If you think your job sucks, trying being an environmental protection official in China.
In some industrial centres, the smog is so thick you practically need a knife to cut through it. A spork at least. Serious harm is being done to the environment, not to mention to people’s health, but that’s not the main concern of an environmental protection officer. I mean, I’m sure that’s in the official job description, but unofficially, though very seriously, the officer’s job is to make sure their region’s numbers are not among the worst in the country. Beijing keeps a very careful watch on each city’s pollution levels, pitting each regional environmental protection office against the others, and the price of failure is shame. Which, in China at least, is a pretty steep price.
Director Meng Han hangs out with us in Langfang, one of China’s most polluted cities. The officials are fighting an uphill battle, an upmountain battle really, with both hands tied behind their backs, and no shoes, and walking pneumonia. Because the environmental protection office must somehow reduce their numbers significantly without being allowed to touch any of the biggest polluters. Instead, the officials play cat and mouse with small time operations run out of people’s driveways and carports. Their emissions are negligible compared to large industries pumping out noxious fumes and degrading the land and sulllying the water, but this is the only kind of change the regional offices are actually allowed to pursue.
Meng Han’s documentary is really a Trojan horse; on the outside it looks like it’s about environmental protection, but once you crack its shell, you’ll find it’s really a commentary on the futility of the job, the hypocrisy of bureaucracy, and the sham lip service our governments pay to our faces about concern for the environment while always valuing profit and efficiency over everything else.
Given these restrictions, these laughable micro targets, our fight against climate change is destined to be a losing one.
This and other titles are screening as part of the Planet In Focus Film Festival – check out their lineup and buy your tickets (and watch at home!) here.
Global warming isn’t up for debate. Not only is it real, it’s already here. It’s happening. And the sad thing is, we’ve seen it coming for at least 60 years. We’ve talked about fossil fuels and acid rain and peak oil and holes in the ozone layer literally all of my life, and in fact, literally all of my mother’s. We’ve reduced, reused, recycled. Sort of. We never reduced, that’s for sure. We fill our blue bins with more and more single use plastics every day. Capitalism ensures that we don’t reuse – in fact, it’s got us replacing items that aren’t even broken. And now our recycling programs are a sham; China used to buy our recycled plastics but they don’t want them anymore, so our municipalities keep picking them up for the sake of optics, but they sit at the recycling facility not getting recycled.
Normally we celebrate Earth Day on April 22nd. This year was its 50th year. Of course, 2020 is turning out to be a notable year in many ways, and most communities postponed or cancelled their events due to the global pandemic. Humanity is so hell-bent on destroying ourselves that we didn’t want to sit around waiting to drown in melted ice caps, we’re just going to go straight for the super bug that wipes us all out for good. That IS ultimately what we’re talking about when we talk about Earth Day: our demise. Because the Earth is not an infinite resource. With overpopulation and overconsumption, we have stupidly decimated the planet we count on for living and breathing and existing and stuff. In his recent stand-up special for Netflix, End Times Fun, Marc Maron poked fun at our self-righteous but minuscule attempts at contribution – the reusable grocery bags, the banning of straws – sarcastically noting that “we did all we could.” I mean, it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that we all saw this coming and we not only watched it happen but we hastened it. We worsened it. And in our own self-delusion, we pretend that the tiny steps we’ve taken (while refusing to make any sacrifice at all) aren’t totally phoney baloney.
Well, Jeff Gibbs has a documentary for you. Capitalism wants you to stop crying about the environment and get back to making and spending money. So they’ve thrown things at us like, for example, solar panels, so we can believe things aren’t completely hopeless. Except it’s all a lie. Solar panels are either prohibitively expensive or nearly totally ineffective as a viable alternative energy source. Making solar panels uses up a tremendous amount of resources and the same dirty, polluting fuels that we’re trying to avoid in the first place. And then they need to be replaced every few years. And you still need a back up power source so you can’t disconnect from the grid. We don’t have the capacity to store excess power for days that are cloudy or rainy or, you know, have a sunset and then a nighttime. Even if we cut down every forest we still wouldn’t have enough space to house even a fraction of the panels we’d need. So solar panels are a nice thought, but they’re really just a distraction to keep environmentally-minded people occupied while big business continues to raze the Earth.
