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A Natural Journey to Filmmaking with Pam Kaval

Written by Hayley James

Originally from New Jersey, USA, Pam Kaval always wanted to come to New Zealand.
With a background in ecosystem services, sustainability and biodiversity, she was drawn to the natural wonders that New Zealand had to offer.

She’s been in New Zealand for 15 years now, calling the Waikato home for 7. While living here, she has worked on projects like the Maungatautari Ecological Mainland Island, the Hauraki Rail Trail and the Central North Island Rail Trail, but these days she’s entered a completely new space of filmmaking, producing, and acting.

So, what makes an environmental researcher want to completely change career paths into producing films? Pam tells me it has always been a passion of hers.

“When I was a little kid, my grandmother's friend was visiting. I was probably 7 and she asked, ‘What do you wanna do when you grow up?’ I said ‘I want to be an actress and I want to make movies!’ and she said, ‘Well, you should do that!”

Pam’s journey to filmmaking was long, however, an opportunity to live in the Galapagos National Park, a block away from where tortoises hatched their young, gave her the inspiration she needed to get started. 

“When I came back on the plane, I started writing a story about the Galapagos tortoises and realised this is what I want to do. I want to make an animated film about the tortoises. That's when I decided I’ve gotta write this story. It’s a fun action story about tortoises and all the animals that lived three and a half million years ago.”

Through her work at the University of Waikato, Pam had been writing lots of academic journal articles, but didn’t have much experience with other types of writing. Taking children’s book and scriptwriting classes, as well as acting classes, gave her the opportunity to meet directors and cinematographers and do behind-the-scenes work helping others out with their short films. These experiences made her realize that she was right where she wanted to be. 

The Galapagos tortoise children's story is only one of the many projects Pam has on her plate at the moment. After pulling horror (something Pam admits to knowing little about, because some of these movies gave her bad dreams when she was younger) out of a hat in an acting class task, she wrote a script and, to her surprise, there was interest.

A cinematographer and a director wanted to be in on the making of the film, and with that, they got a team together and filmed it. This film, called Mothering Sunday, was shot at the director's house with no budget. With $150 to spend on advertising, Pam sent the short film to film festivals and paid an extra $10 to have it marketed on Film Freeway, and lo and behold, Pam and her team got full entry fee waivers for over 40 film festivals and have won 17 awards since (and it’s still going through the festivals!), including a producer, writer, and actor award for Pam, and well as many other awards for her team.

“It was so fun to film this horror movie. It’s a horror dark comedy, so it’s not super scary, just ironic and crazy, and everyone I’ve seen who watched it laughs.”

The Mothering Sunday story piqued Pam’s interest in genres that she wouldn't have normally been interested in. This has spring boarded her to research thrillers and horrors. The Shoebox is her newest horror on the cards.

“It’s a really exciting story. Most people that have read the script said, ‘Wow, I wanna know what happens next!!’ So it’s got me really excited. Right now, it’s written as a 20-minute film and I’m trying to find funding to produce it.”

Although storytelling through film is where her passion lies now, tying together her love of film and her past in sustainability and biodiversity means that Pam is intentional to make the least amount of impact at her filming locations. Her dream (as she gains more funding) is to be able to give more money to the people or organizations who own the land and/or help buy and plant native plants to increase the biodiversity in those locations, helping filming locations in the Waikato thrive. She believes that you need to respect the land you are using and leave only footprints and take only pictures. 

Watch the trailer for Mothering Sunday below.