Environment

RIDM presents Behemoth, a Chinese documentary about an environmental nightmare

Zhao Liang's documentary film Behemoth shows how parts of Inner Mongolia have been destroyed by coal mining.

Zhao Liang’s documentary film Behemoth shows how parts of Inner Mongolia have been destroyed by coal mining.

RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival, takes place in November, but festival organizers keep the doc spirit alive throughout the year with monthly screenings at Cinema du Parc.

The selection for Thursday, May 26, 2016, is the Chinese film Behemoth, from director Zhao Liang.

Behemoth looks at the human and environmental devastation created by coal mining in Inner Mongolia. The landscape is scarred and ugly, while the men have blackened faces and hands. Imagine what their lungs must look like. We don’t see any chest X-rays in the trailer, but we do see them cough and struggle for breath. We see some hooked up to oxygen tanks, too.

The sooty face of a coal miner in Zhao Liang's documentary film Behemoth.

The sooty face of a coal miner in Zhao Liang’s documentary film Behemoth.

That coal powers smoky, noisy, iron foundries and steel plants that glow with red-hot heat like a vision of hell. In fact, Zhao Liang took inspiration from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which sees the Florentine poet travel to Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Behemoth uses excerpts from the poem in place of dialogue.

Foundry employees work with molten metal in Zhao Liang's documentary film Behemoth.

Foundry employees work with molten metal in Zhao Liang’s documentary film Behemoth.

I have read more than 10 reviews of Behemoth and they were all extremely enthusiastic. Here are quotes from a few of them.

Variety’s Jay Weissberg says Behemoth is: “stunningly lensed. . .impressively self-shot poetic exercise in controlled righteous outrage. . .”

In the New York Times, Amy Qin writes: “documentary combines with art film to produce a powerful testament to the human and environmental costs of coal mining and consumption in China, the world’s biggest user of coal and the leading emitter of greenhouse gases from coal.”

In Screen Daily,  Lee Marshall writes: “Vast swathes of once-pristine Mongolian prairieland have, in the last couple of decades, become scarred and brutalised by open-cast coal mines, iron foundries and generating stations, with thousands of desperate Chinese migrant workers brought in to feed the insatiable demand for disposable, low-paid manpower to keep them operating. That’s the background to Zhao Liang’s remarkable, powerful film Behemoth (Beixi moshuo), a sort of ‘dream documentary’ set in this ravaged landscape but liberally inspired by Dante. Behemoth achieves much of its authority from the way the images comment wordlessly on a world in which humans are reduced to the status of servants of a vast, unfeeling industrial system.”

“. . .But it’s Behemoth’s final sequence, almost devoid of human figures, that is, paradoxically the most shocking. It shows a Mongolian ghost new-town, with its serried ranks of residential skyscrapers. These are all empty, we soon realise – as are the streets that surround them. Empty, that is, except for teams of migrant-worker street sweepers – one of whom chases after a drift of tumbleweed that has entered the shot, and tidies it away. Refreshingly undidactic, Behemoth leaves us to work out that, after hell and purgatory, this empty metropolis, made by the industrial monster that ravages the steppes, and the sweat and blood of those who serve it, is the film’s tragic, ironic heaven.”

Another Screen Daily writer, Wendy Ide, put Behemoth on her list of best films of 2015. She writes: “Behemoth (Beixi Moshuo) makes me forever grateful I write about films for a living and don’t have to pick bits of molten pig iron out of my skin at the end of each working day.”

Behemoth, Le Dragon Noir, 90 minutes long, with French subtitles
Thursday, May 26, 2016 at 8 p.m.
Cinéma du Parc, 3575 Av. du Parc
To avoid disappointment, consider buying your tickets online, here on Cinéma du Parc’s web site.

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FNC 2015 Review: Eco thriller La Tierra Roja looks at the evils of big business in Argentina

Ana (Eugenia Ram’rez Miori, in the orange skirt) and Pierre (Geert Van Rampelberg, in the black T-shirt) take part in a march against the use of toxic chemicals and the oppression of workers, in the film La Tierra Roja. It's a co-production between Belgium and Argentina that's being shown as part of the Festival du nouveau cinema.

Ana (Eugenia Ram’rez Miori, in the orange skirt) and Pierre (Geert Van Rampelberg, in the black T-shirt) take part in a march against the use of toxic chemicals and the oppression of workers, in the film La Tierra Roja. It’s a co-production between Belgium and Argentina that’s being shown as part of the Festival du nouveau cinema.

La Tierra Roja is a Belgium-Argentina co-production, shot in Argentina’s Misiones province. It’s fiction, but based on fact. Viewers in Argentina probably see it as a “ripped from the headlines” type of film.

