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The Greatest 'No' on Earth

'Five Ring Circus' focuses on rising anti-Olympic protest.

By Monte Paulsen 1 Mar 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Monte Paulsen is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Mayor Sullivan, MP David Emerson and cohorts.

Conrad Schmidt sold his apartment to make a documentary about what the 2010 Winter Olympics are doing to Vancouver. Five Ring Circus, which premieres tonight at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver, chronicles the rising tide of anti-Olympic protest that author and activist Schmidt fears could disrupt the games.

"We are at this point where the protests are starting to get a lot more heated," Schmidt warned. "I wanted to get this out there before it really overheats, so that maybe people will pay more attention. If we're going to solve this problem, we've got to do it now, before this turns into another WTO with tear gas and everything."

The ultra-low-budget documentary reveals nothing about the Olympics themselves -- VANOC organizers refused to meet with the first-time filmmaker -- but instead chronicles the long-term financial, environmental and social costs of the three-week event.

Schmidt said the project began after he became interested in the rising rate of homelessness in Vancouver about a year and a half ago. "A lot of the homeless people kept on referring to the Olympics," he said. "They were blaming the police and saying there was a cleanup operation. So I started investigating it, and eventually I ended up making a movie about it."

Private screening

Schmidt previewed his 87-minute movie for The Tyee at his new apartment near Commercial Drive. His partner (and the film's editor) Chantal Morin was busy changing the locks while he made us a bowl of popcorn. Founder of the Work Less Party and author of the self-published Workers Of The World, Relax, Schmidt had never made a film before.

"The big struggle in making this documentary was getting the "yes" side, the pro-Olympic side, to talk on camera," he said. "The Olympic committee will not do interviews with any unauthorized documentary -- not just me, but respectable independent documentary filmmakers don't get interviews either."

Schmidt worked around this by interviewing several local mayors, including Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan, who offered some of the film's most interesting commentary.

Schmidt fumbled with a portable projector for several moments before asking Morin for help. The projector was perched across a travel chest that served as a coffee table. Its image was projected on a bedsheet taped to the opposite wall. As the film began, he dimmed the lights and glanced about his own living room. "Some days I miss my apartment," he mused. "Other days I miss my apartment, too."

Steep ticket, short party

The film is structured around the premise that the costs of the upcoming Olympics are receiving nowhere near the same amount of media attention as the benefits. Five Ring Circus examines financial, environmental and social costs in turn.

The film boils down the financial costs to this: each and every British Columbian will wind up paying at least $458 in additional taxes to pay for the games.

"The games have skewed all the priorities for the entire region," comments Burnaby Mayor Corrigan. "Everything's become devoted to this three-week party that's going to happen in 2010. It's like imagining that everything you do in your own life is all designed and built toward your next birthday."

The section on environmental costs looks primarily at road building: first, of at route into the remote Callaghan Valley for construction of the Nordic Skiing Centre, and for some length, at the controversial extension of the Sea-to-Sky Highway through Eagleridge Bluffs. Though the section about the protest at Eagleridge runs far too long, it is nonetheless within the sprawling protest camps atop Eagleridge that the move discovers its emotional heart. Five Ring Circus is first and foremost a protest film.

The final, and most emotional, section of the film focuses on social costs, especially the steady loss of low-income housing in the neighbourhood adjacent to the primary Vancouver venue, GM Place. Five Ring Circus offers an insightful insider's view of the ongoing housing protests organized the by the Anti-Poverty Committee and affiliated groups. The film documents how outrage at Vancouver City Council's decision not to protect existing SRO housing stock -- in spite of promises to the contrary made during the Olympic bid -- boiled over into angry street protests.

The film's crescendo consists of dramatic footage of Vancouver police storming local buildings in riot gear as onlookers shout, "homes not games."

Tear-gassed games?

After Schmidt turned the lights back on, I asked him about the tenuous connection between housing shortages and the Olympics. Homelessness, after all, is a complex problem that began well before the 2010 games headed toward Vancouver, and will likely not be resolved when the athletes leave town.

Schmidt agreed that the issue is more complex than presented here, but also argued that the side presented in his film has been sorely under-represented in local media, especially the Vancouver Sun.

I asked if he really believed that Vancouver could wind up hosting a debacle like the street fight that hindered the World Trade Organization's 1999 Ministerial Conference in Seattle.

Schmidt pondered a moment before answering.

"Yeah, it can. I think it can," he said. "Also, the exact opposite can happen. Things could calm down...It all depends on what the city and province do about SROs and homelessness in the months to come."

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