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Green docs toss the preaching

September 23, 2008

VANCOUVER -- Attend an environmental film series and chances are you'll encounter few plastic shopping bags or bottled water. It can be a preaching-to-the-choir kind of experience - a fact that hasn't escaped Toronto filmmaker Ian Connacher.

His documentary Addicted to Plastic! The Rise and Demise of a Modern Miracle, will have its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival, as part of the festival's environmental series The Ark: Elements and Animals.

"I was thinking about this," Connacher said from his home last week. "Why do we have environmental sections in film festivals and who is that really going to attract? I went to an environmental film festival and it felt almost like everybody in the audience knew this stuff.

"How do we get the average person to watch my film?"

Connacher's film is about the ubiquity of plastic; how little of it is actually being recycled and how it has made its way into the food chain. To get away from the preachiness that he feels characterizes many environmental documentaries, he employs humour, stimulating visuals (including kid-friendly animation) and a personal narrative.

"Everything in my life had become disposable," Connacher says as the film opens. "My food, my furniture, and, as it turned out, my girlfriend and my job." The film traces Connacher's two-year odyssey following plastic around the world. From California to Kenya, he finds the plastic waste piling up - and some pretty nifty solutions.

"My biggest problem with environmental films and even being an environmental reporter [a job he once held with the Discovery Channel] is being labelled as a doom-and-gloom naysayer; the world is coming to an end," Connacher says. "A lot of films don't provide any answers to these problems and it's just overwhelming and paralyzes people with guilt and inertia."

Establishing an environmental series was a "natural evolutionary process," says Alan Franey, VIFF's director, resulting from the plethora of films submitted last year that dealt with the environment. That was a reaction, Franey figures, to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and to the new consciousness it evoked about climate change and environmental issues in general.

Franey says environmental theme or not, the bar remains high for storytelling.

"As a programmer, you don't want to show films that don't have some poetry and cinematic artistry to them. Information is not good enough when you're talking about cinema. You need to have the presentation, you need to have the audience engagement, the sense of discovery and relevance. Those keen edges that make a difference between a successful film and a frankly boring documentary that you may as well see on a small screen."

One of the highlights of the program is A Sense of Wonder, a labour of love from Virginia actress Kaiulani Lee. About 20 years ago, Lee rediscovered the writings of the late U.S. environmentalist Rachel Carson and felt strongly they should be turned into a work for the stage. After trying to find a playwright for the project, she finally took it on herself.

Lee has now been performing A Sense of Wonder, the play, for 16 years.

Last year, to mark the centennial of Carson's birth, and after much coaxing, Lee turned the one-person show into a film.

"I didn't want to make the play bad by just filming a performance of it. That would be a horrible film, and it would lose the intimacy of the play," she says.

The money to produce the film, about $300,000 (U.S.), was raised over seven weeks - "every penny" of it from people who had seen the play and felt it should be turned into a more permanent record.

With a five-day shoot, Lee produced a 55-minute film, which will have its international premiere at VIFF. The pseudo-documentary features Carson (Lee) answering questions from an off-screen interviewer. The answers, like the play's monologue, are taken from Carson's writings.

Having its world premiere at VIFF is Blue Gold: Water Wars. This feature documentary is based on Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water, co-written by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke.

Executive produced by Vancouver's Mark Achbar (The Corporation), directed by Sam Bozzo and narrated by Malcolm McDowell, the film imagines a world where fresh water will become a more valuable commodity than oil.

Like Connacher, it was important to Bozzo not to make a film aimed at devoted environmentalists. "Because it's a global issue, it's absolutely essential to bring in people, to convince people that don't know about this; not to just give the people that [are already environmentally aware] a rallying cry." Bozzo's film almost didn't get made. The night before he was scheduled to fly to his first shoot, tickets and rented equipment in hand, his primary funder pulled out, citing a family emergency. Bozzo hung up the phone and was about to call the shoot off when his son Ethan, then 3, asked him for a glass of water.

Bozzo changed his mind and left the next day as scheduled, and provided the upfront funding entirely with his credit cards.

Blue Gold opens with this dedication: "For Ethan. This is how the world is. It doesn't have to be."

As much as the subject matter, this sense of commitment to the issue - and their projects - links the filmmakers in this series.

It is the same for Lee and her play-based-film on Rachel Carson. "It's potentially very dramatic to see how this woman, one person, had the courage to stand up not only to the chemical industry, but also the government. ... I just thought, historically, what a gift to be able to [show] that. "If I didn't do it, who would?"

VIFF runs from Sept. 25 to Oct. 10
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