Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A few final reviews of Hot Docs films. Here are some films worth seeing if they're screened near you.

The Yes Men Fix the World - Sizzling Stunts with a Searing Message

Both hilarious and sad, the Yes Men pulled a number of 'stunts with a point'. They managed to trick the BBC into interviewing Andy Bichlbaum (one of the directors) as a representative of Dow Chemical. Andy proceeded to announce to the world that Dow was taking responsibility for the Bhopal toxic gas leak in India, which left 18,000 dead and over hundred thousand injured. In fact, they were establishing a $12B fund for compensation. This story was widely reported after the interview, and for a few hours, caused Dow`s stock to fall significantly, before the hoax was discovered.

The Yes Men aim to raise consciousness about unconscionable acts through their humour.

They haven't fixed the world yet, though.

Paris 1919

Inspired by the acclaimed book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, this great movie takes us through the peace process following the First World War. It weaves together fabulous archival footage from that time and very good re-enactments of key characters at the peace conference. We see the idealistic Woodrow Wilson resisting the others of the Big Four: Britain's Lloyd George who is intent on immense reparations far beyond Germany's capability to pay, France's Georges Clemenceau who is intent on maximum revenge, and the territory-hungry Orlando of Italy. We see Wilson's idealism eroded through the process.

We see John Maynard Keynes and his team quantifying the damages caused by Germany - so much for dead livestock, so much for a factory, so much for the earning power of the dead soldiers and civilians - and then comparing that with Germany's capacity to pay, and finding a total mismatch.

We see the cartographers working feverishly to keep up with the pace of borders being redrawn. Those scenes really bring home the avarice of the nations involved in the treaty.

We see Germans who came for the negotiations recoil in horror at the terms they are presented with. In fact, the first team sent to Paris refuse to sign the treaty.


More beautiful aquatic scenery, as we journey through the Great Lakes, documenting the pressures on the ecosystems along the way. This year has been full of alerts to the dangers to our water systems on the earth and this film is excellent in its coverage. The Q&A period raised all sorts of questions that the film didn't have time to cover - the range of problems is so great, and the movie was only 1 hour 49 minutes!

The movie ends with a heartfelt message from a First Nation chief, who states their Natural Law that every individual should guide their actions by considering the effect on six generations forward. Good lesson for us all.


An interesting film exploring the benefits of laughter. The film talked about infectious laughter - and had the audience laughing through much of it.

Nauru, An Island Adrift

Several films at Hot Docs addressed the ravages on the environment caused by greedy exploitation of resources. This film also documented the effects of aggressive exploitation of the phosphate resources of the Pacific island of Nauru. But this film didn't focus on the environmental effects, but on the effects on the people.

One might argue that the island was exploited by colonial powers after the early discovery of phosphate, but since independence, the Nauru people have been in charge of their destiny themselves.

The people of Nauru grew extremely wealthy from phosphate - second richest average income in the world, they proudly proclaim. However, the phosphate will soon run out and the price of phosphate has fallen, leaving Nauru in desperate economic straits. With no other export potential, they continue to mine the phosphate, but for ever lesser returns. The fancy cars, homes, airplanes and other trappings of the rich economic times litter the landscape. The mining has gradually turned the whole island into a devastated moonscape with no vegetation whatsoever; this in turn creates an oven effect which means that water falls all around Nauru, but not on Nauru, leaving them with an impending water crisis. They are beset by very high rates of diabetes because of sudden changes in eating habits.

But the movie zooms in on the response of the people to their situation. Their main attitude is that it was a lot more fun when they were richer. They don't exhibit huge regrets (at least the people interviewed for the film) for the way they exploited the phosphate, without concern for future generations. A metaphor for the planet?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Dud at Hot Docs

It's rare at Hot Docs to attend a screening of a poor film. Unfortunately, Encirclement: Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy had a good premise, to explain the origins and rise of neo-liberalism and how it is affecting us today, but failed miserably to deliver a satisfying movie on the topic. This 3 hour black-and-white film consisted of a series of interviews with unidentified people (well, there was a list at the beginning of the many people that were going to be interviewed, with no affiliation given, but there were no captions to identify who was speaking at any given time and where they were from). The filmmaker didn't seem to have been told that there was now technology to edit films, so that you could actually remove repetitive, redundant content.

There was a moment to leave at half way when they changed the DVDs, and I made my hasty exit along with many others. Each Hot Docs ticket is designed so that you can tear it to mark your rating of 1 to 5 on the film; there's a prize awarded to the highest audience-rated film. I guess I voted with my feet, but I was wishing for a zero on that 1-5 scale!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Two Approaches to Journalism

Two films at Hot Docs contrasted brilliantly today's two approaches to journalism. Burma VJ typified the power of citizen journalism by chronicling a network of brave journalists in Burma who risked their lives or imprisonment (maybe not much difference there) by capturing on film the 2007 protests in Burma. Film was smuggled out, or transmitted via the Internet (before the generals shut off Burma from the Internet). When the protest ultimately failed, the network of about 30 photographers was shattered. However, the positive news was that 60 people came forward to take their places in forming a new network.

