Arts and Culture

The Docs Are Out!

There's a fresh bunch of documentaries in Vancouver, bringing messages of hope, fear and beauty.

By Dorothy Woodend 16 Apr 2010 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Image from H2Oil, playing April 24 at Fifth Ave. Theatres.

In the spring they emerge, fields of them, blowing gently in the breeze. Not daffodils, or tulips -- I'm talking documentaries! They're another species of flora entirely, but just as vibrant and lovely as any of those that spring from the earth.

In honour of Earth Day, The Projecting Change Film Festival vaults forth on April 22nd, with a screening of Peter Byck's Carbon Nation. The festival runs till April 25, with a fine selection of documentaries on the curious state of the world including Mai Iskander’s Garbage Dreams, Sandy Cioffi's Sweet Crude, Andrew Nisker's Chemerical: Redefining Clean for a New Generation, Catherine Gund's What's on Your Plate? and Shannon Walsh's H2OIL, amongst others.

Each screening is followed by a panel discussion with a variety of filmmakers, experts and activists. In amongst the parties, chatter and seas of staring eyesballs, there be pirates. The closing night presentation of Pirate for the Sea features a panel with Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson and David Suzuki (who always seems vaguely tyrannical to me). If only there were cutlasses involved, all would be well.

Get your spoon and start digging

Having seen a fair chunk of the films on offer at Projecting Change, the thing that I find most appealing about this collection of films is that they each offer, if not a solution, at least a means of action. Whether that means is big, like ramming a whaling ship, or small, like using water and vinegar to clean your bathroom, direct action, consistently taken, can move mountains. Although it may sometimes feel like to trying to move Everest, one spoonful of dirt at a time, the more people you have on your side, the faster the work will go. Which is the sentiment at the heart of Projecting Change; namely, bringing a community together and getting them riled up, excited and impassioned enough to take action en masse. Spoons will be issued at the door.

While small incremental action is all fine and good and necessary, sometimes the sheer scale of the problem can make even the most gung ho activist freeze into momentary paralysis.

The things we do for cheap oil

When faced with something like the Alberta tar sands, where does one begin? This entire tar sands undertaking is so insanely vast that threatens to swallow entire rivers and turn an area the size of Florida into an open pit, pockmarked by pools of toxic sludge. A natural reaction is to avert your eyes, and find a nice sitcom to watch on the television. The numbers alone will make you a little pale and sickly: with some three barrels of fresh water needed to turn tar sands into usable oil, the end result is more than 1.8 billions litres of poisoned brackish nastiness, housed in tailing ponds so large they can be seen from space.

All the backyard gardens and recycling pop bottles in the world pales in scope next to such a monstrous development. So, where DO you begin? If you're writer Andrew Nikiforuk, you keep writing about the enterprise until someone finally pays attention to you. Nikiforuk's book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent recently captured The City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize.

If you're a physician who discovers that many of your patients are suffering from rare forms of cancer, you scream blue bloody murder, and refuse to be silenced, even when the provincial government leans on you.

And if you're a documentary filmmaker like Shannon Walsh, you make a film called H2Oil. Walsh's film is an impassioned and intelligent addition to the number of films that take as their subject the bad business of big oil and its effects on people, places and ultimately the sad old planet itself. Half a world away in the Niger Delta, a similar level of atrocity is occurring. Projected to supply a quarter of the US oil imports by 2015, the Niger Delta is one of the most polluted places in the world. As the oil profits are pumped out the country, secured by American military might, ordinary people risk their lives to ask for some form of redress. Director Sandy Cioffi's film Sweet Crude takes an on the ground approach to examining the issue, filming the members of MEND (Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta) as they organize and protest. Cioffi and her film crew were even detained by the Nigerian government, had their film seized, and spent a couple of days cooling their heels in jail.

In an interview with Onscreen Magazine, Cioffi talked about the experience of making the film as well as being arrested, "When the stakes got high, I asked myself, was this something I meant to do, put myself in this much danger? Sitting in a military prison, you realize the real price of oil."

Courtroom drama

More corporate malfeasance is decanted freely in The Coca-Cola Case, screening April 30 through to May 5, at the Vancity Theatre. If ever there was a divide between reality and marketing, it is in the bubbly soda pop that purports to be as wholesome as apple pie, baseball and mother love. Beneath the sweetness is something else entirely; wholesale murder, corruption, and torture, amongst other fizzy treats. In bottling plants operated by Coca-Cola in Columbia, the fight against unions has resulted in the deaths of more than 470 workers. Even as unionists take their fight with the corporation to the Americans courts, the practice of intimidation and terror continues. The Coca-Cola Case is a packed with drama, as a team of American lawyers meets with Coke execs to hash out a deal, each side jockeying hard. But the reality for ordinary workers is 14-hour shifts, constant threat of injury or death, all for the privilege of making one dollar per hour. The Coca-Cola Case doesn't break any new ground in terms of its approach to the art of documentary, rather it is in the service of conveying information in order to bring to light.

So, too another film that is playing at Vancity next week. Richard Brouillette's Encirclement: Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy is fascinating, horrifying, and occasionally stupefying. Be warned: bring a thermos of coffee, this is strictly a talking heads film, in the purest sense. Composed of interviews with thirteen different thinkers, talks and academics, Encirclement distills the essence of neo-liberalism and its effects in chilling almost numbing detail.

If you're interested in art for art's sake, then get thee to the Pacific Cinematheque for a screening of two documentary classics on April 30, 2010. Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens are screening back to back, and an added bonus is the presence of director Albert Maysles (of the Brother Maysles) who will be attending the screenings. So, if you'd like to touch the coattails of documentary greatness, pay your money and get in line.

All of this should whet your appetite for the feast of films in the DOXA Documentary Film Festival (May 7-16, 2010). DOXA's 10th Anniversary year boasts an exceptional lineup of films. Much more to come on this later, but take a visit to the DOXA website and feast your eyes.

The 'must-see' of this spring…

Whatever you do, do not miss Susanne Tabata's Bloodied But Unbowed. The film is a raving celebration of Vancouver's punk scene of the 70s and 80s. Back in the day, when punk's anarchic spirit moved through this city like an electric current, everything just seemed a lot more interesting. Watching this film, I felt young again, but more importantly it reminded me of how much I missed old school Vancouver. Bloodied But Unbowed is rough around the edges, packed with music, interviews and insight, and often as funny as hell. I loved it, utterly.

Having been a part of the DOXA programming team this year, I cannot wait for the festival to throw open its doors. Get your damn tickets early!  [Tyee]

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