Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Festival Preview/Advance Reviews: Planet in Focus 2012

Planet in Focus: 13th Annual Environmental Film Festival

October 10–14th, 2012

Raising awareness through film since 1999, Planet in Focus brings together four full days linked by the broad themes of our relationship to the world around us. There's a wide scope within that to be explored, both in style and tone, so there's room for both lyrical reflection of the planet's natural beauty and hard-hitting factual investigations to the many perils humanity is subjecting it to.

There's a lot to explore here, from the rivers under our cities to the forests of Vancouver Island and it's certainly worth just picking a locale or issue that you want to explore and settling in at the comfy TIFF Lightbox. I've had a chance to check out a few things already, so I can give some further recommendations below, but I'd also especially put a word in for the Evening with Jennifer Baichwal with Edward Burtynsky, where the pair (along with producer/director of photography Nicholas de Pencier) will talk about their spellbinding Manufactured Landscapes and give a sneak preview of their new collaboration Water while Baichwal is honoured as the festival's 2012 Canadian Eco Hero. [Friday, October 12 @ 7:15 p.m. PWYC]

Most films are $12, though there are some budget-conscious options, including $5 daytime screenings. Check PiF's website for the full schedule and ticket into.


Vanishing Point (Katinngat) (Dir: Stephen A. Smith/Julia Szucs, Canada, 2012, 82 min.)

Screens: Friday, October 12, 2012, 9:15 p.m. @ TIFF Lightbox 1

This NFB documentary gives us a taste of the Inuit world through the eyes of Navarana, an Inuit elder from Uummannaq in the northernmost reaches of Greenland. Asking "what did we lose and what did we gain?" (from modernity in general, and from being moved away from their traditional homes by the arrival of the Thule Air Base in particular), she effortlessly weaves together strands of past and present in a conversational manner, her awareness of the modern world always informed by those who came before her — "our ancestors are not people living in the past," she tells us early on.

Foremost among them is her great-great-great uncle Qitdlarssuag, a powerful shaman with a strong wanderlust, who ventured forth with his band of people at some point in the 1860's — heading from Baffin Island to Greenland in a multi-year journey. Once there, his group not only replenished the gene pool (a third of Greenland's Inuit trace their lineage to these visitors) but reintroduced some of the traditional technologies that are still being used today.

Ironically, the Greenland Inuit remain more "traditional" than the Baffin Islanders who now use snowmobiles and speedboats instead of dogsleds and kayaks in their annual hunts. "More and more, life runs on gasoline and sugar," Navarana muses as she sees their ways when she makes a special trip to Baffin Island to meet with her distant cousins, learning how their common traditions have changed over time, and about the impacts of their own encounters with modernity.

The changes revealed in both Greenland and Canada involve not only tradition and heritage, but also the environment in which the Inuit live and hunt, making this a dispatch from the front lines of climate change: "The ice is different now than it used to be."

The film is beautifully shot and the Arctic landscapes make it rather worth seeing on the big screen — an extended sequence following a family on an auk hunt is especially striking. Once in a while the white subtitles against the Arctic background are a little problematic, but on the whole a very rewarding experience, especially for a chance to meet our memorable interlocutor.

Although Navarana's lore and connections to her culture are a constant source of joy for her, they aren't nostalgic, and we're left with a portrait of a pragmatic elder, using the lessons of the past to adapt to this constantly-shifting world. Recommended.

Canary in the Mine (Dir: Danielle Heifa, Canada, 2012, 33 min)

Screens (with Orange Witness): Saturday, October 13, 2012, 4:30 p.m. @ TIFF Lightbox 1

This issue-oriented mid-length doc relates the backstory of one of our country's more shameful quirks: long after being abandoned by most of the world (due to its highly cancerous nature), Canada continues to mine and export asbestos, largely to developing nations with lower health and environmental standards. This has left a trail of death not only in the places we have shipped it to, but also among generations of workers who were exposed to this one-time wonder product here.

Canada is at the centre of the world's asbestos industry, which has received a rebranding ("chrysotile"!) courtesy of the marketing tactics (and PR firms) employed by the tobacco industry. Heifa takes us through the industry's history, but rather than being too didactic about it, it's treated as the context for the stories of those affected by exposure to it — and their family members who have been left behind to try and fight to change the policies of an intransigent government.

This is a worthy call to arms, not only for this specific battle, but as a reminder that out country isn't the globally upstanding do-gooder that we like to think of ourselves as — and it might make us reflect on what other destructive substances we're dredging out of the earth at great environmental cost. Since the film's completion, there have been some important advances in the fight, with the federal government finally beginning to back down and agree to identify asbestos as a hazardous product, and the recently-elected provincial government in Québec reversing the former support for the industry. Danielle Heifa will be in attendance and will surely have some interesting things to say about recent developments following from her film.

Cerro Rico, Tierra Rica (Dir: Juan Vallejo, Colombia/Bolivia/USA , 2011, 90 min)

Screens: Sunday, October 14, 2012, 2:15 p.m. @ TIFF Lightbox 3

Cerro Rico in southern Bolivia hovers over the mining town of Potosí. In colonial times, its silver provided the Spanish Empire with great riches, and even now over ten thousand miners still ferret out the minerals buried deep inside. Meanwhile, not far away is the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, where a different kind of mining community exists. Under the alien moonscape lie vast lithium deposits which could be the nation's next mining boom. Will it be exploited for the riches of others, or will there be a chance for the workers of Bolivia to improve their lives and their children's prospects? "Mining is just suffering," comments one, after we're told many earn on the order of $8 a day.

Cutting between these two communities, this observational doc lets these questions emerge as we spend time with the miners and get a patient exploration of their world. There are some striking vistas, both in the mountains and the salt flats, and anyone terrified by the idea of working in a mine might feel at unease here, as the workers fearlessly set off explosions and smoke in confined spaces. We also spend some time with the miners at home and with their children, who may someday inherit their jobs. A lot of this is lo-tech, labour intensive work, but there are some hints of changes, like newfangled groups of eco-tourists coming through. Still, the message is mostly of endurance and a sense that the miners, like the mountain, will stay as it ever was.

With its deliberate pace, this will probably be enjoyable to those who can enter into its languid rhythms, and painful for those who cannot. It prefers to show rather than tell, so it also doesn't come with an easy-to-digest didactic point. But who those who can appreciate it, the images will stick around after the movie ends.

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