Planet in Focus Isn't Just for Activists
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Planet in Focus Isn’t Just for Activists

The long-running environmentalist film festival enters its teens.

Still from Lost Rivers.

Early in Caroline Bâcle’s Lost Rivers, screening during the opening-night gala of the 13th annual edition of the Planet in Focus film festival, an environmentalist artist describes his work uncovering hidden rivers in urban centres as an effort to introduce the “face of water” to the public. As idiosyncratic as that project sounds, it’s also a good description of the work Planet in Focus itself does. It’s a festival bent on spotlighting environmental causes that are otherwise unlikely to get mainstream traction.

Far from simply offering an apocalyptic forecast of planetary doom and gloom, the films included in Planet in Focus take pride in introducing audiences to forgotten aspects of the natural world. Bâcle’s film is a good example. Serious as it is, it’s light on the didacticism expected of environmentally conscious documentaries ever since An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar. Instead, Bâcle delivers a lively and intelligent profile of a loose international coalition of “drainers”: explorers who navigate the messy world of underground rivers that flow through the drainage pipes of big cities. Through these intrepid subjects (and a host of informal interviews with chatty academics) the film gives a sense of what cities can do in order to reintegrate bodies of water into their landscapes, and into the consciousness of their citizens.

Those seeking something lighter might wish to check out Northwords, the latest from Geoff Morrison and the producers of The National Parks Project. With CBC broadcaster Shelagh Rogers as its host, the film follows five Canadian writers—among them, Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden and graphic novelist Sarah Leavitt—on their journey to Labrador’s Torngat Mountains National Park, where they’re each challenged to produce a piece of writing inspired by their new surroundings. Morrison might have included more excerpts from the writing, but he (and Rogers) keep things snappy, and there are some poignant observations about the vastness and remoteness of the north as it exists in the Canadian literary imagination.

If Rogers makes it clear that her expedition is just a visit, Stephen A. Smith and Julia Szucs’ Vanishing Point proudly steeps itself in Northern culture from an insider’s perspective. Both a lyrical travelogue and an ethnographic study, Vanishing Point follows Inuit elder Naravana on a journey to retrace the steps of her ancestor, who in the 1860s migrated from Baffin Island to Greenland. Full of beautiful photography and minimalist sound design, the film is at its best in its observational sequences of people at work, whether hunting in traditional ways or incorporating modern technology like motorboats into ancient practices.

Planet in Focus is also celebrating Canadian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal as the “2012 Canadian Eco Hero,” for her career-long devotion to exploring how individuals relate to their environment through global capitalism. As part of its tribute to Baichwal, the festival is screening the award-winning film Manufactured Landscapes, her striking look at the industrial photography of Edward Burtynsky. On Friday, Burtynsky will join Baichwal and long-time cinematographer and production partner Nicholas de Pencier in a discussion moderated by The Grid film critic Adam Nayman.