Pierre works for a multinational company that cuts down trees and runs a sawmill and paper plant in northeast Argentina. In his spare time, he coaches a rugby team, and carries on an affair with Ana, a school teacher, who also works a small local medical centre. Pierre finds himself in an awkward position after Ana alerts him to the fact that his company’s use of herbicides is causing cancer, miscarriages, birth defects, learning disabilities and other problems among the workers and their families. The fish hauled from the river have strange bumps on their heads.

The government supports the company with subsidies; the governor will not even meet with Dr. Balza, who has been documenting all the health problems in the area.

When Dr. Balza presents the results of his research at an information meeting for the locals, Pierre’s superiors do what such people usually do – they claim that the man is lying, the chemicals are safe, and hey, what about all these wonderful jobs they are providing? (Even if they are dangerous and dirty.) Where have we heard this before? One worker points out that the company is employing 1,000 but poisoning one million. (Is that the price of progress?) After the doctor is murdered, Pierre realizes that he must take a stand.

While the good-guy/bad-guy situation is presented in a black-and-white manner (and quite justifiably so) the environemnt is quite colourful. The earth is indeed red in La Tierra Roja, in sharp contrast to the lush green forest. Ana’s house is a bright pink, and a local bar is purple. She wears an orange dress when she rides her horse to school.

La Tierra Roja is fiction, but I have seen my share of documentaries exploring similar situations in many countries of the world. We used to have a Human Rights Film Festival here in Montreal; we don’t have one any longer, but the Cinema Politica film series at Concordia University exposes problems like this on a regular basis.

La Tierra Roja has a Facebook page at   www.facebook.com/LaTierraRojaFilm/  It seems that the film was shown to residents of El Soberbio in Misiones just a few days ago. Read more about the film and other ecological problems in Argentina on that page.

La Tierra Roja
Argentina, Belgium | 104 minutes | 2015
Original version in Spanish, with English subtitles
Directed by Diego Martínez Vignatti, with Geert Van Rampelberg, Eugenia Ramírez Miori, Jorge Aranda, Alexandros Potamianos

Friday, Oct. 16, 2015, 17:00
Program #237
Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin, Salle 10, 350 Emery St. (Berri-UQAM metro)
Visit the FNC web site for more info about La Tierra Roja

The Festival du nouveau cinéma runs from Oct. 7- Oct. 18, 2015.

Cinema Politica presents This Changes Everything on Monday, Oct. 5, and Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis will be there

THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING1

Montrealers can see the important documentary film about climate change, This Changes Everything, at 7 p.m., on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, at Concordia University (1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., Room H-110) thanks to the organization Cinema Politica. Writer Naomi Klein and director Avi Lewis will be there. Suggested donation is $10 – $20. That’s probably all the information many of you will need. For others, I hope the review below will make you want to see it.

It’s all about the story – the story that we’ve been told, the story that we tell ourselves, the story that we believe. That story might be so firmly engrained in us that we never even think about it, or question it.

And that story is, that the Earth is a machine, and that mankind can and should manipulate its levers. The unfortunate results of that thinking can be seen all around us.

Changing the story is the first step toward changing our lives, our future and the life of this planet that we all depend upon.

After some opening shots of hurricanes, parched earth, polar bears and crumbling, tumbling ice bergs, This Changes Everything takes us to the ugly and monstrous tars sands of Fort McMurray, “the largest industrial project on Earth.” Would the citizens of any large city like Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal accept such a huge and destructive project if it were in their own backyard? Somehow I doubt it. But the tar sands are far away and the local population is small. Later in the film, such a place is called a “sacrifice zone.”

One worker claims: “If not for the oil sands, there’d be nothing to come here for.” Then the camera shows us some stunning scenery – a majestic river flowing through a pine forest.It might be difficult for the average person to get up there, but many people would enjoy seeing it, or just knowing that such a place exists.

When we’re told that $150 to $200 billion would be invested there over the next decade, I couldn’t help but wonder what could be accomplished if that kind of money was spent on sustainable development instead.

The abuse of the English language and the twisted metaphors used by some of the people in this film – you have to hear them to believe them. I predict gasps, laughter, boos and hisses at various points during the screening of This Changes Everything.

One guy has the nerve to frame the tar sands project this way: “We’re cleaning up one of the largest oil spills on earth.” There are claims that the area will be brought back to its original state 20 years from now. Tailing ponds will be cleaned and, “you’ll be able to drink the water.” I’d really like to believe that, but I just can’t.

Meanwhile, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation has filed a court case to stop any further exploration, since the oil sands are under their traditional land and the present project has already done so much damage to their lives.

I won’t describe the whole film in detail, but I will say that it visits activists in Montana, New York state, India, Greece, China and Germany. People are standing up, complaining, saying “No!” to rampant development, demanding their rights and a new way of doing things.