The other film, The Reporter, followed New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof as he toured the Congo to document the suffering there from years of warfare. He was searching for that one human story that would bring home the tragedy to American readers and awaken their concern. His visit to one of the warlords was a fascinating exercise in exceedingly cautious questioning intermingled with a few challenges. Tough balance to manage.

Kristof attended the screening and much of the Q&A revolved around the role of that endangered species, the professional journalist and the publications they write in. How can we balance the immediacy of the 'instant journalist' with the time for analysis, and long follow-up of big stories, afforded by professional journalism. And how can newspapers, the main outlet for professional journalism, survive with a business model that has been fractured by the emergence of new online media? It's a question well worth pondering.

Both films are worth seeing if you get the chance.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez

This movie is a scathing condemnation of the actions by Exxon before, during and after the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Their sins were many:
  • The commitments when they lobbied for the building of the Trans Alaska Pipeline that 'not one drop' of oil would be spilled in Prince William Sound or along the coast were complete lies
  • The ship was sent out under the command of an alcoholic captain
  • The company was completely unprepared to do any sort of clean-up
  • The Exxon spokesperson in Alaska lied to the people that Exxon would 'make them whole'; the community was devastated financially and never compensatedfor their losses
  • The clean-up workers who were sent - basically to show that something was being done - were exposed to toxic materials in the clean-up and have suffered severe medical problems with no compensation
  • Prince William Sounds was environmentally ruined, the rocks are still polluted 20 years later and the herring fishery never recovered
  • Exxon dragged on litigation for many years with multiple appeals. After being judged liable for billions of dollars of damages in three lower courts, Exxon was finally fined a mere $508M dollars by the Supreme Court. This amounted to four days profit for the company, not exactly a deterrent for other companies.
The 'star' of the movie was the passionate, articulate, activist marine scientist and toxicologist, Riki Ott. She appeared for the Q&A session, and demonstrated that there is at least one woman in Alaska who is intelligent, knowledgeable, and able to put together several coherent sentences in a row. She is the author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

The other 'star' was the Prince William Sound itself, with much footage of the fantastically beautiful locale.

The Entrepreneur

If you have a chance to see this movie, chronicling Malcolm Bricklin's efforts to bring the Chinese Chery car to market in North America - go! It's a fascinating story, filled with suspense, sprinkled with humour, and dominated by a larger-than-life entrepreneur, Malcolm Bricklin. The film was made over more than 4 years by Jonathan Bricklin, Malcolm's son, and the 1500 hours of film has been edited to a delightful 90 minutes.

Now 70, Malcolm Bricklin had made two fortunes - bringing first Subaru and then the Yugo to North America - and then lost them in other business ventures, most notably the Bricklin car to be made in New Brunswick. His taste for one last big win is undiminished. It's great fun to watch his passion, persuasiveness and persistence, and sheer chutzpah. Chery ultimately backed out of the deal and Bricklin is suing for billions; his lawyers think this complete film record of all the meetings is likely to prove useful in the litigation!!!

Morgan Spurlock, who produced Supersize Me, has signed on as Executive Producer, so with a bit of his father's chutzpah, and Spurlock's contacts, this might actually achieve distribution.

Meanwhile, Jonathan and his co-producer have taken up ping-pong with a passion, are training for the 2012 Olympics (and believe they can make it). They are also opening a ping pong bar in NYC this week. There are some of his father's genes in that boy!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The End of the Line

If today's rate of overfishing continues, there will be no more fish for commercial fishing by 2048; and there'll be no more seafood for us to eat. 90% of the fish in the sea have already been caught. That's the opinion of the scientists in this sobering movie, based on the book The End of the Line: How Over-fishing is Changing the World and What We Eat, by Charles Clover.

The opening salvo of this British movie concerned the collapse of the cod fishery in Canada, and many of the scientists interviewed were from Canada. It presented the situation with bluefin tuna as indicative of what's happening in fisheries today - repeating the disaster seen in cod.

Scientists have calculated that to stop the decline in bluefin the catch should be limited to 15M tons; to allow it to recover, the catch limit should be set at 10. In recent EU meetings, the limit was set at 29, and estimates for the real catch (including all the illegal catches) are 61M. The prognosis for this species is chilling.

The decline of bluefin tuna is similar to that seen in other species. This has only been realized since about 2002, because consistent overstatement of fish catches from China misled scientists into thinking that despite local declines, overall worldwide catches were actually rising. Dr. Pauly of University of British Columbia was the one who showed the Chinese data must be wrong and worldwide catches were declining, despite ever more sophisticated technology.

