To make films about the environment, you have to travel into some pretty far-flung, and often unwelcoming, places.
Take local ecologist and filmmaker Joel Heath, whose People of a Feather is one in a strong contingent of environmental movies at the Vancouver International Film Festival this year. Before he flew into the remote Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay to do research and film, he didn’t really know cold. Within the first week of arriving seven years ago, he had tossed aside his technical gear from Vancouver and invested in a coat made by local Inuit from the down of eider ducks—the subject of his film and a huge barometer for the effects of warm hydro-dam currents invading the bay. And then there was his first frostbite episode.
“There were some foxes attacking the eider ducks, and I was trying to film it,” he explains, speaking to the Straight from his East Van digs, where the UBC postdoctoral fellow spends a bit more than half the year. “When you get frostbite up there, you put snow right up to your face…but the snow I grabbed was really salty; I didn’t know the different kinds. I made it even worse. One of the guys up there who had huge black marks on his face from his own frostbite said it was the worst case he’d ever seen.”
Alternatively, you could turn to the case of the production team behind Under Control, a haunting, studied film that goes inside nuclear-energy plants in Germany and Austria. For many shots—including one right into the open mouth of an active reactor—the crew had to wear space suit–like hazard gear. “It was very hot; we had to wear the suits, and there were all these security barriers you have to go through to check contamination,” explains screenwriter Stefan Stefanescu, speaking to the Straight from his Berlin office. “You had to tape the tripods, because every time you put something on the floor there is a certain danger that you take some contamination with you. You can’t just go out and get a filter you forgot, because that takes an hour just to go through all these barriers for security and radiation.”
The stories illustrate just how far some of VIFF’s filmmakers are willing to go to capture images that illustrate global warming, the energy crisis, overfishing, and more. VIFF is making a name for itself with its collection of provocative, eco-minded films: the selection this year spans such topics as a South Seas island that’s being submerged by the ocean (There Once Was an Island: Te Henua E Nnoho); the “blood minerals” being mined for our cell phones (Blood in the Mobile); and our habit of throwing out mountains of perfectly edible food (Taste the Waste).
Several of the directors of the environmental films are coming to VIFF to speak at their screenings, including Heath, whose wintry People of a Feather is artful and meditative—a bit surprising when you consider he’s a working scientist. The Vancouverite, who has his PhD from SFU, says the inspiration for his first film began seven years ago when he travelled to the isolated Hudson Bay location as a biologist studying sea-ice ecology. People of a Feather displays the footage he’s collected over the years: mesmerizing time-lapse photography that shows the destruction of ice floes due to runoff from Quebec’s hydroelectric dams, and underwater footage of the eider ducks—amazing divers that are experiencing mass die-offs.
But a big part of the movie also focuses on the Sanikiluaq people, who depend on the ducks and who helped Heath re-create scenes about their historical traditions of hunting and fishing. “I was living with the family you see in the film,” he explains of the extended clan at the centre of People. “I think I learned more from the Inuit up there than I did in the university setting in terms of sea ice.”
Heath’s film carries dire warnings, but Stefanescu’s Under Control has taken on even more urgency. In the wake of the Fukushima crisis, which happened after German director Volker Sattel and his team finished the film, this inside look at their home country’s controversial atomic-power plants has taken on new weight and irony. Stefanescu explains that it took months of research and work to build the trust needed to gain unprecedented access to the plants. The result is shots of vast control rooms, rehearsals for emergency shutdowns with screeching alarms, and workers scrubbing radioactive bits off their hands and walking through radiation sensors—all aimed at keeping the lethal, invisible radioactivity “under control”. Part of the film’s eerie visual appeal comes from the fact that it was shot in 35-millimetre cinemascope rather than in video.
“We were not interested in making an argument in the film,” says Stefanescu, explaining that the majority of Germans are already opposed to nuclear power and the government is phasing it out over the next two decades or so. “We were interested in this utopian project—the hopes that were put into it in the ’50s and ’60s and the large failings of these hopes.”
Under Control slowly moves from profiling fully functioning plants to the crumbling glory of decommissioned ones and the frightening deep-underground holds where radioactive waste is to be stored away for generations.
“The documentary could work as a requiem—a gesture of goodbye to this technology,” says Stefanescu, who is also attending VIFF.
Another of the eco-film directors who’ll be coming here, Austin’s Mark Hall, may not have risked radiation exposure or frostbite to make Sushi: The Global Catch. But he did have to crisscross the world to get his story: from the flurry of the massive Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo to an upscale sushi bar in Warsaw, Poland. The fascinating result is a film that traces the explosion of sushi, over the past couple of decades, from a street food in Japan to a worldwide phenomenon—one that now threatens fish populations, especially those of several species of tuna.
Hall, a sushi lover himself, said the course of the film changed over the production process from a simple story about the art of the cuisine and its popularity globally. “It became clear that so many people we talked to who were dealing in fish were seeing more advanced species like tuna had really decreased in size,” he tells the Straight from Texas. “Certain species were too popular, in a way…and we realized we’d really have to explore that.” As his film points out, the recent growing popularity of sushi in China could spell total disaster.
“Why it’s more sustainable in Japan is that it’s a special-occasion food there, and here it’s pretty much a fast food,” he adds.
Like most of the other films in the VIFF’s enviro series, Hall’s Sushi tries to look for solutions to the problem, in the form of consumer education, sustainable-fish-only sushi spots, and groundbreaking research on a tuna farm in Australia.
And as for Hall? “Yes, I love sushi and I still eat it,” he admits, “but I look at it a lot differently."