The 2020 Planet in Focus Film Festival runs online across Canada until October 23 and features environmental docs The Last Ice and Coral Ghosts.
Toronto’s 21st annual environmental film festival, Planet in Focus, goes digital and nation-wide this year. In the fifteen years since An Inconvenient Truth, the number of environmentally-focussed docs has increased, with many of them high artistic achievements rather than merely info dumps. There are also a few patterns that coincide with the kinds of environmental problems we’re currently facing. There are the ice films that are also climate change films (The Ice and the Sky, Aquarela, The Last Ice), the coral reef films (Chasing Coral, Coral Ghosts), the anti-capitalism films (The New Corporation, This Changes Everything), the food films (Meat the Future), and the endangered species films (Racing Extinction). And increasingly, there are films from Indigenous perspectives, always a key part of the Planet in Focus programming.
Some of these films are likely to cross over to broader audiences, and others seem intended for the converted. As a Ph.D. candidate working on how to reduce food waste, I’m obviously part of the choir, but I tune in every year to learn something new, see images of our beautiful planet, and hopefully discover a film that I think will speak to friends and family less aware of the severity of climate change.
The 2020 Planet in Focus program includes TIFF doc The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel, Ai Weiwei’s Coronation which chronicles the pandemic in China, and HotDocs crowd pleaser Meat the Future about lab-grown meat as an alternative to the resource-intensive cattle grazing. Tickets go for $8.00, or you can catch the festival’s entire slate for just $30. Thus far, I’ve caught two films — Coral Ghosts and The Last Ice — which I’m glad to have seen, but are not without their problems and disappointments.
Director Andrew Nisker’s documentary, Coral Ghosts, is a character study of Dr. Tom Goreau, a marine biologist, former academic, and eccentric. Goreau has continued the family profession of caring for and about the earth’s ecosystems: his grandfather was a science photographer whose photographs documented major scientific achievements around the world, and his parents were pioneers of coral reef research and conservation. Part of his work has now become creating and restoring the archive of his grandfather’s photographs, currently housed in boxes in his Boston house. Goreau spends most of his time traveling the world to see the coral reefs, at great personal cost; his wife explains that she long ago accepted she was his second love.
The most interesting part of Coral Ghosts, however, is Goreau’s pioneering bioengineering work to help restore coral reefs. In the film, we see him setting up a Biorock installation: a metal frame is built, and we see him and his team putting it in the ocean and placing coral on it. Goreau explains that by infusing the metal frame with an electric field, they are able to provide coral the added boost of energy to keep growing. Coral usually uses chemical energy, but the ocean temperature rises caused by global warming putting a strain on this process, which is what eventually leads to coral bleaching. It’s a fascinating project, and the first sign of hope that there’s something we can do directly to help with coral bleaching beyond the necessary curbing of emissions and global temperature increases. Unfortunately, Nisker only really shows us this work in the last third of the film, and doesn’t delve deep into how Goreau got the idea for this project, its history, or how it works in any detail.
The Last Ice
Scott Ressler’s The Last Ice opens on the image of a towering iceberg, only to pull back to reveal how little ice surrounds it, a shocking and effective reminder of the fragility of the arctic ice in this time of global climate change. The film is full of beautiful images of the marine ecosystem, from narwhals to seals, which has the desired effect of making preserving this wildlife feel essential.
But Ressler’s focus is less on the marine ecosystem alone, but rather, on how the changes to the arctic ice have led to social and cultural changes among the Inuit in Canada and Greenland. We learn that the Inuit communities in both countries used to be closely connected by the ice that connected the two land masses, and have since been divided by its melting and the colonial borders imposed. Ressler spends time with community leaders to understand their stories, and how they’re attempting to revitalize culture and reclaim their cross-border connections.
The stories are certainly moving, and it’s rare and important to see the connections between melting ice, industrial development, and its effect on the Inuit. But I can’t help but feel unsettled by the colonialist lens in the film, which uses archival footage of the area shot by southern settlers without commentary. When there are so many talented Inuit filmmakers, it’s unfortunate that this story is being told by an outsider with preconceived notions.