A Different Path

Documentary-maker Monteith McCollum chose quite A Different Path when he made this film this year. I found the slower pace refreshing and could appreciate McCollum’s point, that our car-centered lives are moving too fast. It wasn’t that long ago when 50 kilometres an hour was fast and now we all forced to slow down to that speed on City streets. Almost everything is geared to serve car-culture with little room for alternative ways of getting around. Consider this example: in Seattle, which is well known to be ecologically active, there are 40 engineers on the city payroll who work on roads. There is just 1 for sidewalks, bike paths and other alternative forms of transportation. The streets have been made ‘safe’ for cars but not for anyone else. Seniors who don’t drive or who simply want to go for a walk or bike somewhere have been marginalized in their own cities.
In the case of Richard Dyksterhuis in Seattle, who lives on Linden Avenue North, he was feeling that his community has become a transportation corridor with parking lots for home and others for malls and a sea of cars in between. He had to fight to get sidewalks put in so he could walk to buy milk from a store he can see from his home.
In Toronto Michael Lewis Johnson has become an organizer to try to make at least some of the streets safe for people. He is a bicyclist. One unforgettable scene features Michael with some friends biking down the centre of a snowy and slushy street. He steers with one hand and plays Summertime and Silent Night on a trumpet with the other. Beautiful, ironic and funny. Johnson’s sense of humour is highlighted for he feels that the angrier you get about the problems the funnier you have to be to solve them. He dresses up as the ‘Klownen Fuhrer’ and haunts Kensington Market proclaiming how important it is for cars to take over our civilization. He is a hilarious devil’s advocate. And he has to be since , as he puts it, his activism is akin to truing to kill a fire breathing dragon with a thorn from your mother’s garden. He has bravely organized car-free days for busy streets in Toronto and, contrary to what you might imagine, the merchants want him to do it again. Shutting down the streets to car was actually a boon to business.
In Portugal we meet Miguel Camios, an engineer who hates his commute. He can see his work from his home across the water but it takes a great deal of time just to get across the bridge. After hearing about a man in New York who tried kayaking to work he decides to try it and now he gets exercise and still gets to work faster then he did before.
A lively discussion led by local activist Mike Nagy followed the film.
This film hit close to home for me as I commute by bike to work year round. I’ve had to develop a thick skin over the 10 plus years but even so I still feel marginalized trying to share the road with cars, vans and especially buses and transport trucks. At best bicyclers are tolerated but there are those ‘at worse’ times when I’ve been threatened by belligerent road hogs.  Still I have definitely seen an increase in the number of bikers on the road.  That, along with some of the grudging efforts by my local municipality to provide bike lanes and paths, is encouraging.

I Bought a Rainforest

Jacob Andrén and Helena Nygren created an interesting documentary this year based on a simple question. Jacob’s class had raised money back in the 80’s to save a part of the rainforest and he wanted to know what was happening with their plot in Costa Rica over 20 years later. A good question that many of us have asked. We donate money for far flung projects and who knows what happens with it. Jacob did his best to find out.
But first I will disclose my own feelings about buying those acres. At my most cynical I could say this is the developed world using its money to try to preserve forest in the developing world because we’ve learned, through our own experience, that cutting down entire forests is wrong. We now know that this practise has real and serious environmental consequences but, I feel, we are trying to atone for our past foresticidal sins. This may be true but it hasn’t stopped me from buying plots of my own.
OK. Back to Jacob. A lot of these types of development projects are run by volunteers and so the paper trail can easily become cold after decades but Jacob didn’t give up. He traveled to Central America and pursued whatever contacts he could. Telling you if he was successful or not would be giving away the ending and I don’t want to do that. The point of the film was to show some of the realistic issues behind this issue. We are introduced to environmental heroes out there fighting their own government and poachers to preserve forest.
It would be easy to become cynical and discouraged but Jacob doesn’t. This isn’t a documentary that shies from the facts but it manages to keep its spirits up, like Jacob, and have an uplifting and hopeful end.  I would recommend it very much for anyone.
Bill Barrett, a local activist and cofounder of the Plant An Old Growth Forest project here in Guelph spoke after the film and lead an informed discussion about the issues. His hope was that the grassroots organizations that began these campaigns long ago would be reborn because, he’s convinced, they do a great deal of good.  After seeing this film I would agree.


Kevin McMahon creates a rich and important portrayal of the Great Lakes in Waterlife, his 2009 documentary. It is rich in its exquisitely intimate cinematography and I scarcely have to point the importance of these lakes to those of us who live on this continent.
McMahon doesn’t dwell, as other NFB directors have, on the glacial origin of the Great Lakes. Instead, he bookends the film with Beluga Whales in the St. Lawrence who are among the most contaminated marine mammals on the planet. Even Beluga mothers are passing on cancer to their children at an alarming rate. Why? The water looks pristine… but there’s a lot happening below the surface and the documentary, starting with Lake Superior, takes us on a stunning journey to understand our waters. At the end I came back to the Belugas a good deal wiser.
Another image that is revisited is footage of an Anishinabe medicine woman and some of her group who walk the 17,000 kilometres around the Great Lakes. She doesn’t rant at us: her’s is a mostly silent testimonial of what the Lakes mean to her.
Here are some quotes I think should be shared:

  • “It took one year for them to take over the ecosystem.” (the invasion of zebra mussels into the Great Lakes as a result of our activities)
  • “If you looked at those sites in the Great Lakes where the contaminants were having a severe effect and you wanted to dredge and destroy all that material you’re talking 10’s of billions of dollars to do that.”
  • “Every chemical we’ve looked for has been found” (in the waters and sediments of the Great Lakes)
  • “I am a child of the 60’s. I remember fires on rivers and all those sorts of things. I remember why we had a Clean Water Act. My fear is the generation of my daughters have grown to trust that the government is watching the environment and sometimes it’s not happening.”
  • “We’ve become so dumb, we don’t know how dumb we’ve become” (with the poisons in our water)
  • “You go to the pharmacy. The pharmacist gives you a prescription. But make sure you don’t take it with the following ten things. All those ten things are in the water.”
  • “We’re living in a soup of chemicals and the Great Lakes are telling you that.”
  • “We know it’s not a crazy thing we’re doing. We know it’s for the betterment of the next generation.”

One of the surprising statements from the film, for me, was that it takes water about 350 years to move from the streams entering Lake Superior to the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The water going over Niagara seems so fast but it’s not telling the real story, it seems.  The sins of our past are all still there working their way down the flow.
The film was absolutely the best and most beautiful documentary I experienced this year at the festival and I cannot recommend it highly enough. An amazing soundtrack is made even more impressive with the narration of Canadian rock legend Gord Downie. Anyone living in this part of the world should see this work of art and profound fact. And as excellent as the film is, the website is one of the best supporting sites I have ever seen. It’s also a lovingly crafted multimedia experience that should not be missed (if you can see flash on your computer).

