Sparking Change: The Energy of Film

Sparking Change: The Energy of Film

Guest post by David Lavallee, Director & Producer of “To the Ends of the Earth” - July 31, 2016

It wasn’t until about 2006 that I recognized the power of film in driving social change. I came to this realization in a very personal fashion- by seeing the film that would change my life forever. To this day I measure for life in two parts- before and after I saw the film “An Inconvenient Truth”, starring former Vice President Al Gore. 

What was is that captivated me so about this story? I’m not a Democrat or a Republican (I’m Canadian) so the lead characters political leanings were uninteresting to me, and anyways irrelevant to the core story as it was told. Was it the ‘House of Cards’ story of a king without a throne, the story of an election lost by the slimmest of margins, the course of history altered? All scenarios are compelling to be sure, yet even if Gore had become president how much could he really have done about climate change, a hugely complex issue much larger than one man. 

How would such knowledge transform my life, or make me care? For me, it was all about the glaciers. Listening to a Vice President talk about glaciers disappearing worldwide and what’s more (epiphany!) we were responsible for it. At the time I was working as a mountain guide in the Canadian Rockies. Glaciers were a large part of my life. I recognized and wondered why I would have to hike further and further each year with my clients to walk on the ice with them. I began to doubt my intuition as to where deadly crevasses might be on the glacier-- with such rapid changes in the mountain environment they could now form anywhere-- the regular rules for safe travel no longer applied. 

But it took a VP and a well crafted film to catapult me into the realm of social change- I chose film as my vehicle. 

Still, I needed a concept- a way to express myself in this work of inspiring positive change- a realm unfamiliar to me. It came when I met a glaciologist on one of my hikes. As we stood on the Athabasca glacier he asked me if I knew to where the river that flowed from it went. I didn’t. He said “It flows past the Fort McMurray Tarsands”. This budding ‘oil’ project has since gone on to become the largest industrial project in the world- the world’s most carbon and water intensive oil producer, providing America with up to 16% of its oil. “I’ve been looking at the hydrology numbers - as far as I can tell it’s the largest amount of water being withdrawn from an ecosystem on planet earth and no one is talking about it. We have to get the word out about this”, he said, shaking his head. 

Thus, my concept was born. I would follow an imaginary drop of water from these headwaters all the way to its terminus, to see what happened to that drop of water along the way. I began my journey on a river, I would paddle downstream, from one of the most beautiful places in the world, connected by a cosmic thread to one of the ugliest. Along the way I would meet First Nations people living along this route, experiencing a cancer epidemic, I would see the toxic tailings ponds full of mine waste by-product rotting away in the boreal forest, and I witnessed the despair of a 100 year culture of Athabascan Chippewyan First Nation staring straight down the barrel of modern day capitalism. But I also encountered hope- of a people thriving and resilient in the midst of it all- a fighting back. 

The result was my first film “White Water, Black Gold” (2010). The film, narrated by Peter Coyote, went on to garner 20+ festival selections and had three festivals wins, it was broadcast internationally on 6 different networks. 

My latest project, slated for release this fall, is called “To the Ends of the Earth” (it makes its broadcast debut on TVO in November). The film is narrated by Emma Thompson and flowed naturally out of the creative process from my first. 

Watch the trailer here:

In making my first film, I learned a great deal about the economics of these types of projects, but I couldn’t explore these ideas on film as I had to keep the focus tight on the drop of water and what happened to it. I would need to save these ideas for my second film.

The more I researched, the more I was blown away to learn the rhetoric from government and industry. Unconventional oil such as Tarsands bitumen and fracking, were considered so-called game changers that promised to transform our energy system in a way that allowed us to extend the age of fossil fuels. These processes its turns out are deeply uneconomic and actually consume more energy in their manufacture than they able to give back to society! Our society had shifted into an unsustainable paradigm vis-à-vis the energy we use- unsustainable for economic as much as environmental reasons. We, as a society, have headed to the ends of the earth to find our resources, and it is becoming increasingly clear there isn’t all that much left.

Through this latest piece of work, I became interested in the idea that true change means much more than throwing up a few wind turbines- we need to transform our entire economic system as well. 

I look forward to releasing this film and finding ways to impact energy change in our society. With energy as the foundation of our modern economy, this I believe is one of the most important focal points and change making conversations we need to have. 

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