While Klein does not present Germany as a perfect place, she produces some impressive statistics (30 per cent of Germany’s electricity comes from renewables, emissions are down, employment is up, etc.) Could Canada do the same? Especially if we can elect a new government in a few weeks?

Speaking of our country, as a Canadian, I’m embarrassed and distressed to see a Canadian mining company throwing its weight around in Greece, eager to get its corporate mitts on the gold there. My apologies to you, people of Halkidiki. And shame on you, mayor of Halkidiki, who dismissed the intimidation and arrests of protestors when he said: “the police don’t knock on doors without a reason; they don’t knock on yours or mine.”

This woman in Halkidiki, Greece, opposes a Canadian gold mine in her area.

This woman in Halkidiki, Greece, opposes a Canadian gold mine in her area.

This Changes Everything, the film, is a companion piece to Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. They were created at the same time, the film is not based on the book.

I think it’s quite wise that the subhead, “Capitalism vs. the Climate” is not attached to the film – why alienate some of your potential audience right off the bat? As far as I can recall, the word “market,” as a synonym for capitalism, is not heard until 27 minutes into the film, and capitalism itself is not mentioned until 45 minutes in, when Greek activist Mary Christianou identifies it as the core problem. She’s initially reluctant to even say so on camera, because: “I don’t know if it helps the struggle.”

In reviewing the book, some writers suggest that “neo-liberalism” is more to blame for many of our present ills than capitalism alone. Abandoning the belief that all the resources of the Earth, the metals, the coal, the gas and the oil must be extracted, and that the Earth itself is just a machine that we can be trusted to run, seem like easier first steps on the path to change.

This screen grab from the documentary film This Changes Everything shows India buried under "Proposed Coal-Fired Power Plants."

This screen grab from the documentary film This Changes Everything shows India buried under “Proposed Coal-Fired Power Plants.”

This Changes Everything will be shown on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, 7 p.m., at
1455 de Maisonneuve West, Room H110, Concordia University, Montreal, QC.
Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis will be there for a Q&A session after the film.

There’s a Facebook page for the screening of This Changes Everything.

Visit thischangeseverything.org to learn more about the book, the film, and what you can do.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud will present his Chinese film Wolf Totem twice on Saturday, August 29

In the Chinese film Wolf Totem, Chen Zhen (played by William Feng Shaofeng) adopts a wolf pup, against the wishes of his Mongolian mentor.

In the Chinese film Wolf Totem, Chen Zhen (played by William Feng Shaofeng) adopts a wolf pup, against the wishes of his Mongolian mentor.

Wolf Totem is a Chinese film with a Chinese cast, based on a Chinese book, shot by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud.

The 2004 novel Wolf Totem was an international best-seller. It was translated into more than 30 langauges, sold millions of copies, and won the Man Asia Literary Prize in 2007. It was based on the experiences of author Lu Jiamin (writing under the pen name of Jiang Rong) who lived among the semi-nomadic herders of Inner Mongolia for 11 years, beginning in the late 1960s. He was one of the millions of students who were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

The landscapes in the Chinese film Wolf Totem are stunning.

The landscapes in the Chinese film Wolf Totem are stunning.

The author’s alter ego, Chen Zhen, learns a lot about the herders’ traditional way of life, and the fear, respect and admiration they have for the wolves who share the grasslands with them. Some of the book’s dialogue sounds more like one-sided lectures than true conversations; even so, it’s a fascinating read. Politicians living far, far away make cringe-inducing decisions of the “this-will-not-end-well” kind – to set up large farms, to encourage the immigration of Han Chinese, and to slaughter all the wolves.

Chen Zhen (played by William Feng Shaofeng) develops a fascination with the wolves, and adopts a young pup, going against the wishes and advice of his Mongolian mentor, Bilig.

While an official announcement hasn’t yet been made, several news articles say that Wolf Totem will be China’s entry in the race for an Academy Award.

Wolf Totem has two Canadian connections. One is actor Shawn Dou, who plays Chen Zhen’s friend and colleague Yang Ke. He moved from China to Vancouver with his parents when he was 10 years old, and returned to China in 2008 to study acting.

During the filming of Wolf Totem, a wolf named Cloudy became very fond of director Jean-Jacques Annaud.

During the filming of Wolf Totem, a wolf named Cloudy became very fond of director Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Animal trainer Andrew Simpson was an integral part of the film. He was born in Scotland, but has run his business, Instinct Animals for Film, from a ranch north of Calgary, Alberta, since 1994. While he and his partner, Sally Jo Sousa, work with many kinds of animals, they specialize in wolves. But North American and Eurasian wolves are quite different, so they could not use the wolves they already had. They spent more than three years in China, training Mongolian wolves for their roles in the film. They got five-week-old wolf pups from a zoo and raised them in their Beijing apartment, giving them their constant attention. You can read more about that process, and see photos of Simpson cuddling the wolf puppies, in this 2012 article from The Telegraph, which calls Simpson a “wolf whisperer.” A Calgary Herald article from last year indicates that after the film was completed, he brought 16 of the wolves to the Calgary ranch. In 2013 Simpson made Wolves Unleashed, a documentary about working with wolves; you can buy it from iTunes for $19.99

 

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud, left, and animal trainer Andrew Simpson with some of the trained wolves from the Chinese film Wolf Totem.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud, left, and animal trainer Andrew Simpson with some of the trained wolves from the Chinese film Wolf Totem.