Planet of the Humans is an eye-opener. The environmental movement as we know it has largely been a hoax. It’s a bitter pill to digest. Gibbs is clearly an acolyte of Michael Moore’s. Not only does Moore produce this documentary, Gibbs mimics his style quite blatantly. But Gibbs is no Moore. He doesn’t have the same bullish charisma. He isn’t as emphatic or as fist-wavy. So while this is an important conversation starter, it’s not going to make waves or win awards or convert any birthers. But for the next 30 days, you can watch it for free on Youtube, and this is one way we can honour the Earth without compromising social distancing.
Once upon a time, a lovely young woman named Jay flew first class. Yup, all those travels, and it was just the one time. I don’t even remember where we were going. What I do remember: 1. it was an early morning flight 2. the breakfast was good 3. I had a mimosa 4.The Lorax was playing 5. I almost immediately fell asleep and missed the whole thing. I think we got a pretty good deal on the upgrade but still, it was disappointing to have slept through all the luxury. Of course, it was probably only because of the luxury (read: space) that I could sleep. Still. I kicked myself. I kicked Sean too; he also slept, though it’s a less a rarity for him.
But all this time, I’ve wondered: is The Lorax boring, or did I just fall asleep because it was a 6am flight and I was incredibly tired?
The Lorax is based on a Dr. Seuss story in which a 12 year old boy, Ted (Zac Efron), decides to impress a girl, Audrey (Taylor Swift), by bringing her a tree. A real, live tree. Which no longer exist. They live in a place where the trees were replaced long ago by sculptures of plastic lit up by dozens of C batteries. Their whole town is utterly devoid of nature. They’ve been denuded. But Ted has a pretty big crush on this chick Audrey so he treks out to an isolated home where he meets the elderly Once-ler (Ed Helms), the one responsible for the world’s current problems. As a young man he was so determined to have his company succeed that he thought nothing of cutting down all the trees. He butted heads with the guardian of the forest, The Lorax (Danny DeVito), but he wouldn’t change his mind until it was too late. And the thing about too late is that it’s true to its name: too late.
Sean asked me how heavy-handed the environmentalism theme was, but I actually consider it to be more anti-capitalist than anything. The Onceler’s greed costs them everything. And yet this kid-friendly, animated family film is basically one long commercial, replete with product placement, basically neutering its message.
The animation is lovely. Illumination has done several Dr. Seuss adaptations at this point and they’re pretty adept at the translation. Their trees look like swirls of cotton candy. The town is fairly bursting with brilliant details. And yet once again this film has failed to truly grab me.
Thank you, Snowpiercer, for giving me a Bong Joon-ho movie that I can watch! Bong is such a talented director that it made a wimp like me try (and fail) to watch The Host. But not only is Snowpiercer his first English-language movie, it’s also accessible to jerks like me. Which is not to say it isn’t scary because intellectually, it’s nasty as hell. It’s not horror so much as dystopia, and the scariest thing of all is how soon it’s set: 2014. Well, technically the main action is taking place in 2031 or thereabouts, but basically in 2014 humans tried to repair some of the damage we’ve done to the climate and it went disastrously wrong. The earth froze over, so a very select few were chosen to fight for survival on a perpetually moving train. The train has elite passengers at the front, living in luxury, and the unwashed masses are crammed in at the back, living in filth and poverty and darkness.
Mason (Tilda Swinton), the train’s disciplinarian, doles out some very harsh punishments to those who step out of their lane. But there are serious rumblings coming from the back of the train – Curtis (Chris Evans) is the reluctant leader of a rebellion. Soon he and others (Jamie Bell, Song Kang-ho Song, Octavia Spencer, Asung Ko) will make a violent push toward the front, but as usual, the haves will never make it easy for the have-nots.
The film, based on a graphic novel, is a brilliant commentary on class warfare. But it’s not just a matter of class, or economics. It smacks of Marxism, but is tainted with Darwinism. The oblivious first class passengers see their station as right and just, pre-ordained even, and cluelessly talk about their own sacrifices. But ultimately, they are being controlled just as much as the proletariat in the back. The propaganda starts with the schoolchildren and never ends. Free will is an illusion carefully meted out by those in charge. So is hope, and that’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow.
