[Editor's note: This the first of a two-part preview of this year's Vancouver International Film Festival. The second part runs next week.]
First the bad news...
The world is going to hell. Not in a handbasket, but driving a Hummer pell-mell down the highway, throwing garbage out the window, squishing small animals, driving everyone else off the road. If you'd like some evidence of this path -- paved with short-sighted self-interest, greed, graft and corruption -- then get in your SUV and roar down to the Vancouver International Film Festival (Sept. 28-Oct. 13, 2006) to witness the many sorrows of the world captured on celluloid. I've seen 40 VIFF films this year in my role as the associate editor of their publication. And I can tell you that this, the 25th incarnation of the VIFF, is as good a time as any to stop and take a good look around, because, honey, the news ain't good.
Twenty-five years ago (1981!) personal computers were a blip on the radar, oil was flowing and environmental issues were something for hippies to howl over. The U.S. patted the Afghani freedom fighters on the head, armed them against the Soviets and sent Rambo to help them out. There was no e-mail, no Internet, no bank machines, no DVDs, no Paris Hilton, no YouTube. So here we are a quarter century later, and to say that a great deal has changed is a bit of an understatement. But it makes one curious about where the world will be 25 years from now. If it's still here at all, that is...
The struggle for resources often motivates larger political forces. It is a tempting, albeit reductionist, impulse to argue that much of human activity (cultural, economic, political) comes down to the blunt need for food, water and land, but humans are animals after all, and like animals they need enough resources to exist. Scarcity of any of the basics equals conflict.
One of the most terribly troubling films in this year's festival is also one of the most quiet. Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread (for VIFF showtimes and locations, click here, then enter the film title) presents industrialized agriculture in all its austere precision. There are no words or narration to direct a way of thinking, or provide any type of explanation. The mundane reality of making food on a scale unprecedented in human history, is simply shown in long shots of machinery going about its business. Fuzzy yellow chicks, reduced to blurred yellow puffs, are dumped onto conveyor belts; cows are loaded into a metal gate and killed by a bolt to the brain one after the other with brutal efficacy. The explicit act of making living creatures into packaged commodities becomes startling from the scale alone. The business of food has become almost otherworldly, rendered surreal by the sheer size of the silent greenhouses, factory farms and killing floors in which human workers look like so many odd dwarves, attending to the needs of the machines.
The formal design of the film itself is what makes it so compelling; each shot is precisely aligned, often in a series of narrowing perspectives, row upon row of plants, with their lines converging into some far distant vanishing point. It's like a mathematical system, in which messy, organic elements must be carefully edited out. You are left to draw your own conclusions, but the film itself is so strangely beautiful and horrifying, that is hummed in my mind for days afterwards, like an enormous string had been twanged.
Too much, too little food
A similar subject is tackled very differently in director Erwin Wagenhofer's We Feed the World (click here to search for showtimes), which traces the course of industrialized agriculture around the world. An increasing percentage of the North American population is clinically obese, while in many parts of the world, mothers lull their starving children to sleep by boiling a pot of water, putting in stones, and telling their kids that supper's almost ready. The inequity of this situation is summed up bluntly by Jean Ziegler, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, who states, "Given the current state of agriculture in the world, it could feed 12 billion people with no problem. Or to put it another way: any child who dies of starvation today is in fact murdered." This is put in contrast to Peter Brabeck, the head of Nestlé International, the largest food company in the world, who expresses frustration that in such an age of plenty, people still feel emotionally empty.
Wagenhofer travels a meandering course across the globe from France, Spain, Romania, Switzerland, Brazil and Austria to examine a number of complex subjects and their even more complicated interactions. In Spain, enormous greenhouses supply winter vegetables to most of Europe and cause water shortages. In a Senegalese market, heavily subsidized European farmers are able to offer their produce at a fraction of the cost of local farmers. A scientist who works for the largest seed producer in the world visits a rural farm in Romania, and compares hybridized eggplants with a variety grown from seed harvested by farmers in the traditional manner.
In terms of aesthetics, there is no comparison. The hybridized version is a dark glossy purple, bigger and much more beautiful than its scabby runty counterpart. But the pretty version has almost no taste at all. In South America, acre upon acre of rainforest is cut down to plant soybeans that are then shipped back to Europe to feed livestock. And in Austria, bread that is more than a few days old is dumped by the truckload in a huge warehouse. The driver who hauls the bread says in all his years of doing his job, old people still stop and stare, seemingly struck dumb at the sight of so much food going to waste.
Oil and Cool Whip
There are a number of films in the VIFF this year that take as their subject the quickly vanishing world oil reserves, such as A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash. Oil has been the motivating force of most of contemporary culture. When I thought about it, even in the most cursory way, I was struck by the number of things that are petroleum-based: plastics, fuel, fertilizers and Cool Whip. Can you imagine a world without Cool Whip? You might have to. If Hubbert's peak is correct, in the next few years, the slow slide will begin, and with it the fortunes and fate of much of the world.
The Epic of Black Gold, a French documentary from directors Jean-Pierre Beaurenaut and Yves Billon, treats Texas tea to the full scope of history, in a series of four fifty-two minute films. The series starts at the turn of the century when Yankee doodles figured out that there was liquid energy just underneath the surface of the earth. Derricks sprung up like metal forests practically overnight, Henry Ford's Model-T ushered in American car culture and the oily age was born!