The Coca-Cola Case

The Coca-Cola Company sells greater than 3000 beverages in over 200 countries throughout the world. There are local bottling plants all over and with all that complexity and diversity you can’t expect all parts of the organization to do business the exact same way. Some countries have long histories of labour activism and some do not. Columbia is a country where life is cheap and the lives of union officials are even cheaper; in fact it is known as “the trade union murder capital of the world.” The Sinaltrainal union at the Coke bottling plant in Barranquilla, Columbia, reported several cases of murder performed by paramilitary organizations allegedly hired by local Coke management. Representatives in the US have used the Alien Tort Statute among other laws to take the Coca-Cola company to court. The Coca-Cola Case is the 2009 documentary produced by Carmen Garcia and German Gutierrez which sheds light on this case.
The tenacity of the lawyers especially Daniel Kovalik in the face of a huge industrial machine with very deep pockets, bigoted politicians and dangerous officials in South America is inspiring. Coke agreed to settle out of court but then, at the last moment, they changed their requirements and wanted to add that the Columbian union claimants stop working for the company. What an amazing requirement. At one point in the documentary Kovalik’s credibility was actually called into question during a government hearing in the States because he has a poster of Che Guevara in his office. How incredible that a government representative, possibly influenced by The Coca-Cola Company, could be so desperate as to use that.
But it isn’t only lawyers that are involved. This is only one of several campaigns started against Coke. Ray Roger’s campaign in the US to publicize what the corporate powers are allowing to happen in their bottling affiliates has been effective. Certain University campuses have successfully banned coke from their campuses.
I brought a can of coke with me to the showing. This was on purpose as I have learned from lots of past experience with the Festival that it has a proven power to change my consumer habits. For example, I don’t shop at Walmart, buy only fair trade coffee for my wife and watch who I buy sugar from. I’ve always liked coke, it’s not as sweet as pepsi, but I couldn’t finish the can. I hope they do the right thing (as opposed to the real thing?) so I can go back to patronizing them but I can’t any more in clear conscience.
This is an eye opening film and though many may consider it depressing, I feel it is important to watch.

Earth Keepers

Most people aren’t like Mikael Rioux, the founder of Échofête, Quebec’s first envirofestival. He is the young Quebecois environmental activist who leads us on a voyage around the world in Sylvie Van Brabant’s film Earth Keepers in search of practical ways to deal with our looming and scary environmental future. Most people are ‘sleepwalking into the future’. They’re either in denial and trying to attain what parents and grandparents enjoyed or they are wholly ignorant. There also are the dangerous ones who try to suppress the environmental crises for their own gain. Mikael introduces the audience to his mentor Christian de Laet who, in turn, gives him the name of other environmental visionaries who are making a difference in the world. Here is the list:

  1. Christian de Laet one of Quebec’s important environmental pioneers
  2. John and Nancy Jack Todd and their “New Alchemy” movement
  3. Karl-Henrich Robèrt with his Natural Step program to attain a desired and sustainable future
  4. Ashok Khosla head of Development Alternatives
  5. Wangari Maathai founder of the Green Belt Movement
  6. Marilyn Melhmann with the Global Action Plan
  7. Peter Koenig a humanist economist

Some of the insights from the film I found most interesting were these:

  • those who are used to living with nothing will do better when we hit the wall
  • solutions can be extremely simple, like an additional pump at a gas station to fill up your windshield fluid instead of a plastic bottle
  • you can wait for CNN to report that global warming is here but it doesn’t work that way: that’s a gradual environmental disaster

This is an environmental film with isn’t a downer. It is full of hope and intriguing solutions and would be useful and entertaining for anyone interested in the environment.

Reel Injun

The opening gala for the Guelph Festival of Moving Media this past Friday featured Neil Diamond‘s Reel Injun. That’s not the singer but the Director from Waskaganish on James Bay in northern Quebec. This 2009 documentary was both interesting and honest as it portrayed the history of Native People in the movies from the very early beginnings of the industry to today. A film like this could easily descend into an angry narrative about how terrible our natives have been treated as the guest facilitator did following the screening, but the documentary doesn’t fall into that trap. There is humour and hope here without candy coating the sad truth. And by the end of the film I have some hope of progress in coming to terms with and healing what was, after all, genocide.
One part that shocked me into realization showed John Wayne desecrating a native grave by shooting the corpse’s eyes to prevent him from seeing in the afterlife. Now I had enjoyed westerns as a kid: these were, in essence, films about the triumph of good over evil, right? Well, I am happy to say, my perspective is different now. This documentary puts those westerns from the 30’s in context. The American people wanted simple escape from the economic realities surrounding them and, I think, from the burden of their warped history. At one point in the film we experience this, particularly poignantly, when a classroom of young natives are shown a Cowboys and Indians movie typical of the time. The cinematographer focuses on their faces and it is so easy to see the damage cause by these historically inaccurate fantasies.
But the portrayal of our native peoples in film changed many times. There’s Billy Jack who fights back and in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) you see Chief Dan George as the wise old man and comic relief. We see the noble savage shown out of all proportion.
The director shows, very clearly and with an admirable balance, that few films actually show native people accurately. Like headbands being shown on all Plains Indians who didn’t wear headbands. Why? Because the non-native actors needed a way to keep their long wigs from falling off. Only when native film makers have been allowed to tell their own stories do we see something real like Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001).
For those who want more check out this interview of Mr. Diamond by the CBC.
A very highly recommended film.