The film’s momentum is as relentless as the rebellion. Once they start making their push toward the engine, the train itself is a revelation. Production made a 100m replica of the train, and each of the train’s cars is wilder than the last, each more breathtaking, each scattered with clues. And the view outside the train’s windows of the frozen wasteland of earth is strangely beautiful, almost mesmerizing – it’s both serene in its tranquility and violent as the train continues to punch through the continually forming ice and snow. Bong tends to shoot the action with the tail section toward the left of the screen and the engine toward the right, so you always get the sensation that things are moving. It’s a really cool way to orient the audience and keep things pressing forward.
Tilda Swinton gives one of the most compelling and bizarre performances of her career, and if you know Swinton’s body of work at all, you know what a tall, broad drink of water that statement is. Bong Joon-ho originally wrote the part of Mason with John C. Reilly in mind; at the time he was a much more peaceful character. When Swinton landed the part, Bong changed the role but left in the male gender markers. Swinton wears glasses that were once her own – when Bong visited her at her home, he found them in her children’s dress up box, and insisted she wear them. Mason has a gold glinting tooth that is often visible, especially the more unhinged she (he?) becomes. She’s based the character on Margaret Thatcher, which is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. Thatcher died the year this came out (2013) so I doubt she ever saw/heard of this unflattering ode, which may be for the best.
Chris Evans pursued the part even though Bong Joon-ho thought he was wrong for it. Bong thought he was simply too fit for a guy who’s been living in the cramped quarters of a dirty train compartment for the past 15 years, never seeing sunlight, subsisting on protein bars made of ground up insects. Evans was clearly persuasive and he’s clearly right for the part – Bong made it work by strategically using wardrobe and camera angles to downplay his physique.
The action sequences are other-worldly. You know which scene I’m going to talk about: a door slides open to reveal a car full of men wearing black fetish masks. Only they’re not here to have safe-word sex. They’re all holding hatchets. They’re here to murder you. In a deep, cleaving way. And then the lights go out. It’s dark like a nightmare and the axe battle is on. They pass up torches from the rear and that’s the only light lighting the scene, which is expertly done. Park Chan-wook serves as a producer and you can’t help but see Oldboy flavours in this scene. It’s spooky and tense and brutal.
Though the train’s engine is meant to be one of perpetual motion, lots of stuff inside the train is actually going extinct (like cigarettes, which will be missed). Life outside the train, however, may actually be returning. In the film’s final shot, the survivors’ sense of hope is buoyed by the sight of a polar bear, a sure sign that life on earth will continue. I think the choice of a polar bear is significant: our news feeds have been inundated with the sight of starved polar bears, of polar bears literally drowning because the ice is melting and swims between ice floes have become too long to sustain. Polar bears are a vulnerable, at-risk species. Snowpiercer’s healthy, satiated polar bear indicates that what they really need to thrive is the loss of their greatest threat: humanity.
Northern Kenya is a very dangerous place for elephants. Hell, maybe there’s no safe place on Earth for an animal whose front teeth are worth more on the black market than my whole body, but Northern Kenya is particularly deadly ground. Every day, the elephants are stalked by poachers, who in turn are pursued by park rangers. But it’s hardly a fair fight when the park rangers haven’t been paid by the government for months, while the poachers stand to make more from one elephant than the rangers have made in the past year.
When Lambs Become Lions documents the ongoing battle between poachers and rangers from a very interesting perspective: it follows two family members on opposite sides of the fight and shoots the heart of the action, as poachers pursue elephants and as rangers pursue poachers. Because of its dual focus, When Lambs Become Lions manages not to take sides or judge these relatives as they try to provide for their families. That is a useful perspective because really, the poachers aren’t the true reason for elephants’ status as an endangered species. The poachers are the tool of the ivory dealers, and both exist because many of the world’s rich people want to pay lots of money for tusks. Those people are the villains here. The poachers are simply trying to get ahead rather than living day-by-day doing whatever odd jobs can be found.
As a result of the film’s judgment-free, up-close approach, When Lambs Become Lions feels more like a narrative feature than you’d expect. I was curious to see how the story would end and enjoyed the twists and turns along the way. As it turns out, poachers and rangers are not like oil and water. They mix, they intermingle, and they can at time seven switch from one side to the other. Even though rangers are authorized (and expected) to shoot poachers on sight, there’s a respect for their opponents’ circumstances and humanity that feels so very foreign, quaint, and refreshing in contrast to the western ultra-partisan, hyper-adversarial approach to conflict.
