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Entries in Environmental (3)

Wednesday
Jul172019

SHARKWATER EXTINCTION

With: Rob Stewart, Regi Domingo, Madison Stewart and William Flores.
Writer/Director: Rob Stewart

Screening at 2019 MELBOURNE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL on Saturday July 20 at 8.45pm.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

In the wake of activist filmmaker Rob Stewart’s 2006 film Sharkwater, affective and discernible change to the global trade in shark fin meat and industrial fishing practices was implemented; it became one of the most high-profile and impactful advocacy documentaries of the decade. That a sequel is even necessary a mere 13 years later is shameful, testament that capitalistic greed can resurrect itself with as much determination to survive as the great predators of the ocean. And given it also chronicles Stewart’s heartbreaking ascent to martyrdom makes Sharkwater Extinction a profound film-going experience.

The Canadian-born filmmaker takes a travelogue approach to exposing the perpetrators of illegal and/or immoral commercial shark culls. His return to Costa Rica exposes the 180° shift in the protection policies implemented a decade ago, revealing that 10,000s of Hammerhead Sharks are slaughtered in the species’ primary breeding grounds every year; in Cape Verde, West Africa, he accesses the industrial freezing vessels containing tonnes of rare Blue Shark carcasses; and, just off the wealthy real estate of Los Angeles’ coastline, he captures the dying breaths of sharks caught in outlawed longnet fishing traps.

Stewart is an understated screen presence, allowing his facts, figures and fearless footage to drill home the brutality of an industry bent on wiping out the very resource that sustains it. With fellow ocean conservation warriors by his side (including Australia’s ‘shark girl’, Madison Stewart, no relation), Stewart comes at the illicit industry from all angles. When not in the water, he is having fast food, pet meat and even cosmetics analysed to reveal shark meat levels; with the aid of the scientific community, he reveals the massive amount of pollutants and toxins that shark meat retains.

While the sequel certainly drills home a similar agenda to Sharkwater, Extinction unfolds in a manner that tonally feels like a traditional ‘ticking clock’ narrative. This perfectly suits the ‘countdown to oblivion’ theme, but also serves to slowly shift the focus of the film to the fate of Stewart himself; by the time the caption ‘The Last Dive’ appears on screen, the audience’s emotional involvement in both the plight of shark and the penultimate moments of their closest land ally are inexorably linked. Extinction opens with Stewart recollecting that first moment when death at sea first confronted him ("The number of times I've almost died, then ended up being okay," he says), and how it imbued in him the "Don't give up" ethos that drove him to fight for right.

Although Rob Stewart is credited as director, Sharkwater Extinction is most definitely not some self-aggrandizing farewell; friends and colleagues who had journeyed with him for much of his crusade completed the film in his absence. The final scenes serve as exactly the passionate call-to-action that the man himself was so skilful at crafting. Footage of him being at one with the creatures and seascapes he lived and fought for are as a profoundly inspiring as anything he had ever shot for the cause of shark conservation. They capture and honour a spirit that will live on in others.

Saturday
Apr012017

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Featuring: Mark Henderson, Sibylle Günter, Eric Lerner and Michael Lebarge.
Writer/director: Mila Aung-Thwin.

Rating: 4/5

Harnessing the power of the very star that ensures our planet’s survival provides a captivating premise for Mila Aung-Thwin’s documentary, Let There Be Light. Following driven, visionary scientists as they work towards the long-term goal of a global energy grid powered by hydrogen fusion technology, the Canadian-based filmmaker has crafted an elegant, insightful and entertaining work of understated urgency.

That urgency is conveyed in Aung-Thwin’s opening salvo of images. The sun is seen as a perfectly spherical mass, fizzing with energy. The clearly defined edge of our galaxy’s largest object is a stylistic representation that recalls the smallest - the atom, the building block of life. The director then morphs a series of earthbound images that mirror the same round shape, drone-shot from high above in an effective application of the ‘God’s Eye View’ camera perspective.

The message is clear; as fossil fuel reserves dwindle, the implementation of new, clean energies is an issue of biblical importance. Look no further than the film’s title for further evidence of that.

