Eco Docs at the Vancouver International Film Festival

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Wed, 09/15/2010 - 13:10

It seems more like a decade than a year since VIFF (30 September-15 October) last came round. Make that two decades. With Copenhagen's failure fast becoming a dot in the rear view mirror, one filmmaker has returned to footage from the first “Earth Summit” in Rio for inspiration.

In Severn, The Voice of Our Children, Jean Paul Jaud frames his thoughts for the future of the human race around the resonant words of the 12-year-old daughter of renowned Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki. In 1992, she told delegates at the Rio Earth summit “what you do makes me cry at night.” Now 29, and living in the Northern British Columbian islands of Haida Gwaii, Severn is still crying, but the mother-to-be is not totally without hope. Jaud balances a teary eyed and elegaic tone with some encouraging portraits of organic pioneers around the world. I particularly liked the detailed portrait of Takao Furuno, a sage Japanese rice farmer who has used fish and ducks to fertilise rice fields and control pests, with a 30% increase in crop yield over industrial farming methods.

VIFF's green film strand Ecologies of the Mind is, this year, particularly, at pains to find a life-affirming green thread. In this sense, German doc The 4th Revolution – Energy Autonomy hits the spot, and with its scatter-gun approach everything around the spot. The forceful German politician Hermann Scheer spearheads the assault on the energy status quo which we are told is perpetuated for political not technological reasons. Meanwhile, director Carl A Fechner introduces us to change-makers such as electric sports car pioneer Elon Musk, and Preben Maegaard, talking about a Danish micro-energy success story. Together these experts bat alternative energy naysayers – epitomised by a hapless International Energy Association (IEA) economist - out of the stadium. The ideas raised in this slick production could easily fill a whole television series.

Robinson In Ruins set in the South of England is a strange, but curious piece. The premise is that 19 film cans were discovered in a derelict caravan in a field. The footage has been assembled with a dry, factual narrative derived from the writings that the itinerant Robinson made in his note book. We are told Robinson believed that “if he looked at the landscape hard enough it would reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events and in this way he hoped to see into the future...”

The cinematography of town and country is markedly still, painterly. The flowing, matter-of-fact narrative only occasionally halts to allow appreciation of a pleasing aesthetic image, such as bee collecting nectar or a field of poppies bobbing in the wind. The rolling narrative is dense with hidden historical facts about the landscape, its infrastructure, utlities, wars fought, telling us how the gentle country landscape belies a turbulent history such as the suppression of common rights with the enclosure system or the Greenham Common women's peace protests against the famous USAF nuclear missile base. With its constant soundtrack of birdsong, it is oddly soothing and jarring at the same time.

Point of view doc David Wants to Fly, constantly surprised me. I almost wrote it off as a self-indulgent exercise as Berlin-based student director David Sieveking raked around for inspiration. “I wanted to make dark films like my idol David Lynch,” he says near the start. “But I was lacking the darkness.” Lynch, a devotee of the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, initially gives the younger man supportive advice, but also inadvertently opens a door to the darkness he is seeking surrounding this mysterious cult, popularised by the Beatles. Sieveking, to his credit, keeps matters low-key and personal, and shows great tenacity in the pursuit of the truth. It's an expose, but also contains much sweetness and light.

Psychohydrography shows the passage of water from mountain to sea in time-lapse images. Big subject, especially for water-deprived Los Angeles. But I felt this was too stylistically rigid and would have been more expansive using other cinematic techniques. In The Wake of the Flood might interest fans of Margaret Atwood, although I found it a little too rudderless.

I've only seen the teaser clips on the NFB website, but Sturla Gunnarsson's biography Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie looks a likely contender for “best documentary”.