Rise up with Vancouver's Just Film Festival

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      A kid, barely 10 years old, weeps for the safety of her family. “I’m scared of the police,” she moans, barely capable of speaking through her anguish. 

      It’s unbearably painful to see a child in such distress, which is presumably a constant in the lives of the Honduran campesinos depicted in Jesse Freeston’s documentary, Resistencia: The Fight for the Aguan Valley.

      The child’s mother, Blanca, is a community leader who, following the 2009 military coup that seized the Latin American country, attempted to reclaim the plantation land worked by her people.

      By the time Freeston’s four-year shoot ends, Blanca is in constant pain from a botched murder attempt—by truck.

      Death-squad attacks are another constant in the lives of campesinos.

      “In terms of somebody who hasn’t been killed, you might say she’s lost the most from her decision to try and take the land,” says the filmmaker, calling the Straight from Montreal.

      “But you ask her, and she says, ‘Maybe my generation’s not the one that’s going to win this, but I have nine kids who want to follow my example.’ That’s why she doesn’t regret it.”

      Freeston arrived in Honduras shortly after the coup and the expulsion of democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. Named after the nationwide struggle that ensued, Resistencia—which screens as part of the Just Film Festival on Friday (March 20)—largely focuses on the most successful of the peasant movements, wherein 2,000 farming families occupied a region of the Aguan Valley “belonging” to the country’s largest landowner, Miguel Facussé.

      “You could say on December 8, 2009 that these farmers who made up the movements were some of the least powerful people in the world,” says Freeston.

      ”They had no land; they had no work that they could count on; they were in a forgotten valley of a forgotten country. And then, on December 9, they’re holding all the cards. They were able to transform their reality. Some paid with their lives, but now there are families with houses, drinkable water, they’re able to put their kids in school, and they have the dignity of being protaganists in their own story because they get to vote on what happens in their community.”

      But the fight goes on. Since he left, adds Freeston,“for most people life has gotten worse.”

      Canada has its own parallels. Opening the festival at the Rio on Thursday (March 19), One River, Many Relations is a clear-eyed look at the impact of hydro projects and the oil sands on the indigenous communities of the Peace-Athabasca Delta.

      While water depleted by the W.A.C. Bennett Dam has decimated wildlife in the region, oil-sands production has almost certainly poisoned what’s left in the Athabasca and Slave rivers.

      Working with the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, however, filmmakers Stéphane McLachlan and Michael Tyas are careful to present a nuanced picture of something, in McLachlan’s words, “that tends to be a dichotomous issue”.

      “We’re either pro tar sands or against tar sands, and that’s a real urban-based ideological stance,” he says, calling from Winnipeg.

      “Some communities recognize the huge number of jobs that are created directly and indirectly through that industry.”

      In the end, through an abundance of interviews conducted while McLachlan helped to establish community-based monitoring of the dramatic environmental changes in the region, One River, Many Relations powerfully advocates for the affected communities to have the voice they’re entitled to.

      ”Certainly they want the pace of the development to slow down,” he says.

      “They want to have direct input; they want meaningful mitigation and not these almost symbolic restoration attempts that are taking place right now. They’re well-situated to say, ‘This is what we want.’ And they see the role that they can play as advocates for the environment but also of all Canadians.”

      McLachlan and Tyas will be in attendance at the Rio Theatre on Thursday (March 19). See the full schedule here.

      Follow Adrian Mack on Twitter @AdrianMacked.