 
The primary focus is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project (I.T.E.R.), a massive undertaking that has drawn together great thinkers from 37 countries. The international body must solve the mammoth logistical and scientific task of constructing ‘Tokamak’, an ‘artificial sun’ that creates magnetically-charged hydrogen gas via the smashing together of immense heat and chilled water. The passion to find a fusion-based solution to our energy concerns is captured not only in the dedicated ITER team but also in their interaction with the fusion scientists working on the W7-X Stellerator, under the brilliant German physicist Sibylle Günter, and smaller-scale operations whose often eccentric but brilliant overseers are just as obsessed with the end goal.       

Tech talk is kept concise and focussed, the production more concerned with the scale of the undertaking and the personalities involved than providing tuition in thermonuclear physics. Aung-Thwin and his DOP/co-director Van Royko find beauty in the most unexpected places; amidst the steel and concrete vastness of the ITER construction site, chief scientist Mark Henderson connects with the workers who don’t fully understand what it is they are building but find pride knowing it is for future generations the world over. Man’s long struggle to conquer fusion practicalities dates back decades, a history captured in beautifully animated interstitials. 

Most rewardingly, Let There Be Light deals with the intellect of our finest minds in a warmly humanistic manner, with special regard for the hope they afford future generations. As one learned participant states with resonance, “We have to prove we have the intelligence to prevent our own extinction.” The stakes are high; not just for the ITER team, who deal daily with the pressures of commanding one of mankind’s most expensive scientific experiments but also for the population of Earth, whose survival depends upon the understanding, acceptance and implementation of a clean, renewable fuel source.

 

Wednesday
Jul062016

SUSTAINABLE

Director: Matt Wechsler.

Rating: 4/5

Through strong voices and high production values, the modern documentary genre is demanding that the global population counter the abuse and exploitation of our resources by mass industry. It is the turn of the mega-farming practices of ‘Big Agriculture’ to be exposed in Matt Wechsler’s Sustainable, an elegant, deeply empathic study of the Earth under corporate siege and the pockets of community landowners determined to turn the tide.

Over the last decade, potent statements have been made by factual filmmakers against the mining sector (Gasland, 2010; Frackman, 2015), the automotive industry (Who Killed the Electric Car?, 2006), financial giants (Inside Job, 2010; Enron The Smartest Guys in the Room, 2010) and technology manipulators (Terms and Conditions May Apply, 2013; Zero Days, 2016), not to mention the cage-rattling oeuvre of agitator Michael Moore. Industrial agriculture, such as that spotlighted by Sustainable, has come under fire before, in passionate works such as Fresh (2009), We Feed the World (2005), Food Chains (2014) and Food Inc. (2008).

Wechsler maintains the rage by highlighting nearly a century of chemical-based mass produce output and the shocking damage it has done to the American farming landscape. However, Wechsler and producer Annie Speichler, the principals behind Hourglass Films, hone their lens on the more personal narrative of Marty Travis, an Illinois farmer and businessman who has reclaimed his family heritage and undertaken to rejuvenate both the soil upon which he farms and the community in which he resides. The title implies hardline ecological beliefs, but also comes to represent a preserving and maintaining of America's proud farming history.

The filmmakers suggest that the future of America’s agriculture industry and, by association, the healthy longevity of the population is tied to men and women like Travis; masters of traditional farming methods that need to be re-employed with a smarter, more holistic approach to the paddock-to-plate cycle. This extends to big-city restaurant owners and chefs, who deal directly with the new wave of primary producers and take an active role in the production of their key ingredients and the lives of their suppliers. 

The film acknowledges that the crucial mechanisms necessary to fix the damage are in its infancy. The breadth of change required to feed the world via sustainable methods is unlikely to happen in the next half-century, but that the science and those willing to apply it do exist and are at the forefront of positive change. It also pitches a convincing line in economic attainability, in an effort to silence naysayers who say changing the industrial paradigm is beyond the nation's means.

Aesthetically, Sustainable is at the high-end of the talking-heads/advocacy genre. Fluid camerawork and golden-hued lensing capture the spiritual essence of the rural setting, further strengthening the key thematic strands of tradition, community and hope. Wechsler keeps the science garble to an effective minimum, often employing simple animation and strong personalities to get information across. The obligatory call-to-action interstitial that is de rigueur for the modern doco, often overstating a filmmaker’s agenda, feels entirely earned in this instance; Sustainable brings a level-headed, humanistic and vital perspective to mankind’s relationship with the planet.

Sustainable screens at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, July 9-11. Ticket and session information can be found at the event's official website.