Tag Archives: Planet In Focus

How To Bee

Naomi Mark has set out to make a documentary about beekeeping. Her father Don kept bees for a time when she was a child but gave it up for lack of time. Her fascination, and his, has continued.

Don left America and came to Canada’s Yukon in search of wide open spaces and adventure. He trapped, ran dog sleds, and worked in fire towers: the whole northern Canadian experience. And then, a little late in life, he settled down with Ruth and had a family, one he hoped would be self-sustaining. Now that the kids are grown and he’s retired, Don has taken to keeping bees once again and now has one of the most prolific apiaries the Yukon has ever seen.

Naomi’s documentary, shot over three beekeeping seasons, is a way to pass Don’s knowledge on to his daughter. Naomi believes this to be a documentary about beekeeping until it becomes clear that it’s actually a way to keep her dad alive and spend time with him in his dying days.

Don has been living with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) for longer than anyone knew. Naomi begins to realize that there’s more than one reason for her father pullig away from his beloved bees.

The documentary isn’t always my favourite kind of doc; too much melancholic staring silently into the camera, too many flowery narrations. But it’s hard to deny the real, raw emotion behind the film’s original premise and how deeply affecting it can be to watch someone lose a parent, even when many of the people involved are in pretty deep denial. It’s also interesting to watch Naomi, a novice beekeeper at best, struggle to keep her hive alive when we know important bees are to our environmental well-being. Meanwhile, her father, crucial and vital for so many years to her family’s well being, is also in decline. It’s a downward trend that perhaps gives the hive an elevated status in Naomi’s mind since she has some control over the life of her bees if not that of her father. At any rate, with such a loving film, it’s nice to know that honey won’t be Don’s only legacy.

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The Last Male On Earth

Sudan is the last male northern white rhino. He lives a life of relative luxury on a wildlife sanctuary in Kenya, surrounded by people who think of him as a friend. This documentary counts down the last couple of years of his life, giving us time to reflect on what it really means to watch the last of a species to die. Technically I suppose we lose dozens of species each day, but few are as large, majestic, and noticeable as a rhinoceros.

Sudan is cared for by keepers of course, but also by round the clock armed bodyguards. His sanctuary is visited by journalists and by tourists eager to touch him while he’s still around. Everyone goes home with the same message: Sudan can’t speak for himself so you have to speak up on his behalf. It seems most who come in contact with him are awed by his presence, but awe is not enough to save his species.

Sudan passed in 2018, leaving just 2 female northern white rhinos behind, the species functionally extinct – but that doesn’t mean science is going to just drop it. Director Floor Van Der Meulen explores Sudan’s legacy and the surprising ways in which he may live on.

The featured interviews are of such breadth that you really get a sense of Sudan’s importance and what he symbolizes to so many. Extinction makes for a flashy story (and Sudan was even on Tinder as the world’s most eligible bachelor) but for every dash of hope there’s bushels and bushels of futility. If we can stand by and watch Sudan and his friends disappear, is nothing sacred?

Los Reyes

Well, I’ve never seen anything like it before, that’s for sure.

I’m not even sure what to call it – documentary seems inaccurate and also somehow inadequate. “An enchanting nonfiction portrait of canine companionship” is what the Planet In Focus film festival has settled upon, and I’m game enough to go along with it. Set in a Chilean skate park, the film somehow makes 2 stray dogs its focus.

Chola is a sweet, proud girl who finds joy in chasing cyclists and is endlessly fascinated by dropping her beloved tennis ball town the skate park’s many ramps. Futbol, on the other hand, is more sedate, more stoic perhaps, but is rarely seen without some ‘toy’ to chew on, though that toy is most often garbage and if all else fails, a rock.

Besides the dogs, the skate park is often full of skaters, mostly teenage boys, slight no-goodniks, young rebels who are just learning to navigate an adult world they aren’t quite ready for. But there are no human faces in this film, just occasional body parts, the merest hint of human, as if the dogs don’t quite care to pay them full attention. More likely to be on screen: patches of sky, blades of grass, close-ups of bugs – whatever might be considered a dog’s eye view. The film is laconic. There is a lot of laying about in the sun, or obsessively sniffing a suspicious mound of earth. Perhaps mimicking the mind of a dog, there’s a lot of open space in the film, room to contemplate individual things but rarely a larger whole.

