With his director Jonathan Taggart, producer Phillip Viannini spent two years documenting the off-grid existence of the sustainable communities in some of Canada’s most extreme wilderness. The result is Life Off Grid, a picturesque and profound insight into the commitment needed to live disconnected from the accepted fossil fuel-driven culture of western society. A Professor and Research Chair at Royal Roads University in Victoria, Canada, Viannini (pictured, below) spoke to SCREEN-SPACE about the vast range of personalities his lens captured, the harsh realities of off-grid living and what Australia can do to further the off-grid cause…
When did you first become aware of the Lasqueti Island ‘Off Grid’ movement, whose residents are central to Life Off Grid?
I visited an off-grid home for the first time in 2008 whilst researching small island lifestyles and I became fascinated by the idea of living in such a different home. Where I live, the Salish Sea archipelago, many islands are off-grid and even those on-grid make use of renewable energy and practice sustainable living. I was first exposed to the Lasqueti community by a student of mine who, incidentally, now lives in Australia. When Jon and I travelled to Lasqueti for the first time I had already visited a few homes on Vancouver Island.
Via beautiful widescreen images, you capture some extreme locales at their most photogenic. How did you settle on the aesthetics of your film?
Jon and I discussed the aesthetics of the film throughout our travels. We operated on a very small budget and, like many off-gridders--we had to make virtue out of necessity and sought beauty in simplicity. Everything we needed had to be carried by us, on our backs and hands. To get places, we had to bike, canoe, kayak, skidoo, walk, or fly small bush planes. We often stayed at off-grid cabins that we rented for the duration of our travels. Recharging batteries at the end of the day wasn't always easy so we had to carry as little equipment as we needed to recharge. So what you see is the result of a ‘Spartan’ aesthetics: one that would be as mundane as the images and sounds we captured, and therefore one as unassuming and genuine. That's why we have no aerial scenes, no camera tricks, no flashy stuff. We just let our eyes and ears dwell on what was before us--whether that was a live tree or a piece of firewood--and let that come to life.
How has off-grid living benefitted the Lasqueti community in a ‘human’ sense? How has this living improved their outlook on life?
Practicing an off-grid lifestyle teaches anyone that life isn't easy. It's not meant to be easy. The notion that easy living, extreme comfort, and constant convenience are somehow a modern right--a cornerstone of consumer society and culture--makes absolutely no sense when you live off-grid. Whatever you get, you have to work for. And that has an interesting effect: work's results are more pleasant, easier to enjoy. Anyone who grows their own food will tell you the same thing: vegetables and fruits taste better when you work hard to grow them yourself. Living off grid is not simple, at all, but it allows you to enjoy and cultivate the simple pleasures that your labour yields.
Has experiencing such commitment to the cause changed your views on the sustainable, off-grid culture?
It has taught both Jon and I that everything has a cost. Before I began this project I would give no thought whatsoever to simple domestic acts such as using a toaster or a microwave. Now I know how many watts/hours those appliances draw. And I am aware of the sources of electricity that generate those watts. I can tell you the precise dams that feed my house. And I know what those dams do to the local ecology.
Some of your subjects are intellectuals, academic types, who have embraced sustainable living philosophies largely because they are financially able to do so. Is off-grid ever going to be an option for the layman?
I can only recall one academic we interviewed. The reality is that most of the 200 or so people we spoke with are carefully self-taught. They're DIY craftsmen and craftswomen who have taught themselves how to wire their house or collect water or build a compost toilet. Some of these people were financially stable. Others lived below the poverty line. Most were middle class. Off-grid living is an option for anyone who is willing to (learn), regardless of income. If you want 50 coastal acres in British Columbia and require a 4 KW/h system to answer your every domestic wish then you'll need a substantial amount of capital. (But) if you can live on a 10acre lot in the prairies and can get by with less than 1 KW/h, you can still live below the poverty line but have richer existence than most people who live on the grid.
Australia seems ideally suited to off-grid acceptance. What are the steps that government bodies and commercial interests can take to inspire action?
Having just visited Tasmania, I was impressed by the solar panels I saw everywhere. I know how much Australians have worked to make their water consumption sustainable. Like Canada, Australia has a densely concentrated population in a few regions and beyond that, there are massive rural and remote lands where the grid simply isn't an option. With the acceptance of a couple of provinces, Canada does little to encourage renewable energy generation, yet it still subsidizes and promotes fossil fuel harvesting. Australia could learn from Canada's bad example and invest more, much more than Canada can possibly do, in the biggest source of energy it has: the sun. Last time I checked on my travels, there was a lot of that.
Life Off Grid will be released in Australia via TUGG Distribution on simultaneous theatrical and VOD platforms on February 4.