Nineteen-year-old Isla Christensen is flabbergasted – her message to the world is about to be broadcast in New York City’s Time Square.

Christensen filmed and edited her short film, It Can Be Different, for her Year 13 media studies assessment at Karamu High School in Hastings last year.  

Watch the short film in the video player above

Her theme, of sustainability and protecting the planet from the ravages of climate change, was inspired by her time spent with the Sir Peter Blake Trust, particularly as a Young Blake Expeditioner deep in the Sub-Antarctic.

The film’s message: “What would you do if the Earth was ending? If climate changed?”

Now her work has been chosen for the Official Selection of films that will screen in theatres on Times Square – one of the busiest crossroads in the world – during the All-American High School Film Festival from October 6-8.  

What left Christensen stunned was that she had no idea the film had been entered in the festival, along with 2000 films from more than 40 countries around the globe.

“When I found out my film had been chosen, I had to re-read the text and then send it to my Dad!” the University of Auckland student laughs. “It all came as quite a shock – I even googled Times Square, because I couldn’t believe it was going to be shown there.”

Her “biggest film inspiration”, American YouTube personality and film-maker Casey Neistat, lives a short electric skateboard ride from Times Square. “Imagine if he saw my movie?” Christensen says.

Christensen’s view on the world has changed dramatically in the past two years. As a teenager, she was aware of the environment around her – keen on tramping, and spending time in the outdoors with her family in the Hawkes Bay.

But when she was selected as one of 52 high school students nationwide to attend the Sir Peter Blake Youth EnviroLeaders Forum in 2015, which concentrated on freshwater management and eco-tourism, it kindled a new awareness. “I was interested in the environment before, but I didn’t really know the issues it was facing until I went to YELF,” she says.

It then sparked her to apply for a place on the Trust’s expedition to the Auckland Islands the following January. Christensen joined 13 other young leaders, and a team of scientists and conservation experts, sailing to one of the most remote and biodiverse spots on the globe, on board the NZ Navy ship, HMNZS Otago. 

“I think people do care about the environment, but they just don’t know what they can do to help. As one person it’s hard to think you can make a change. But we all can.”

She still prides herself on being one of the few students who didn’t suffer from seasickness, even though it was her first offshore voyage. Stepping on land in the wild and far-flung islands was yet another revelation for the then 17-year-old. 

“It is such a unique environment. As we stepped ashore, I realised that we could, in fact, have been the first people to ever be here and seen this; it’s so remote and untouched,” she says. “When we got back to the mainland, and walked around the city, we realised that we were so lucky to have had the opportunity to see an environment that hasn’t been affected by human activity.”

The young expeditioners played a part in collecting data from both the sea and the land for the proposed science and research centre, Blake Station. Named after Sir Peter Blake, the station’s purpose will be to help increase the understanding of the role that Antarctica and the Southern Ocean play in determining the world’s climate and future environment.

“We were there with incredible scientists who shared their knowledge with us, and we were treated like scientists who were helping with the project. And it was exciting knowing that what we were doing – even if it was just collecting water samples – would actually be environmental research for the future,” says Christensen, who has continued her involvement with the Trust as a member of the Dream Team, sharing her story at three primary schools during this year’s Leadership Week.

Returning home to Hawke’s Bay, Christensen was able to combine her new fascination with environmental science with her enduring love of film-making, and set to work on It Can Be Different.

The story revolves around a young girl, who when faced with the threat of the end of the Earth, becomes the “carrier of life” – collecting the seeds of the world in her “magic bag”, determined to keep them alive for a future generation.

She roped in the help of school friends, and borrowed the school’s new drone for filming. “I crashed it a few times – and left a few marks on it,” she laughs.

Christensen’s film was soon receiving critical acclaim outside the schoolyard. She entered the 2016 Outlook for Someday Awards – a national competition for film-makers aged under 24, and focused on sustainability – and took out the best cinematography award. It was that honour that became Christensen’s ticket to international film competitions, albeit unknown to her.

Now living in Auckland, Christensen is able to combine her two passions in her studies. She’s doing a conjoint degree in science and art, with papers in environmental studies and communications, particularly film. She hopes it will lead to a career in film-making or journalism, covering environmental issues.

This summer she plans to make more video blogs on the environment. She recently made one with her university classmate, and fellow Young Blake Expeditioner, Tama Hauti-Potaka, after a day spent cleaning beaches on Rangitoto Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

“What we found was disgusting,” she says. “We arrived at what appeared to be a normal, pristine beach, but it turned out to be covered with rubbish.” Her environmental science classmates went to beaches across Auckland, and in a three-hour timeframe, collected 200,000 pieces of litter.

It only reinforced to Christensen her need to inform and enlighten New Zealanders on the state of our oceans, through the medium of storytelling.

“I think people do care about the environment, but they just don’t know what they can do to help. As one person it’s hard to think you can make a change,” she says. “But we all can.”

*The Sir Peter Blake Trust inspires and mobilises the next generation of Kiwi leaders, adventurers and environmentalists, by delivering programmes and experiences that continue Sir Peter’s legacy of leadership and environmental action.

Find out more about the Trust here.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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