The cast of characters is truly extraordinary, beginning with John D. Rockefeller, who started the first mega corporation, Standard Oil, and in so doing became the richest man on the planet. A couple of world wars later, it was evident that whoever had the crude would win the battle and from there things got increasingly complicated. British and American oil companies spread out across the globe searching for oil in every far-flung corner of the world from Mexico to Venezuela to Turkey to Iran to Saudi Arabia to Libya. Concessionary rights in different countries (worth untold millions) were negotiated with local sheiks sometimes for a bag of gold coins. Some nations rebelled, while others were bought and paid for (witness the Shah of Iran). Socialist firebrands like Pérez Alfonso in Venezuela and Mexican oil workers who stood up to oil conglomerates suffered the consequences.
The struggle between oil producers and oil consumers has shaped a great deal of the political climate, right up to this very moment. But, if the peak oilers (which is not a hockey team by the way) are right, things are about to change very radically. In one of the film's final interviews, an elderly geologist says the force of human history has always been forward, from stone to bronze to iron, but now we may be moving backwards, back to the Stone Age.
This is a process that has already happened in other countries, most obviously in Afghanistan. The Afghan countryside appears little more than a bombed out lunar landscape in director Rob McGann's documentary, American Zeitgeist: Crisis and Conscience in an Age of Terror. Although it doesn't have the catchiest of titles, this is a very interesting film that traces the winding course of history from the early 80s to present day. It's a little along the lines of the idea that somewhere across the sea a butterfly flaps its wings and here the skies open, but in this case, the butterfly turned into a series of airplanes piloted into buildings.
In 1981, the Mujahideen was busily engaged in a brutal guerrilla campaign against the Soviet Army, armed and aided by the U.S. "They are the equivalent of our founding fathers," said a representative of the Reagan administration, posing for the cameras with the bearded freedom fighters.
After the rout of the Soviets, the Americans blithely walked away from Afghanistan, leaving this well-armed, well-trained, ferocious fighting force, which boasted the catchy motto, "You love life, but we love death," to simply go on its merry way. But history had other plans. The film packs a serious punch, from the requisite heavy hitters including Richard A. Clarke, Steve Coll, Christopher Hitchens (Love, Poverty and War), Samantha Power (A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide), Tariq Ali (Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq), Joseph Nye, David Frum and, of course, Noam Chomsky. (What would a documentary be without ol' Chomsky?) The many disparate paths that braid and twist into the larger fabric of history are worth dissecting, taking apart, strand by strand, to see where they originated, and maybe understand how we came to be exactly where we are. And why, so often, it ends up in violence and death.
All's fair in war and war
The curious thing about history is that despite the number of political ideologies espoused, it still often comes right down to the most basic needs of the human species: food and water. The course of larger events often starts very small (that butterfly's wing again) -- someone needs to feed their kids, so they take food from your kids and before long there's blood on the floor. In this current crop of documentaries, Iraq again takes centre stage (James Longley's Iraq in Fragments, Robert Greenwald's Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque's Shadow Company) but if you must pick one, it ought to be Laura Poitras' My Country, My Country. Poitras' film allows ordinary Iraqi people to state their experiences and their understanding about what is happening in their country. Their plainspoken words have far more impact than any series of talking head interviews.
Another group of films seeks to explicate the nature of Islamic radicalism and its effects, including Samira Goetschel's Our Own Private Bin Laden, Abbas Ahmadi and Nader Davoodi's 13 And a Half, The Judge and The Fanatic and The Hamburg Lectures. Of this group, again, it is the latter film that speaks volumes in the most blunt and direct fashion possible. Director Romuald Karmakar recreates for the camera a textual reading of a series of lectures given by Mohammed Fazazi, the Imam of the Al Quds mosque in Hamburg, talks that were attended by three of the four suicide pilots who went on to pilot airplanes on September 11, 2001. Read by an actor, uninflected and stripped bare, the intent of the words is rendered clearly. The Hamburg Lectures is similar in style to an earlier work from Karmakar, based upon a speech given by Himmler to SS generals during WWII, during which he outlined his infamous final solution.
There are plenty of other wars to choose from aside from the current conflicts. The Second World War is still going strong, as evidenced by a group of films that deal with repercussions of the war, some sixty-plus years after it ended. Japan's Peace Constitution examines the current Japanese government's intent to rewrite the constitution to remove Article 9 (the famous no-more-war clause) that was instigated after the Second World War. Unknown Soldier: What Did You Do in the War, Dad?, Michael Verhoeven's film about The Wehrmacht Exhibition, which toured to 11 cities in Germany between 1999 and 2004 and attracted more than 500,000 visitors, explodes the myth that ordinary German soldiers were innocent of wartime atrocities. Many of the photos in the exhibit were taken from the private collections of families, and feature image after image of bodies hung in trees, women stripped naked in the street, and everywhere smiling German soldiers. This is not an easy film to watch, so be warned.
The same goes double for one of the bleakest chapters of human suffering, the siege of Leningrad, depicted in director Sergei Loznitsa's film Blockade. It was I think at this point that I experienced the very odd sensation of feeling like a tank that had reached capacity, or a needle swung into the red. It was very strange feeling. So take this as a cautionary warning: pace yourself. Don't watch all of these films back to back; combine them with some musicals, some sexy stuff, anything with the green breath of life and hope. There are just as many films tingling with joy as there are those that show us the roiling darkness.
So, tomorrow the good news!
Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every second week. She is also the associate editor of publications for the Vancouver International Film Festival.
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