Burma VJ

We hear terms like “oppressive regime” bandied about but it doesn’t always mean much. It is applied with equanimity these days to push almost any hobby horse on its merry way. But this phrase is no exaggeration when applied to Burma, or the Union of Myanmar as it is officially known, and its blatantly corrupt military government.
The 2007 uprising, spearheaded by Buddhist monks, and its subsequent quashing was nothing less than inhumanly brutal. This was the backdrop for Anders Østergaard’s Burma VJ. Few external reporters could enter the country so nearly all the footage was taken surreptitiously by local and undercover video journalists. The sheer bravery of the monks and those people who risked their lives to report on them was astonishing. Although they can’t do it openly, many Burmese are extremely interested in getting word out about their plight. Citizens like ‘Joshua’, the young VJ who eventually had to flee the country, loves his country and yet welcomes the many embargoes that have been levied against it.
At the height of the protests the hope of the VJ’s was palpable and Østergaard takes us with ‘Joshua’ up that roller coaster and then crashing back down again when the government (by 1962 coup) cracks down and hauls away the monks. VJ’s are also targeted and many disappear along with their equipment.
It seems crazy that a regime like this where the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest even after winning the 1990 election by a staggering majority can exist without support from the people in this modern world. Yet it does. The message that comes through from this documentary is that propped up by their army and civilian thugs/informants and financed by China and India (who both desire the natural resource riches) the military leaders don’t have to care about their populace. The citizens are merely more resources to be spent and/or wasted.
Here I paraphrase what a Burmese man says about living in Burma in 2007:

We are like frogs at the bottom of a well looking up at the light.

I hope that movies such as this make a difference: it certainly did with me. Very highly recommended.

The Strangest Dream

Joseph Rotblat‘s life’s work after leaving the Manhattan Project (the only invited scientist to do so) was nuclear disarmament and this NFB documentary centres on this strangest of dreams. The formation and directing of the Pugwash Conferences in 1957 provided a powerful and revolutionary (in the best way) forum to counter the insanity of nuclear arms build-up. To honour this organization, Rotblat donated his 1995 Nobel Peace Prize medal to the town of Pugwash, Nova Scotia where it all started.
In this post cold war world it is sometimes difficult to see just how close to nuclear annihilation we came. The odds against Hiroshima and Nagasaki being the only uses of atomics as a weapon were astonishing small considering the fact that there were 65,000 active weapons in 1985, the most insane point. Through the tireless efforts of groups like Pugwash these have decreased to the current level of about 8,000 active nuclear warheads and 23,300 non-active.
One of the scary points brought up in the film is that the building of a nuclear weapon is now just a technical matter. It can be accomplished by an engineer or technician now. Most of what you need in the way of ‘plans’ can be found online. I wonder if this is true, however. I hope not. Surely some watchdogs at the Pentagon or MI6 or the EU or somewhere are searching the internet for that kind of information.
We had a panel discussion following the film. It was revealed that current discussion between the U.S. under the Obama administration and the Russian government may result in the reduction of their nuclear arsenals (they have 95% of these weapons) to 1,500 each. This order of magnitude miracle would truly be a large step forward in achieving Rotblat’s dream and is reason enough, IMHO, for Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace prize too.
For those who want to learn more about nuclear disarmament or about the life of a true humanist and exceptional physicist this movie is highly recommended.