Wolf Totem, in Mandarin and Mongolian with English subtitles,  will be shown as part of the Festival des films du monde / Montreal World Film Festival on:

Saturday Aug. 29, 2015 – 7 p.m. – CINÉMA IMPÉRIAL
Saturday Aug. 29, 2015 – 9:30 p.m. – CINÉMA IMPÉRIAL, 1430 Bleury St., Montreal, Quebec, H3A 2J1

Wolf Totem
Director : Jean-Jacques Annaud
Screenwriter : Alain Godard, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Lu Wei, John Collee. D’après le roman de/Based on the novel by: Jiang Rong
Cinematographer : Jean-Marie Dreujou
Editor : Reynald Bertrand
Cast : Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou, Ankhnyam Ragchaa, Yin Zhusheng, Basen Zhabu
Music : James Horner
Film production and Sales : Prod.: Max Wang, Xu Jianhai, China Film Co., Ltd. / Beijing Forbidden City Film Co., Ltd.
Festival des films du monde / Montreal World Film Festival continues until Sept. 7, 2015. Consult the festival’s web site for more information.

 

Documentary film How to Save the World examines the early days of Greenpeace

A Russian whaling ship towers over protesting members of Greenpeace.

A Russian whaling ship towers over protesting members of Greenpeace.

 

RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival, takes place in November. But outside of that framework, RIDM’s Docville series presents a film at Excentris on the last Thursday of the month.

The selection for May, How To Change the World looks at the early days of Greenpeace. The non-governmental environmental organization now has branches in 41 countries, but it got its start in Vancouver, B.C., back in the 1970s.

Long before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, smart phones, and widespread access to the World Wide Web, Greenpeace activists were able to galvanize the public against the testing of nuclear weapons, and the killing of whales and baby seals. They famously vowed to place themselves between the harpoons of fishermen and the whales those fishermen were hunting. Look at the trailer below, to see how vulnerable the Greenpeace members were, bobbing on the ocean waves in their small, inflatable boats while huge whaling ships loomed over them.

How To Change the World is a Canada-U.K. co-production, directed by Jerry Rothwell. Rothwell was blessed with access to many hours of original 16 mm footage that had been shot by cinematographer Ron Precious near the beginning of his career. In an interview with IndieWire, Precious says: “We got some great images for sure, like [Greenpeace co-founder] Paul Watson on the back of a dead whale. These are images that become iconic. For me, they’re some of my proudest moments. My entire career in film, nothing tops that. What gave me the most satisfaction was the days doing that work with Greenpeace.”

Canadian hippie journalists, photographers, musicians, scientists, and U.S. draft dodgers were among the people who created Greenpeace.

Canadian hippie journalists, photographers, musicians, scientists, and U.S. draft dodgers were among the people who created Greenpeace.

In his Director’s Notes, Rothwell writes: “The group had a prescient understanding of the power of media, knowing that capturing the perfect image was the most powerful weapon of all. But their footage richly evokes not only the dramatic actions they undertook, but their friendships and conflicts, dilemmas and decisions – a sometimes crazy mix of psychedelia and politics, science and theatre.”

In addition to dealing with dramatic public actions by Greenpeace, the film goes behind the scenes to document the internal workings of the group and disagreements and power struggles between three of the founders Paul Watson, Patrick Moore and Bob Hunter.

The film’s soundtrack includes music from Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, Canned Heat and Country Joe and the Fish.

How To Change the World had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and has been shown at many other festivals since then, including Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival, DOXA in Vancouver, theTrue/False Film Fest in Columbia, Mo., and the EcoFilm Festival in Portland, Ore. Future screenings will take place in San Francisco, Sheffield, England, Sydney and Canberra, Australia, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Oakville, Ontario.

Embed from Getty Images

Will Jackson, left, Bous De Jong, Bobbi Hunter, Al Morrow, director Jerry Rothwell, John Murray, Rex Wyler and Emily Hunter at How To Change The World premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2015 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for Sundance)

 

HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD
Directed by Jerry Rothwell. Canada/United Kingdom. 2015. 112 min. In the original English.
Thursday, May 28, 8 p.m., Cinéma Excentris, 3536 St Laurent Blvd.

Tickets can be bought online.

For more information, visit the How to Change the World Facebook page, or the How to Change the World web site.