Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Planet in Focus 2013: Preview + Advance Reviews

Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival

November 21–24 , 2013

Planet in Focus is Canada's largest environmentally-themed film festival, presenting movies and advocacy since 1999. The ongoing ecological crises we are living trough can be emotionally draining to consider, but in the face of a constant corporate onslaught telling us everything is fine, it's essential for concerned planetary citizens to educate themselves. And beyond the inherent heaviness of the issues, there are always stirring stories to be told of people who are standing up and trying to do something about it.

There room for a lot of variety in looking at these topics, from the austere examination of nuclear fallout in Metamorphosen (an "attempt is to find a cinematic translation for a danger that is not perceptible nor visual") to Kiss the Water's more close-up, personal look at fly fishing. There's a chance to learn about issues ranging from advocacy on GMO's to invasive Asian Carp to European songbird poaching. It's also an awesome chance to see the world on the screen, from the impacts of far-flung tourism to life in cities, where most of us are, including Ekumenopolis' tour of Istanbul to Tokyo Waka's urban crows.

Screenings are at the TIFF Lightbox and Jackman Hall, and tickets are generally $15 per screening ($10 for seniors/students), with some money-saving pass options available if you want to really explore. The festival gets started on Thursday, but I've had a chance to check out a couple films already, so here's a couple advance reviews:

Arctic Defenders (Dir: John Walker, 90 mins., Canada, 2012)

Passionately interested in the people of the Arctic as a youth, John Walker got a job on a cargo ship at age sixteen and went to Resolute Bay, snapping pictures of the people he met there. Now, forty years on, he's making the trip again. The fact that he gets to re-encounter some of the same people is the "hook" here, and a scene where a couple of the locals go through the pictures, their faces lighting up with the memories of those living and dead is a highlight. But the film is really about what the people of Resolute Bay have had to go through, before and since.

These were not their original lands. The Inuit were involuntarily relocated here (as well as to Grise Fiord) from Northern Québec in the 1950's as "human flagpoles", part of the Canadian government's efforts to establish its sovereignty in the Arctic during the Cold War. These geopolitical pawns were treated with shocking racism — virtual prisoners "dumped on the beach", left with no homes and no food, and even their sled dogs were systematically killed by the RCMP so they wouldn't get to wandering off too far. Unsurprisingly, this sense of dislocation led to widespread suicide and other social ills.

It would also lead to the birth of a political movement by the younger cohort in the 60's — a bridge generation who knew the languages of both cultures. The Inuit Tapirisat of Canada was founded as a united voice for the Inuit peoples, and their long struggle (and monumental land claim) would lead to the foundation of a new territory called Nunavut. We get to meet with some of those activists, including living Father of Confederation Tagak Curley and John Amagoalik and see how they fought for their rights in the "Inuit way", speaking with tenacious gentle insistency, presenting their movement with nonviolence and humility and always playing the long game.

Their work has led to new possibilities as well as new struggles. With global warming opening up the North-West passage to more shipping (and the possibilities of new oil and gas exploitation), there is, once again, a quest for the government to "declare sovereignty" with splashy military pageants. But when the big annual war games are done, it's the Canadian Rangers, composed of the locals and their deep knowledge of the landscape, that are Canada's eyes and ears in the high Arctic. We spend some time on patrol with the Rangers, whose pride is mixed with more ambiguous feelings at their place in promoting a concept of land-grab sovereignty that was never their own to begin with.

And we also spend time with Oo Aqpik, who is returning to her childhood haunts in Lake Harbour (now known as Kimmirut), as well as the pragmatic Aaju Pater, who is equally adept as a wildlife-spotting guide and cultural philosopher. We're reminded that not all of the promises made during the creation of Nunavut have been kept, and as a new lawsuit to hold the Crown to account looms, we once more meet some figures from a rising young generation who are working to preserve their culture.

As all of that might indicate, this film is a bit like its protagonists — patient and not in a rush to assert a point. It drifts a bit topically, but remains engaging throughout. (And as we travel, there's no shortage of beautifully shot footage of the Arctic's rugged beauty to linger over.) As we trace the larger history of Canada's Inuit through individual personal stories, many viewers will feel sadness and shame at what has been done in their name by the Canadian government, but this isn't a sad story. You couldn't survive in the Arctic without a sense of perpetual optimism, and even as we witness a quiet moral forcefulness ("the Canadian people need to cleanse themselves of what's happened in the last hundred years," Amagoalik reminds us) it's the joy and beauty in these lives and this land that give hope.

Screens: Thursday, November 21, 2013, 5:30 p.m. @ TIFF Lightbox Cinema 1

Gold Fever (Dir: JT Haines/Tommy Haines/Andrew Sherburne, 84 mins., Guatemala/USA/Canada, 2013)

A giant machine eats a mountain, grinding it to dirt to find tiny particles of precious gold, leaving poison in its wake. Eventually, someone will amass enough of it to make a shiny new gold bar that they can secure in a buried vault.

What happens when this gold is found in your back yard? Would you fight for your land, for your way of life? With gold prices going through the roof, giant open-pit mines processing low-grade deposits are suddenly profitable, leading to extraction operations all over the world. In 1998, vast deposits of gold were discovered in the Guatemalan Highlands, where the Marlin mine has been operating since 2005. This film follows the struggles of the indigenous locals as they struggle to stop the destruction of their environment and their way of life.

This is, sadly, not a new story, and I'm inclined to think that most people who will seek it out at a festival like Planet in Focus will already be familiar with these tropes. In one sense, this has been done enough that there's something of a template to be followed, with a standard cast: an evil corporation, resilient locals, a valiant NGO worker. (And, of course, an all-star team of truth-to-power talking heads, here including Noam Chomsky, David Korten and John Perkins.) And though I have no doubt that the whirlwind history lessons given here for background here (the links between the CIA and United Fruit in engineering generations of coups in Central America; large-scale development imposed by IMF and World bank with no consultation or sense in how it will benefit Guatemalans instead of corporate shareholders; the festering wounds of the civil war, where hundreds of thousands of Mayans were killed) will blow someone's mind as they learn for the first time that "corporations are people too", this feels a little rote and is not the film's strength.

Instead, it's seeing the specifics of this struggle in this place that register. In San Miguel, we meet Gregoria, Diodora, and Crisanta, strong women fighting in defence of land and water in San Miguel. There's local discord as those with mining jobs have bought into the company's worldview, pitting them against local activists who take a longer view and wonder what will be left when the mine is depleted and only toxic tailing ponds are left behind.

It's also important to name names of those who perpetuate this destruction, and we also watch the gleeful expansion of Canadian corporation Goldcorp, always maintaining plausible deniability that any misfortunes to those against their mines has anything to do with them. Meanwhile, sweetheart royalty deals are negotiated and any "setbacks" to profiteering (such as an injunction to close) lead only to business as usual, the mine chugging away while the process drags through the legal system. If you believe that this is a bad scenario, then it's worth knowing that all Canadians have an indirect stake in these profits (and the environmental destruction they entail) being maintained, as the Canada Pension Plan is invested in Gold Corp.

On the whole, this is a slick and well-made film. It takes a position and makes a well-argued stand for it. These are important things, and its role as an advocacy tool should not be diminished. As a documentary, its impact is undermined for some viewers by the "standard issue" template indicated above. Your enjoyment will vary, depending on how many times you've seen this story before, and by whether seeing another iteration of it feeds righteous indignation and a desire to try and stop this or merely a doomed sense of the inevitability of it all.

Screens: Saturday, November 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m. @ TIFF Lightbox Cinema 1

No comments:

Post a Comment