What’s the cause of those differing attitudes to one’s ideological opponents? Is it that we’ve had it too good for too long to remember what it’s like to make hard choices to survive? Are we afraid to engage with those who have different opinions than ours? Why can’t we see past those differences that are so minor in comparison to the divide between than these two relatives, one of whom is expected to feed the other to crocodiles when both are on duty? I’m not sure but it’s something for us to figure out because, like rangers say about poachers, that story is unlikely to have a happy ending.
“After what happened in Jurassic Park, is it good science to play God with the dead?” This is the question posed by the Planet in Focus page for Genesis 2.0. For a documentary to pose such a question feels surreal. Well, we’re living in a surreal world and, after watching this new documentary from directors Christian Frei and Maxim Arbugaevit, you may very well find yourself praying that we’ve learnt the lesson s of a 25 year-old science fiction movie.
Genesis 2.0 address some ethical dilemmas in the field of molecular engineering using the ambitious quest to bring back the woolly mammoth. It’s an idea that’s so crazy that I honestly don’t know how I feel about it. I find it both exciting and scary. If the geneticists at Harvard and an elite lab in China share my apprehension, they are doing an excellent job of hiding it. Even the less privileged Siberians who take the treacherous trip to the Siberian arctic every summer in search of mammoth tusks don’t seem too worried.
The film divides its time pretty equally between scientists and tusk hunters. The stuff in the arctic is gorgeously shot and Frei, who spent a summer up there, clearly bonded with the Siberian hunters. Their job is dangerous and offers no guarantees. Every year 1 or 2 people don’t make it back and many will not find enough “white gold” to make the trip worth the time and risk.
The scientists in the US, China, and South Korea (where they’re cloning dogs for grieving pet owners) that we follow live in a completely different world. They work with state of the art technology and don’t risk their lives the way the arctic hunters do. The filmmakers respect the geneticists just as they do the hunters, watching them work and letting them make their case for the importance of their work. Only one question on the ethics of molecular engineering is asked of them throughout the entire movie and it’s answered only with an awkward silence.
Genesis 2.0 mostly saves it’s editorializing for the final minutes of the film and when it comes it feels a little awkward and out of place. All in all though, it’s a fantastic documentary. It’s thought-provoking and beautiful to watch and has an interesting point of view that seems to tie the whole thing together. The future of genetic research is like the treacherous Siberian arctic. It’s not easy and is full of risk. But pushing forward into the unknown and taking great risks is just human nature. Will the future look olike the first act of Jurassic Park? Or will it look like the scary part after all the dinosaurs get loose? Only time will tell.
Nutria sounds like a sweetener but is actually a disgusting rodent…of unusual size. It looks like a rat but it’s the size of a beaver. The orange-toothed critter is native to South America but was unfortunately introduced to Louisiana by fur by fur trappers. People made good money hunting them for pelts until the fur trade collapsed in the 80s and nobody wanted to wear rat anymore.
In North America, the nutria’s only predators were humans. Without hunting, the nutria have multiplied terribly. Now this invasive species has overrun the land, its destructive eating and burrowing habits eroding coastline and eating up swamp land valuable for its protection against hurricanes.
Rodents of Unusual Size is about the good people of Louisiana and their initiative to save their land and their livelihoods from the dreaded nutria. The government has put a $5 on their heads – er – their tails, actually. It’s a popular and effective measure, though the buckets of monstrous rat tails left me a little squeamish. Directors Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer assemble a curious cast of characters to tell their story, including off-season shrimpers, students paying their college tuition, and gruff women who do it better. But it’s fisherman Thomas who will win your heart. He’s been battered by all the elements his land could throw at him, and he’s determined to survive this one as well. Man vs. beast: it’s a classic match-up, and it’s playing as part of the Planet In Focus Film Festival.
This is a surprisingly endearing documentary, as easily digested as a nutria kabob. I highly suggest you check it out – for the slice of life, the bit of trivia, the satisfaction of a well-turned documentary.
Unless your name is Fuyuki Shimazu, the subject of this documentary, your honest answer would probably have to be “I don’t have strong feelings about it either way’. Until today, it was virtually impossible for me to imagine anyone responding any differently. Well, Fuyuki Shimazu loves cardboard.
