol Zoo. “It was just something mentioned really offhand; it wasn’t the topic of the talk,” she said. “But … my ears pricked up instantly.”

There it was; she had her “Virunga,” a film to pressure the New York Blood Center to do something.

The blood center did do something while she was in the process of editing her film. Bowing to international pressure, the center reached an agreement with the humane society to split the long-term care costs of the chimps. The New York Blood Center agreed to pony up $6 million.  

“I think that the film still has potential, in terms of people watching it and, hopefully, rethinking our relationship with animals and the natural world,” Parietti said. With the benefit of hindsight, she hopes, people will learn that “just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.”

From England to Altamont?

Asked if she’d ever return to Altamont or to the United States, Parietti said, “I don’t know. I don’t have a plan for that. I just sort of go with things as they happen, and then see where the interesting projects take me.”

 

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