The film fest posits that Los Reyes will “delight dog- and doc-lovers alike” and while that may be the case for some, I’d guess that it won’t be for everyone. Largely silent, the film only occasionally picks up snippets of conversation from the nearby youth who seem to always have a domestic situation or a drug deal going down. The dogs remain uninterested. Two years into filming, the dogs are also surprisingly comfortable with the cameras, allowing for extremely up close and personal explorations of their bodies and the other inhabitants of their fur. It is not always pleasant viewing, especially because the lives of stray street dogs are probably not exceptionally long. I love dogs, but I love them to have homes and be cared for, and for me, this movie never shed its inherent melancholy.

Mossville: When Great Trees Fall

Mossville Louisiana was established by newly freed slaves, post-abolition. They designed it to be self-sustaining and community-minded. Many of the town’s recent residents are descendants of its founders. I saw recent rather than current because nobody lives there now.

A South African company (Sasol) came in and started buying up land. Those who didn’t get out immediately had to put up with construction, loss of basic services like electricity and sewage, and have weathered increased buy-out pressure from the company. The few remaining holdouts haven’t stopped the company from building its plants, but the residents are already decimated, poisoned by petrochemical plants and dying in droves, cancer not just visiting one or two but virtually all. Not that the company minds: when a resident dies, it’s that much easier for them to buy their land. Cheaper too.

It’s easy to want to solve this by relocating the sickly stragglers, but given their attachment to the land, the ancestral ties, their proud heritage, their unwillingness to abandon it is perhaps justified. My house was built by a stranger in a part of the country I don’t even like, but I still wouldn’t want to move. And the more someone tried to force me, the deeper I’d dig my heels. But for people like Stacey Ryan a.k.a. Mossville’s last man standing, he hardly has the strength left to put up a fight; he’s too often crippled in an emergency room to effectively advocate.

This documentary takes a cold hard look at environmental injustice and racism, and the embarrassing truth that a company with ties to apartheid has now come to the U.S. looking to do the same. Politicians are sacrificing communities belonging to the disenfranchised. They hope you won’t notice, or care. But please do.

Earth

Just for example, around 2 billion years ago, igneous and metamorphic rocks formed a gorge, and then around 70 to 30 million years ago, through the action of plate tectonics, the whole region was uplifted, resulting in a high and relatively flat plateau. Five or six million years ago, a river began to carve its way downward (during heavy flooding, the water takes boulders along with it, which act as chisels along the bottom). Further erosion by tributary streams led to the canyon’s widening. In another couple million years, it might be a little deeper still, but mostly it will have continued to widen. That’s how the Earth naturally made a very big hole in the ground, 446 km long, up to 29 km wide and more than 1,800 meters deep. We call it the Grand Canyon. Earth is a fine architect given millions of years, but we humans are moving 156 million tonnes of rock and soil per day. People are moving mountains. They’re changing the shape of the Earth.

This documentary takes a look at the people doing it. Labourers who tunnel through the Earth from above and below provide some interesting insights from a personal perspective – “If all else fails, there’s always dynamite. We always win.” And though many profess to “feeling bad” about obliterating landscapes, it is short-term profit who is driving all that brutal machinery, not long-term critical thinking or morality or common sense.

Earth is an interesting movie with an uninspired title. It would benefit from better editing, both in terms of smooth transitions and tightening up some scenes that are unnecessarily long. I know some 5 year olds who are insatiable when it come to trucks and diggers, and every time I pass a construction site I see a number old old men watching the machinery do its work, but for me this movie ran overlong. Still, it’s a neat little package of stuff we don’t see nearly enough, certainly not all collected together. It makes for thoughtful viewing.

When Lambs Become Lions

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

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.

 

Planet in Focus: Genesis 2.0

“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.