It all started when he was a poor student wanting a wallet of his own but not able to afford one. Left with only two choices- do without for awhile or get creative- he made himself one out of cardboard. I can’t remember offhand if he made it from cardboard he found in the garbage or if he started doing that later.
Fuyuki’s outside the box thinking turned into a passion and eventually a career. Searching the warehouses and dumpsters all over japan, he began to collect cardboard that caught his eye and began to make a living off of making and selling wallets. And they’re nicer than you might think. Seen through Fuyuki’s eyes, yeah, I can sort of see it. I wouldn’t have noticed before but there are a lot of cardboard boxes out there with eye-catching designs.
It’s not easy to know what to make of Fuyuki at first as he travels the country to various factories to learn the stories and inspirations behind his favourite cardboard boxes. he worked at a prestigious advertising firm for 3 years as an art director where his colleagues said things like “Whenever you talk, it’s always about cardboard”, “He’s a different kind of species”, and “We have all sorts of employees so he was not the only weird one, but…”. He’s a likable guy though and seems to be able to make friends with anyone. His enthusiasm, if not exactly contagious, is endearing, inspiring, and unquestionably genuine. He’s a great subject for a documentary and director Ryusuke Okajima is smart to keep the focus mostly on him.
There’s a more universal point to all this, of course, about upcycling. With Earth’s resources dwindling as they are… Oh never mind. Just watch the movie. I promise it’ll be worth your time. And if you’re as burnt out on documentaries about the environment as I am, you’ll be relieved to know that Okajima doesn’t belabor this point and only mentions it in any detail towards the end. Fuyuki Shimazu and his wallets are fascinating and From All Corners is wise to keep the focus mostly on them.
Teenagers. They think they know it all, don’t they? They have this unbearable self-righteousness. They can take a motorboat to testify about the dangers posed by oil tankers and not feel a little hypocritical, not even a bit. The big picture is missed. Kayak to Klemtu, Zoe Hopkins’ first feature, finds itself in the same quandary. Various problems arise, the characters deal with them as they come, and then the scene shifts to the next problem, without ever engaging with anything of significance.
I wished throughout that I got to know the characters. Too often, characters would appear solely to serve the plot or provide a moral question of some sort, and then disappear once they had set up that segment of the film. Discussions that would seem to be important often didn’t end up happening, whether it was the reason why the teenagers’ parents left Klemtu in favour of Vancouver, or why a mother and son never asked each other how they felt during their husband/father’s battle with cancer.
Those missing details pile quite high by the end of the film. By focusing so heavily on a crusade for environmental protection, Kayak to Klemtu misses the bigger picture. Paradoxically, the “bigger picture” here was one small family in mourning, looking for ways to cope with the loss of a loved one. Their journey takes a back seat to the film’s anti-pipeline, pro-conservation message, and it should have been the other way around.
With so many beautiful shots of the northern British Columbia coastline to be found in Kayak to Klemtu, the conservation message would not have been lost if the characters had been driving the film instead. If anything, the message would have been more impactful, as the onscreen journey through B.C.’s coastal waters argues more effectively in favour of conservation than a monologue ever could.
There’s a grocery store in Brooklyn that’s 5 times busier than other markets in the area; it’s a food co-op, where members trade labour for access to the best and freshest food sources.
The Park Slope food co-op is kind of great in an old-fashioned way, with so many people from all walks of life willing to put in work (2h45m monthly) in order to keep labour costs down for the greater good of this beloved co-op. And it clearly is very much loved. It offers locally sourced, often organic products for 40% cheaper than you’d find in luxury grocery stores, and the food on offer here is much, much better.
The documentary Food Coop, by directors Thomas Boothe and Maellanne Bonnicel, explores this strange beast that exists in the shadows of Wall Street but thrives on a different kind of economy, one that is community-minded and fair. For the people who work and shop there, it fosters a neighbourly spirit where people are making connections with each other, and with the food grown within just a few miles of them. The film also serves as a guide book of sorts for others who might be interested in starting up a co-op. It’s a viable alternative system that seems to have few drawbacks. It’s democracy in action, good food in the belly, and a more planet-friendly approach to food and consumer culture. There’s a lot to be learned, but one of those lessons is just that the personalities that keep a food co-op running successfully over decades are quirky and varied. The people watching is almost as good as the system is tempting.