The movie's web site provides more information and offers three action steps:

Ask Before You Buy:

Eat only sustainable seafood. The movie points out that farmed fish is not the solution - it takes 5 pounds of anchovies ground into fishmeal for one pound of salmon. Buying farmed fish merely increases the load on less popular fish, needed at the lower ends of the food chain.

Greenpeace handed out flyers at the end of the movie, with a Redlist of fish you should not be purchasing, in grocery stores or restaurants:
  • Atlantic cod
  • Atlantic haddock (scrod)
  • Atlantic halibut
  • Atlantic salmon (farmed)
  • Atlantic sea scallops
  • Chilean seabass
  • Greendland halibut (turbot)
  • Hard shell clams (Arctic surf clams)
  • New Zealand hoki (blue grenadier)
  • Orange roughy
  • Sharks
  • Skates and rays
  • Swordfish
  • Tropical shrimps and prawns
  • Tuna -- bluefin, yellowfin, bigeye
Be sure to ask wherever you buy fish where the fish is from. Educate sellers about how much consumers care.

Tell Politicians

Make sure politicians know that there is a large part of the electorate who cares - not just the vocal fisher community and mighty fish corporations who press them so hard. The movie stated that Mitsubishi, the largest provider of bluefin tuna, had actually been increasing their catch significantly and freezing the fish. The conjecture was that these frozen bluefin would be extremely valuable to Mitsubishi when the last bluefin was caught.

Join the campaign for marine protected areas and responsible fishing

This message went full circle with the plea of this year's TED Prize winner Sylvia Earle, documented in an earlier post. The biggest idea to emerge from the brainstorming lunch around helping fulfil Sylvia's wishes was to advocate for creating protected areas in the oceans. This movie estimates that it would cost 12-14B annually to create reserves in about 20-30% of the ocean. This compares with 15-30B currently spent annually on fishing subsidies. Creating these reserves would create jobs to protect them.

Sergio - Charismatic Humanitarian Hero

Sergio Vieira de Mello. Dashingly handsome. A dazzling smile and positive attitude that engaged everyone he met. Passionate and compassionate. A career with the UN committed to making the world better through action - "You can't make a difference sitting behind a desk", he stated. "You have to get out in the field." And get out to the field he did: Bangladesh, Cyprus, Sudan, Mozambique, Lebanon, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo, East Timor. It was a catalog of three decades of world hot spots.

He was a humanitarian James Bond, with Bond's penchant for the ladies. As one commentor in the film stated, "He liked women. A lot."

Sergio was, to some extent, a maverick. Although he was a 'traditional' rebel in his early days at the Sorbonne, manning the barricades, he came to believe in a more co-operative approach. When he was special envoy in Cambodia, with the responsbility to effect the orderly and peaceful migration of 400,000 Cambodians back to their homes in Cambodia, he met with the Khmer Rouge to ensure this would happen peacefully. No one had ever met with them before. Meeting with the 'bad guys' was important, he said. You can't get important things done without talking to the other side.

When he was regent for the transition of East Timor from Indonesia to independence, he was given virtually dictatorial powers. However, he set up a council, and then a cabinet, of local leaders, and did nothing without their concurrence.

These efforts around the world gave him a reputation as a problem solver, a fixer, and led to his fateful appointment as the special representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq. He was killed in the suicide bombing attack on the UN Headquarters in Baghdad, the first suicide bombing in Iraq, on August 19, 2003. He had been reluctant to go, having been a strong opponent of the US action, but was persuaded by Bush and Rice that he was needed there.

The film shows his life and achievements in a series of flashbacks as we watch the appallingly feeble efforts to rescue him from the rubble of the attack. Although the US ostensibly invaded Iraq as a result of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, they were woefully unprepared to deal with a terrorist attack. Sergio and another colleague were found very quickly in the rubble, and, in the movie, two American servicemen tell their story of working for three and a half hours in a tiny shaft to save them. Although his colleague was saved (by the gruesome measure of an underground hacksaw amputation of both his legs to extricate him), the lack of any equipment or further help doomed Sergio.

This is a movie well worth seeing. I first heard about Sergio through a TED talk by Samantha Powers, and the movie is based on her book Chasing the Flame - I've got it on my reading list.

Hot Docs

The next few posts will feature reviews of films from Hot Docs, Toronto's documentary film festival, the largest documentary film festival in North America. Hot Docs is my second gluttony of brain food for the year, along with TED.

The films are shown at a number of theatres clustered around Bloor and University Avenues in downtown Toronto and you can take in movies from late morning until the late night shows at midnight. With diligence and stamina, you could probably take in 6 movies in a day. I'm not doing more than four in one day. Yesterday, my first day, I saw three great movies, and grabbed a traditional hot dog from the street vendor in front of the Royal Ontario Museum as I dashed between two theatres.

Stay tuned for some reviews.