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.
We encountered all kinds of interesting documentaries at the Planet in Focus film festival, but I’m admitting a soft spot for 24 Snow.
I have a passion for documentaries anyway. A camera can actually be a transportation device, carrying us away to a world that looks and feels entirely different from our own. Sometimes the lens looks upon a piece of fiction that’s been created to jar your senses (like Blade Runner 2049), other times it encourages you to take a second look at something that’s quite familiar (like The Florida Project), but documentaries can do both while actually reflecting real life back at you.
24 Snow isn’t fiction but it definitely felt foreign to me, and its foreignness informed me on a world I knew little about. With this documentary, we travel to the Siberian Russian territory of Yakutia. I didn’t know there were Russian Inuits, yet there they were, surviving in that beautiful but frigid (-70C) land. We are introduced to one main in particular: Sergei is a horse breeder, and even his horses will look strange to you. The Yakutian horse has of course evolved to weather the icy temperatures. They are small but sturdy animals, with shaggy coats that hopefully keep them warm. Their thick hair and manes are not unlike those of Shetland ponies but when you see one completely coated in ice, you know you’re in unfamiliar territory. The breeders de-ice the horses the way I de-ice my windshield. It’s a way of life I can’t really comprehend: solitary, isolated. No telephone, no electricity. No cash. No cars (none that can run you through ice and snow anyway – sleds get the job done).
These harsh conditions are a real test of one’s limits and it’s interesting to get to know the kind of person this job attracts. I live in Canada and am not unfamiliar with snowy, even permafrosted terrain, but the Yakutia is something else entirely. It’s stunning if you can separate it from its harshness, and the lush cinematography here certainly helps. The people and beasts of 24 Snow completely captivated me; it’s a fascinating documentary by Mikhail Barynin that’s as informative as it is beautiful.
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.
Inspired by the OG gangster gardener, Ron Finley, film maker Delila Vallot gets to know the people taking up gardening in South Central Los Angeles and follows them for a year to see if the simple act of growing things can in fact transform someone’s life.
Can You Dig This? is Planet In Focus Film Festival’s closing night film and it’s one you’ll enjoy watching as much as you enjoy learning from it.
Compton is a food desert – the neighbourhoods are packed with fast food joints and liquor stores, but the sale of healthful food is rare. Ron Finley thought it reasonable that he should therefore get to growing some right in his very own yard, but doing so attracted the ire of a neighbour who reported him. A cease and desist letter from the city made him think twice – not about the rightness of gardening his own land, but about the rightness of this world. Never before motivated to activism, Finley took up the cause, providing free soil so that others could plant too. Now you’ll find the neighbourhoods dotted with planters, and if you think that’s interesting, just wait until you meet the people who are cultivating them.
The film follows a high school dropout cum drug dealer, a woman who is gang-affiliated, a little girl who wants to grow greens for her diabetic dad (and wouldn’t mind making some cash on the side!), and a few elderly men living in a halfway house after extensive prison sentences. These are terrific subjects, each one revealing a little bit about their neighbourhood. You might not expect something as innocuous as gardening to stir up a lot of emotions, but when the film starts unpacking issues like the legacy of slavery contributing to the black community’s loss of contact with the soil, you start to realize how impactful this seemingly small act can be. Gardening as subversion? Yes, actually.
Not only is this documentary well done, it’s a fun and funny watch too. And inspiring, I don’t mind saying.
CAN YOU DIG THIS? plays at the Planet In Focus film festival in Toronto
Sunday 22 October, 7:45pm Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Ron Finlay will be in attendance
Greetings from Toronto’s Planet In Focus film festival, an environmental festival that highlights films that “question, explore, and tell stories about the world in which we live.”
Their opening night film is Chanda Chevannes’ Unfractured. It’s about fracking, but more than that, it’s about Dr. Sandra Steingraber, the tireless anti-fracking activist from upstate New York. The documentary follows her industrious and tenacious work to get her government to outlaw fracking. Chevannes follows her as she makes speeches, risks arrest at protests, and visits other countries to find out how others are dealing with this environmental disaster in the face of fierce opposition from its profiteers.
Dr. Steingraber is an eco-activist, a biologist, and a prolific writer on the topics of climate change and ecology. Her previous collaboration with Chevannes based on her highly acclaimed book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment resulted in a documentary seen by millions. Unfractured is a further exploration of the topic, linking fracking not just to damage to the environment, but to terrible risks to the health of the people living anywhere near it.
Dr. Steingraber is also a wife and a mother. Even when her home life is shaky, she doggedly pursues her advocacy because she genuinely believes in health and safety not just for her own family but for her community. Her commitment to the cause is inspiring; I was particularly moved by “The antidote to despair and cynicism is to fight with your whole heart.” This documentary speaks to any of us who feel sometimes that the fight is just too big, that things are hopeless as they stand. As Steingraber puts it, “We are all members of a great human orchestra and it is now time to play the Save the World Symphony. You do not have to play a solo, but you do have to know what instrument you hold and find your place in the score.”
OPENING NIGHT GALA & RECEPTION
Thursday, October 19, 2017
The Royal Cinema
6:30 PM (Doors Open at 6:00 PM)
Reception to follow at Revival Bar at 9:00 PM