Three documentaries directed by women — Wochiigii lo, Returning Home, and Coextinction —draw connections between environmental destruction, species extinction, and colonialism.
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A collection of documentaries on the film festival circuit in so-called Canada this fall make a harrowing case for the connections between environmental destruction, species extinction, and colonialism in British Columbia. Although all of these films are worthy views on their own, each film raises some issues that are dealt with in more depth in the other films, which makes back-to-back viewing particularly rewarding. Taken together, they draw a straight line from land theft and colonialism to Indigenous trauma, large-scale industrial projects, the disappearance of the salmon, and its effects on the food chain and Indigenous communities.
Wochiigi lo: End of the Peace
Haida filmmaker Heather Hatch’s Wochiigii lo: End of the Peace, which premiered at TIFF, though I caught it at Sudbury’s excellent CineFest, is a deep dive into the construction of the Site C hydro dam on the Peace River in British Columbia. From the beginnings of its development, it was clear that the dam would provide energy nobody needed, cost more money than it would ever earn back, and in the process, create major environmental destruction, especially through lands populated largely by Indigenous Peoples.
Hatch’s documentary charts the years-long fight, in courthouses and through protests on the ground, to stop the development of the dam. Hatch regularly cuts between the developments in the building project and Indigenous People’s ongoing fight to stop it, showing that destruction keeps happening even as the dam’s future is being debated. Hatch also connects this megaproject with a history of similar projects, like the Bennett Dam, which had major detrimental impacts on both the environment and Indigenous peoples.
T’exelc filmmaker and cinematographer Sean Stiller’s Returning Home begins with the story of Phyllis Jack-Webstad, the residential school survivor who founded Orange Shirt Day — which has since become Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Day — and turns into a story of the many ways colonisation has threatened Indigenous survival. Through testimonials from Jack-Webstad and her friends and family, Stiller shows us how residential schools created family fissures, tearing children away from their parents, subjecting them to unconscionable abuses, and causing intergenerational trauma. The film had its world premiere at the Calgary International Film Festival and also screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
Following Jack-Webstad back to her home in the Secwépemc territory near Williams Lake, Stiller teases out the links between the threatened salmon population along the Fraser River in the area and the threats to the Indigenous communities there. The Secwépemc depend on the salmon for sustenance, and see a direct link between the survival of the salmon and their own survival as individuals and as a culture. Overfishing has meant that salmon numbers are dwindling, and Stiller even follows a project to help the salmon get back upstream. In Coextinction, we learn that the disappearance of the salmon is not just from overfishing but from other colonial projects across Canada and the US.
Stiller, who shot and directed the film, captures the magnificence of the land and the animals that inhabit it. His shots of salmon swimming upstream are as awe-inspiring as those of the forest and sea, all of which serve as reminders of what’s at stake. The film also wisely intertwines the stories of the Secwépemc people and the land because they are inseparable: colonialism was about getting access to the resources of the land, destroying both the land and its people in the process. The survival of the Secwépemc people, we are reminded repeatedly, requires the survival of the natural ecosystem.
Settler filmmakers Gloria Pancrazi and Elena Jean began the making of Coextinction as a fight to protect the Southern Resident killer whales, of which there are less than one hundred left. In the process of trying to understand what threatens the killer whales, they discover the dangers of the excessive noise produced by the shipping lanes, which interfere with the killer whales’ ability to find their prey. But soon, they realise the problem is not just with being able to find the prey, but the existence of the prey at all.
These killer whales survive primarily off salmon, which Returning Home viewers will know are dwindling in numbers in the Pacific Northwest. Following the story behind the destruction of the salmon population lead Pancrazi and Jean to interact with many Indigenous leaders in the area. They also discover the detrimental effects of salmon farming (run by companies from outside of Canada). Their journey eventually leads them down to the States to discover how mega-dams (not unlike Site C) are obstructing the migratory path of the salmon population. They soon find, too, that killer whales aren’t the only species to depend on salmon; it’s an essential element of the food chain for many wildlife species as well as Indigenous Peoples.
Though Pancrazi and Jean’s film is more focused on the coextinction connections, the film does take detours to chart how ongoing colonialism is very much to blame for the destruction of the salmon population and extinction threats to animals up the food chain. They watch Indigenous protestors get unfairly targeted by the RCMP, and talk to Indigenous leaders about the consequences of colonialism on the destruction of the land, as well as on what they’re doing about it. Along the way, Pancrazi and Jean become part of the activism movement, and their passion both for the Southern Resident killer whales and for the movement are infectious.
Coextinction is the rare nature doc to connect multiple complex issues in order to explain how the survival of multiple species are connected and why we can’t narrowly focus on just, for example, saving the whales. The film also shows great respect for the Indigenous Peoples of the area, collaborating with them and featuring them in the film: they’re the experts on the land, and they are too often cut out of these stories. For example, the excellent Last of the Right Whales, which is about the near extinction of North Atlantic Right Whales on the East Coast, never consults or involves Indigenous Peoples of the area. Coextinction raises the issues of colonialism, encourages you to learn more, and Returning Home explores the consequences in more depth.
Perhaps because Coextinction is the story of Pancrazi and Jean’s own self-education about the Southern Resident killer whales, it never feels like an eat your vegetables lesson. Instead, the film plays like a mystery, full of exquisite images of the wildlife they’re discovering and trying to save. The film mixes a fascination for the killer whales with the on-the-ground action needed, even showing us the government consultation meetings where key decisions about their fate are made. It’s a testament to how everyone and everything is connected, a fun if harrowing ride, and will certainly make you want to visit BC and all of its amazing wildlife.
Coextinction screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival and the Mill Valley Film Festival.
Where to watch Coextinction and Wochiigii lo
Click here for tickets to Coextinction across Canada from Oct 14-24 at Planet in Focus
Click here for tickets to Wochiigii lo: End of the Peace across Canada from Oct 14-24 at Planet in Focus
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