Filmmaker travels the globe in search of a story

By KAYLEE WALDEN/Montana State News

John H. Heminway is running late. He breathes heavily into his cell phone receiver as he sprints between connections through the crowded terminals of LAX, struggling to keep a grip on his heavy carry-on filled with books, toiletries and hundreds – perhaps thousands – of pages of notes.

“Could I call back once I touch down in Salt Lake? I’m afraid I’m not as dexterous as I used to be at this kind of thing.”

Heminway has been doing “this kind of thing” since 1968, traveling around the world writing, producing and directing films.

Since he works primarily out of an office in downtown New York, Heminway admits that he often spends more time on planes, trains and buses than he does in his own home in Bozeman. It’s a small price to pay, he concedes, for the mountains in the backyard.

“I’m on a first-name basis with the local flight attendants now,” he said with a chuckle. “I guess that’s one of the perks of a small town.”

Currently, he’s headed back home to Bozeman for a fleeting few days before flying to Washington D.C. to promote his latest investigative documentary titled “Battle for the Elephants.”

The film, his fourth collaboration with National Geographic, sheds light on the underground ivory trade and mass-poaching of the enormous and intriguing African elephant. Lately, the slaughter of these animals has been fueled by the booming ivory market in China.

“The volume has been turned up so high on poaching over the past couple of years, that I felt compelled to throw myself into the issue,” Heminway said. “With a middle-class that is growing exponentially, China is big business.”

Heminway stresses that if the rates of poaching and the level of ivory consumption don’t subside, elephants in the wild will unquestionably go extinct in the coming decades. Research suggests that around 25,000 elephants were slaughtered in Africa last year, but Heminway and many others believe that number to be much higher. In Tanzania alone, poachers kill about 30 elephants each day.

In China, the use of ivory has become woven into the culture, utilized for everything from miniature Buddha sculptures to massive statues and anything in between. “I’ve even seen iPhone covers made from ivory,” Heminway said, shaking his head. “Thousands of elephants, and hundreds of people, are being killed just to make trinkets.”

Much of Heminway’s documentary work has brought him back to Africa, a place that he “fell in love with at first sight” after first traveling to the continent on a school trip at the age of 16.

“It’s not as if Africa is by any means modernized these days,” Heminway said, seeming to dismiss the very idea. “But it’s definitely changed since back then. It had a sort of untouched, almost innocent air about it.”

Through his work, Heminway hopes to draw attention not only to the elephants that are in danger, but also to the continent’s struggling people. He said that his initial visit to Africa sparked a love for travel that he’s harbored and indulged in at every opportunity.

“I’d like to think of myself as a worldly man. I’ve had the chance to travel a lot of different places and see a lot of different things. Some good and some bad; but I’ve learned from all of them.”

Heminway’s demeanor lends itself more to small-town charm than big city formality, and despite his busy schedule he is willing to speak on his cause to anyone who is willing to listen. Born in suburban New York, he studied there and in Switzerland, Massachusetts and at Princeton University, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1966.

Heminway first stepped onto the film scene two years later with ABC Sports’ “The American Sportsman,” which quickly became the country’s highest-rated and most watched sports show

Heminway’s success continued. His vast collection of awards includes a Telly, George F. Peabody Award, Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award for Broadcast Journalism, a  Ciné Golden Eagle award and a Primetime Emmy for writing, just to name a few.

Over the years, his job titles have been numerous and, in a word, diverse. He’s also written six books, the first when he was only 23, and is beginning work on a seventh which will delve deeper into the controversy of elephant poaching.

He’s worked as a marketing consultant, a Disney screenwriter, producer, director and occasionally a camera operator.

Despite his wide array of disciplines, Heminway’s career path has been shaped and driven by his love for nature. Out of all of his potential titles, Heminway considers himself foremost a filmmaker, since that’s how he got his start.

Heminway lived in Bozeman for a short time after college, and out of everywhere he has travelled, he “always knew that he would come back one day.” He and his wife Kathryn chose to move to Montana three years ago, deciding that it would be an ideal place to raise their young daughter, Lucia, and settle down. But Heminway’s career is not – by any means – nearing a conclusion.

Since the age of 17, after he returned from his first trip to Africa, Heminway has been a proud member of the Explorers’ Club. In 2002, he was named a “Champion of Wildlife” said and he will do his best to always live up to that title.

“You’ll struggle to find a man who is as passionate as John is about his work,” said Brian Moriarty the Vice President of DKC Marketing, and Heminway’s publicist. “I’ve known (Heminway) for many years now. When he has a job, he really puts his heart into it.”

That is why Heminway is currently on the road with “Battle for the Elephants,” spreading the message far and wide.

“I’m extremely blessed to be one of those lucky people whose job is also their passion,” his words illuminated by a perceptible smile. He pauses for a moment, and there is a bustle in the background, the sound of people retrieving their bags and assembling their belongings.

“I’d love to chat all day,” Heminway said with a smile, “but my train has just arrived, and I’ve got to run.”

– Edited by Rebecca Marston






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