October 5, 2012. Just Beneath the Ground. Movies Reviewed: Semper Fi: Always Faithful, As Above, So Below PLUS Planet in Focus
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Like you, I know my way around the basic environmental issues…
Climate change: stop it
Genetically modified food: potentially scary
Baby Seals: club them
Endangered species: save them
Bitumen pipeline: gonna spill
Water: most important
Toxins: avoid them
(Just kidding about the seals)
But when I go beyond the basics, that’s where I run into trouble. So that’s why the Planet in Focus environmental film festival (Oct 10-14) is so useful. It lets you see the various environmental issues laid out by experts with Q&As, world premiers, and some really great examples of filmmaking.
So this week I’m looking at two environmental documentaries that differ greatly in look, tone, aim and content. One’s a heartfelt look at US Marines looking for justice after a long-hidden crisis; the other’s a meditation on how we view the garbage and waste hidden beneath the ground.
Dir: Rachel Libert, Tony Hardman
Jerry Ensminger, a long-time Master Sgt at the Marine Corps Base Camp LeJeune in North Carolina, is hit by devastating news: his young daughter Janey has cancer. But when he digs around to find out why, he discovers some shocking facts.
The drinking water at the camp is horribly contaminated with chemical toxins, like TCEs and PCBs. And he finds out he isn’t the only one affected by these poisons. Young male marines who passed through the camp are getting breast cancer – yes, male breast cancer – and others are getting hepatic cancer and other rare diseases at alarmingly high rates.
Because military bases and bootcamps are known for their constant turnover, it was difficult to keep track of who had been there. And cancers are slow to develop, usually long after they move away from the source of contamination. This made it especially difficult to prove.
But the problem are threefold. The chemical companies are lobbying to keep the toxins off the list of dangerous chemicals; the military is denying and burying info at every level; and the vets keep developing cancer but their insurers refuse to pay for expensive medical treatment or to grant them disability payments for injuries contracted on duty.
It’s up to the victims and their families to dig up the truth, appear before the Senate, and to do all they can to bring to light this monumental environmental disaster. The movie traces the story and the struggle. Semper Fi is a moving documentary, straightforward and traditional in its presentation of the facts. It’s less of an exciting or cinematic movie, more of a sentimental but informative TV-style doc.
Different in every way is:
Dir: Sarah J. Christman
This documentary follows a series of peripherally-related stories of people talking about garbage and waste from the past. One is a woman (the filmmaker, with her mother) who describes dealing with the death if her father and her family going through the things he left behind. She decides to turn his ashes into an artificial diamond, as a way of remembering him.
Another is an anthropologist working for the sanitation department who talks about the history of a landfill near NYC. The ominously-named Fresh Kills area has been a landfill for decades and holds completely intact records of the wastes of everyone who ever lived in that area. Robert Moses dug up some dirt in Staten Island to use in a parkway. It left behind a temporary hole to be filled with the city’s garbage, but it ended up being dumped in for decades. It’s now been covered and turned into a park, but one with all its intact history settling and burbling just below surface.
This movie is not a conventional collection of talking heads telling of random reminiscences and historical facts. Your ears hear speakers describe a moving personal remembrance or a shocking historical record; but your eyes see unsynchronized images of nature, like the long lost flotsam and jetsam on a beach called Dead Horse Bay (where the bodies of workhorses used to be rendered), or white plastic garbage bags and ice snow, or quivering winter twigs against an overcast sky.
As Above, So Below is an absolutely stunning and subtle artistic meditation on waste, consumption, death, loss and memory. It’s also the most gorgeous depiction of garbage you’ll ever see. Somehow, the editing, the photography and the whole movie’s context packs a personal wallop with an aesthetic sensibility that you rarely see in one movie.
As Above, So Below, and Semper Fi are both playing at Toronto’s Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival running from Oct 10-14. both open today – go to planetinfocus.org for more information. Coming soon, the ImagineNative indigenous peoples’ film and media arts festival, and the Ekran film festival (Ekran is the Polish word for screen). And don’t miss the amazing documentary Detropia, opening tonight at the Bloor.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .