Becoming Cousteau director Liz Garbus said her documentary about ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau shows that he recognized the dangers of climate change decades ago. Garbus spoke with Deadline’s Matthew Carey at Contenders Documentary.

“We saw him start talking about it as early as 1971,” Garbus said. “When he started talking about coral reefs, he started talking about species of fish that were no longer populating areas he was diving in. And so he just, through firsthand experience, became concerned about the undersea world.”

Cousteau attended the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as one of the only non-heads of state invited to speak. By then, he had a lot more to warn polluters about.

“He [was] really granted that global audience to sound the alarm for protecting the oceans, which he saw correctly as entirely linked to the survival of humanity,” Garbus said.

Early in his career, Cousteau helped oil companies map sites for offshore drilling. But the Frenchman expressed his regret for aiding in the environmental pollution that resulted from the practice.

“He said that he was told he was responsible for the great wealth of Abu Dhabi,” Garbus said. “I’m sure that’s an overstatement. I’m sure there were many facets of that wealth, but yes, he was a part of it and he did come to regret that and decry oil companies and their disregard for regulations.”

Becoming Cousteau also features underwater footage Cousteau captured, now restored to 4K quality. Garbus said she hopes new viewers hear his message.

“He’s important because for the past 50 years, he’s been sounding the alarm about the undersea world and our need to protect it,” Garbus said. “Of course, that has only become more urgent. And also as a voice who was beloved who could unite people from all factions to get behind this love of our planet and desire to protect it. That voice is sorely absent and needed today.”

Screening the film at festivals including Telluride and Toronto, Garbus said many viewers become frustrated when they learn that Cousteau, who died in 1997 at 87, already was aware of environmental issues that have yet to be addressed.

“There’s been that sense of outrage like, ‘Wow, I cannot believe he’s been saying this since the ‘70s — how is it taking so long?’” Garbus said.

Becoming Cousteau is now playing in limited release. It premiere November 24 on Disney+.

Check back Tuesday for the panel video.

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