Vancouver documentary maker Carter Kirilenko says that unlike many other directors, he often doesn’t begin a project with a story in mind. Nor does he start with the characters and then build a story around them.
“This might be a bad thing,” Kirilenko concedes in a phone interview with the Straight. “But I start with the impact I’m trying to create or the problems that I’m trying to solve.
“Then I reverse-engineer that and I look for what stories exist within this field—or this problem—that could evoke empathy and inspire people or highlight a solution to that problem.”
This approach is what led the 23-year-old filmmaker to create “Leuser: The Last Place on Earth”, which will have its world premiere at this year’s virtual Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival. This deeply personal 15-minute documentary is intended to educate the public about how to prevent large-scale deforestation to produce palm oil on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Kirilenko reveals in the film that he has consumed palm oil, which is used in countless products, almost every day for his entire life. And “Leuser: The Last Place on Earth” is a follow-up to his earlier short documentary, “In Your Palm”, which outlined the problems associated with this industry.
“There’s so much opportunity to look for solutions to very complex, pertinent environmental issues today through filmmaking,” Kirilenko says. “These can be very powerful tools of inspiration.”
The University of Waterloo environmental-studies grad explains that the Leuser ecosystem is one of the world’s most ancient and life-rich ecosystems, covering 1.7 million intact hectares—and more than 2.6 million in total, according to Global Forest Watch. That makes it more than 6,500 times the size of Stanley Park in Vancouver. It remains home to the last 14,000 Sumatran orangutans, elephants (1,100), tigers (600), and rhinos (80).
In the film, Kirilenko and cinematographer Godfrey Cheng are seen trudging through old-growth forests with Goldman Environmental Award winner Rudi Putra and a team of park rangers to learn how they’re combatting poachers and building community support to protect this natural wonderland.
So was Kirilenko ever scared being in an area with hidden wildlife traps left by hunters, not to mention the presence of tigers and elephants? He lightheartedly replied that the worst fright for him and Cheng were the cockroaches and bats near their beds when they were sleeping in the forest.
“Also, there were leeches,” Kirilenko recalled. “Every time you went into the forest, you were guaranteed to come back with at least six leeches attached to you, which was fun.”
The park rangers ensured that he felt safe—in fact, he likened visiting the Leuser Ecosystem to entering their home, because they knew it so well.
“It’s definitely not a place we should be afraid of,” Kirilenko emphasized. “It’s more of a place we should want to explore more of and learn about.”
Even though he didn’t launch the film with any characters in mind, Putra and his team members fill these roles admirably.
“They were just really open to showing their work and showing most of the value of this place because I think they understand this ecosystem, this rainforest, better than anyone,” Kirilenko said. “And they understand that if more people can really get a grasp and develop empathy for it—and understand its value—that increases the chance of it being protected in the long term.”
Kirilenko also interviewed widely heralded Indonesian activist Farwiza Farhan, whose words “blew him away”.
“We will not protect something that we will not love,” Farhan says in the film. “And we could not love something that we don’t know.”
“Leuser: The Last Place on Earth” is one of four environmental films being screened at this year’s virtual Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival. The others are "The Return", about salmon spawning in Metro Vancouver; "Maybe Tomorrow", about vanishing sea ice off northwestern Greenland; and "Falling Mountains", about disappearing glaciers in the European Alps.
Kirilenko wanted to tell a story that respected local norms on Sumatra while still capturing the narrative and driving engagement with the audience. He hopes to do the same with what he hopes is his next project: a film advocating for the protection of old-growth trees under threat in Mount Elphinstone Provincial Park on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.
“There are a couple of things I’ve learned [from the Leuser ecosystem] that I would like to apply here,” Kirilenko said. “One is, I think, approaching the First Nations community and really trying to understand what is the value of this place…through their lens. At the end of the day, it is their land.”
Secondly, he wants to emphasize the value of the Mount Elphinstone Provincial Park forests beyond the price tag on timber sales. That includes cultural and spiritual values, mental-health benefits, their role in carbon sequestration, and the usefulness of medicinal plants.
“I think it really needs to be showcased and really put forward on a wider scale,” Kirilenko said.