• If the events of Cold War documentary Command and Control hadn’t actually happened, you might think it was made up. On September 18, 1980, a PTS (Propellant Transfer System) team working on a nuclear missile in Damascus, Arkansas, accidentally dropped a metal socket in the silo. It punctured the fuel tank and set off a potentially catastrophic chain of events: the 9Mt thermonuclear warhead on the Titan II missile was capable of annihilating 10 million people.
Robert Kenner, who previously directed Food, Inc., uses artful reconstructions, together with candid interviews with those involved, from up and down the chain of command, to create a riveting and scary-as-hell account of the incident. Chillingly, the film also illustrates how this “broken arrow” – to borrow Air Force lingo – is just the tip of a pile of hundreds of nuclear weapon accidents that have occurred out of sight and mind.
In Freightened: The Real Price of Shipping, director Denis Delestrac posits that society suffers collective “seablindness” to practices in the global shipping industry. From the jacket in a shop made from materials that have travelled 48,000km for the price of a transit ticket, to the oil spills, shipwrecks and huge carbon footprint, the industry is flying under the radar. We cannot fathom the volume of illicit goods – potentially dirty bombs – circulating in container traffic.
Delestrac seems most riled by the coterie of secretive shipping magnates, who cut corners and costs by sailing their fleets under a “flag of convenience.” Under this topsy-turvy system, Mongolia and Bolivia, which have no coastline, have some of the world’s biggest fleets, while Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands are top funders for the UN agency responsible for shipping regulation.
In spite of a tendency to press its point too forcefully, this is a welcome look at the social and ecological impact of shipping; it is especially relevant in Vancouver and BC, given the huge increases in oil, LNG and coal shipping being planned.
Carl-A. Fechner’s Power to Change: The Energy Rebellion also calls shipping offside for its carbon footprint (equivalent to Germany’s), but its main focus is on solutions. Stars of the show are the engineers and entrepreneurs of the Energiewende(Germany’s “energy transition”), who are trailblazing renewables development with teutonic zeal and determination. Not afraid to get technical, it covers a variety of projects from straw pellets to replace fossil fuels, to giant battery power plants that are being created from de-commissioned nuclear power plants, to show how the big obstacle to climate action is not lack of technical know-how but political will.
Strangers on the Earth is another documentary that follows an ensemble of characters, this time walking the medieval pilgrim trail across the North of Spain. I met my wife on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela so I’m always curious to see filmmakers’ treatment of it. Accomplished cellist Dane Johansen, following in the footsteps of Canadian violinist Oliver Schroer, sets off with cello on back to record Bach’s Cello Suites along the way. While his uplifting, mellifluous soundtrack combines well with evocative imagery of pilgrims doing the time-honoured trail during its summer peak, the film struggles to connect at a deeper level. Some editing decisions distract and Johansen’s own self-revelations are lost in the mix of pilgrim voices, from the poetic to banal.
When Two Worlds Collide will resonate with British Columbia audiences. The documentary looks at a bloody period of conflict between indigenous Amazonians and government over land rights and resource exploitation in the Peruvian Amazon. The doc closely follows charismatic native leader Alberto Pizango, who conveys a sadly familiar story of ecological loss and government duplicity. It provides good coverage of the government side through excellent use of archival footage and recent interviews to show how a tense standoff quickly escalated.
On my list to see is the latest from BC’s Nettie Wild, KONELINE: our land beautiful, a poetic take on the conflict between resource development and the traditional way of life of the Tahltan Nation in Northern BC. It won Best Documentary Feature at Hot Docs so it’s bound to be popular.
Vancouver International Film Festival (viff.org) runs September 29-October 14.
Robert Alstead made the climate justice documentary Running On Climate, runningonclimate.com