Monday, September 13, 2010

Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie

Non-Canadians might not be aware of who David Suzuki is, but for Canadians, he is a household name. A scientist, broadcaster and environmentalist, Suzuki has for years hosted a science program on the CBC called The Nature of Things. Suzuki is passionately devoted to the environment and has done much to highlight the problems facing us through his work and through his organization, the The David Suzuki Foundation.

Force of Nature, the latest film from director Sturla Gunnarsson (who's Beowulf and Grendel I saw previously at the festival), takes a slightly different focus with Suzuki than we're used to seeing. Rather than just be science film, Gunnarsson weaves excerpts from Suzuki presenting his "Legacy Lecture" with insights into his personal life, influences and the evolution of his activism. Suzuki talks in the first-person about his childhood in the internment camps for Japanese-Canadians during World War II, his work for the US government as a scientist during the Cold War, his obsession with research during the 60's and 70's, his eventual shift to TV, and his increasing involvement in environmental concerns.

Suzuki is quite open and honest with how his experiences influenced him. How his isolation in childhood, being between two worlds, not quite Japanese, and not quite accepted as Canadian, drove his initial interest in the natural world. How his drive to write the perfect paper resulted in long hours in the lab which would eventually lead to divorce from his first wife. How a conversation with a student initially sparked him to look at the responsibility scientists have for how their basic research may eventually be applied. How reporting on the Haida's efforts to stop logging in the Queen Charlotte Islands crystallized his thoughts on how humanity and nature are intrinsically linked to one another.

Having grown up watching The Nature of Things on CBC, and coming from a similar cultural background, the film really resonated with me. Suzuki, and by extension the film, did a good job at highlighting the pivotal events in his life that shaped and directed his opinions and beliefs, and you could clearly understand and appreciate why he is so passionate and driven to sound the call about our impact on this planet. I think this makes the film even more effective than just a simple presentation of his lecture would be.

For anyone who got nostalgic when they played the old theme music from the show, here's a link to the opening.

Director Sturla Gunnarsson and David Suzuki himself were at the screening and did a Q&A after the film:

  • When asked where the hope is today, Suzuki replied that the environmental movement alone is not enough. If we reach out to human rights, social justice, and peace movements, it creates a very broad tent to include all of these issues, making a big movement that would be hard to ignore.
  • He continued that he is afraid if you look at our own actions, Canada ratified Kyoto, but you never hear about it anymore. Most countries that have ratified will meet their targets, but Canada elected a law-and-order PM who obviously doesn't give a s--- about international law and said he wasn't going to do anything about Kyoto.
  • Having said all that, Suzuki thinks the hope is that we will have a broad tent and the public will do something. It looks to him that unfortunately it may take more Katrina-like events before we get serious about making change.
  • The hope is that we can imagine a future; we always have. Knowing based on our past we can use our experience to see where the danger lies, where the opportunities lie, and imagine a different way of going.
  • When asked if the participation of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) guarantees wide distribution, Gunnarsson said it's really Entertainment One, the top distributor in the country, that guarantees that. The film opens October 1, 2010 in Toronto and Ottawa, and 2 weeks later across the country.
  • The CBC guarantees it will be seen on TV in 2011, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of The Nature of Things. The NFB will ensure the film will travel far and wide in international and educational markets. Planet Green will ensure the film will be seen in the US.
  • When asked about what hope do we have with the world's spiralling population, Suzuki said that we are way over the capacity of the planet to sustain us indefinitely. 1/5th of the world's population (the developed world) consumes 80% of the planet's resources and produces well over 80% of the toxic waste sent back into the biosphere. If we have too many people, the solution will not be to get rid of them or forget about them. The opportunity we have is to reduce the hyperconsumption in the developed world. All the stuff we consume, a lot of it should be utilized by the developing world to bring them up as we radically reduce our consumption. Hyperconsumption and population are the two driving factors undermining the future.
  • He never thought he would be in this role, leading the charge. He always thought of himself as a messenger, transmitting information out to everyone else to exploit. He gets a lot of people coming up to him, saying they support his foundation for which he is very grateful, but then may say, "boy, am I glad you're out there doing that," as if that is somehow enough. We all have to be involved; every day we are doing things, making decisions, that are all adding up to the impact on the planet. Becoming aware is only the first step, we all have to become more directly involved. It's very rewarding when you start down a different path.
  • Co-executive producer Laszlo Barna first contacted Gunnarsson to ask him to meet David Suzuki to discuss doing a project together. Gunnarsson wasn't sure at first, but Barna was very persuasive. Suzuki wanted to do a film about the meaning of life and the history of time back to the Big Bang and moving through to the present. They had many discussions about making a popular science movie, but as discussions unfolded, Gunnarsson became more interested in Suzuki himself. What emerged was a film that dealt with the relationship between David, his character, his life story, and his ideas.
  • Suzuki continued that he himself is not a filmmaker, it was really Gunnarsson's film. Suzuki couldn't see where this direction was going to go. He kept thinking in terms of his work in television, where you start with something and have to explicitly link everything together. In film, it's a different audience when someone has paid $10 to sit in a seat for an hour-and-a-half. They are going to be looking at it in a different way than someone watching television.
  • What excited Suzuki was that Gunnarsson has given the audience a lot of credit by exposing them to his ideas and letting them think about it and put them together. It doesn't have to be driven like in TV where you tell the audience something and the repeat it again and again to drive it home.
  • Gunnarsson said that with every documentary film, there is a process of getting engaged and building trust. After the first few shoots, he realized he was on the right track when he would ask Suzuki a question and Suzuki would respond to him and not the camera.
  • On the topic of the music in the film, Gunnarsson said that right from the beginning he was so taken by the fact that Suzuki has been at the centre of all these major turning points in the 20th and now 21st centuries, so he always imagined in part the film would be a trip through modern history and imagined using pop music from different eras.
  • He didn't know exactly which songs he would use, but one tune he did want was a Neil Young song for the opening, but it fell through. He says that was his good fortune, because he got Jonathan Goldsmith to do a version of "Hard Rain" he really liked.


Check-out this interactive piece from the NFB. Watch David Suzuki connect all 7 billion of us.

My experiences at the Toronto International Film Festival. Note this blog is not affiliated with the Toronto International Film Festival Group or the festival itself.
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