Toxic Baby

Having a baby in this age is nearly always a joy filled thing but the very complexity of our lives makes it a frightening experience. Small worries about your baby’s environment can become big ones as you are suddenly thrust into the role of protector in the crazy 21st century. Industrial Disease by Dire Straits or System Of A Down’s Toxicity lodges in my mind. Karen and I have three kids and we can relate: it rips out our heart when any of them are in any kind of danger or pain.
This documentary is director Min Sook Lee’s personal exploration of a short list of what she’s had to come to terms with as a new parent. Water, food, lead pain, PVC, bisphenol A, baby formula, disposable diapers, lions, tigers and bears! Oh my! So many things to worry about. Sook Lee took part in a panel with other mothers after the showing and stressed, as she alluded in the documentary, that you have to be gentle with yourself and decide which level on the trip down the rabbit hole you and your spouse are most comfortable at. ‘Green may be the new black’ but just because the label has green on it doesn’t it mean it’s really necessary. That should be the first question you ask yourself: do I need this gizmo or that technique?
Some choices are really anti-establishment: like the crazy act of breast feeding that so many of our parents were brainwashed into avoiding. But who profits from baby formula? Or from vaccination for that matter? Or disposable diapers? All of these are considered luxuries in most of the world’s populations. But these conveniences have many negative consequences for your child and the environment.
So what are the alternatives? Breast feeding is obvious, of course. But vaccination? There is much controversy to be had here. People used to gather for the ancient tradition of pox parties where children were willingly infected with chicken pox and other illnesses. In the documentary we get to attend a modern day pox party. This seems just so bizarre but it makes a lot of sense. And diapers? Well there’s the obvious cloth diaper option but Sook Lee showed me something new. Actually, it’s another old tradition but doesn’t have even have a name: it’s now called ‘elimination communication‘. This is potty training that starts incredibly early: even as soon as three months. The idea is to take the baby to the toilet and let it pee or poop there. An incredible number of diapers in the dump and discomfort will be prevented by this.
Kids cannot be raised in a bubble and there are so many things outside your control. But there are those things you can take control of when looking for non-toxic parenting methods. Some of these may leave your friends and family looking at you strangely (or even hurtfully because they didn’t put in the effort) but you have to be true to yourself and your child.
This 46 minute film is highly recommended for parents.

Intangible Asset Number 82

This documentary is Australian jazz giant Simon Barker’s journey to discover the influences of a Korean drummer/Shaman named Kim Seok-Chul. Director Emma Franz takes us, sensitively, along. Simon is not allowed by his contact, Kim Dong-Won, to see Seok-Chul right away. There is a lot of resistance there although Simon doesn’t know, at first, why. Is the master drummer, who is regarded as such a national treasure by his country that he is Intangible Asset Number 82, being protected from the foreigner? Is he not worthy?
The truth was that Kim Seok-Chul was very ill and in hospital but also that Dong-Won wasn’t sure it would be right to present Simon to him. Would the Australian drummer actually understand the honour? Would he be worthy? So, as a process, Dong-Won goes on a trip with Simon to visit other musical Shamen. The singer Bae Il-Dong is one. This is a singer who lived in the wilderness in a hut he built beside a waterfall for seven years, singing up to 18 hours a day. Learning to out-sing the noise of the falls. Il-Dong considers the mountain as yin and the valley as yang with the waterfall the holy place where yin and yang meet. His is a powerful, raw voice that seems too big and too much noise for the Western ear. But he sings pure nature and without fear or ego. I would love to hear him in concert.
Simon also learns about drumming with his entire body. To begin throwing himself down on the ground as if in mourning to learn to let go and relax into the music. And to listen to his own heart for true rhythm.
Near the end, Seok-Chul has left the hospital and Simon does get the chance to visit with the master three days before he dies. We, as voyeuristic companions, get a rare glimpse into some of the final hours of a man revered by his family and society. It is impressive and touching.
I learned, in the end, a great deal about South Korea and music in this wonderful and powerful documentary. I whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone!
This was the first of the five documentaries I saw during the 2009 Guelph Festival of Moving Media.