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Focus on Planet in Focus

Entering its 13th year, the Planet in Focus Film Festival (running from October 10th through the 14th with screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto) brings another slate of environmentally and socially conscious films to the largest audience in Canada of its kind. Aiming to educate and inform, the festival screens dozens of shorts and features for adults and teenagers in addition to topical discussions on various environmental issues, industry panels, and classes and activities for children of all ages. One of the most ambitious festivals in the city, Planet in Focus continues to endure as our environment continues to change around all of us.

Dork Shelf has looked at a few of the films from this year’s festival and is here to share our thoughts with you, but for more information and a full list of this year’s programmes and films, please visit

OPENING NIGHT FILM: Lost Rivers (Caroline Bâcle) – Metropolitan centres have traditionally grown up around rivers, and their use as sewers led to the burial of these waterways in cities around the world. Lost Rivers explores this process from its origins in Victorian England to the modern results in Montreal, Toronto, Seoul, Brescia, London, and Yonkers. While burying wastewater channels made sense at the time, in the present it has resulted in problems for storm overflow, flooding, traffic congestion and economic development.

The film follows underground explorers, architects, planners, politicians and activists in their efforts to explore, understand, and revitalize these rivers and the city space around them. Most poignant for Torontonian viewers is the failed proposal to create stormwater relief ponds along the route of Garrison Creek, a plan that would have helped keep sewage overflow out of Lake Ontario while also adding natural water features to local parks (a massive concrete storage tank was created instead).


Despite this being a bit of a downer, the film is generally uplifting, focusing on the innovative reclamation of urban rivers and their importance for the environment, education, and history. It prompts us to think differently about what’s underneath our cities’ storm drains, utility covers and streets. (Jenna Hossack)

Screens: Wednesday, October 10th, 7:00pm

Seeking the Current (Nicolas Boisclair & Alexis de Cheledere) – In the summer of 2008 a group of kayakers make their way down from the North Shore of Quebec along the Romaine river to the mouth of the St. Lawrence during a 46 day trip to document an ecosystem that’s soon going to be lost so Hydro Quebec can flood the land to have a new energy producing dam in this combination between a nature doc and an advocacy film that’s interesting, but works better as the latter.

The film is ultimately heavier on the search for renewable energy sources in Quebec than it is on the actual trip down the river, and that’s just fine since it give ample time to alternatives while illustrating how they’re more cost effective than Hydro power. Boisclair and Cheledere also quite intriguingly start the film by mentioning how noble the pursuit of hydroelectricity in Quebec was a big deal and a matter of pride before showing what it has become. Solar, geothermal, and biomass energy all get their moment to shine, but it’s all at the expense of documenting the trip at hand.


When the film does get back on the river, however, the scenery is gorgeous and only serves to underline their point. At 85 minutes, it might be better suited to an hour long special than a feature, but it’s still an effective argument. (Andrew Parker)

Screens: Thursday, October 11th, 5:00pm, SPECIAL $5 SCREENING


Northwords (Geoff Morrison & Joel McConvey) – From the producers of last year’s HotDocs hit, The National Parks Project, Northwords takes a different blending of nature and art by bringing seven notable Canadian writers to the wilderness to produce new pieces instead of inviting musicians to do the same. CBC radio personality and distinctive voice Shelagh Rogers (The Next Chapter) hosts, moderates, and participates as these creative types are sent to Torngat National Park in Northern Labrador to live on the dangerous edge of nature and to get in touch with the history that has made the place a bit of a sore spot for some indigenous peoples.

Made for CBC as a transmedia project with eventual online content (and premiering on CBC Documentary on October 29th if you miss it here), this feels like even more of an auditory experience than The National Parks Project did. Still told in a style similar to Rogers show, the scenery is absolutely stunning, but one can almost just shut their eyes and listen to the sounds and not miss anything. It’s also somewhat interesting to note just how sheltered some of the literary types on the trip seem. There’s a nice blend of people who know their way around nature and people who seem almost put off by it in spite of the beauty. All in all, it’s a solid one hour special. (Andrew Parker)


Screens: Thursday, October 11th, 7:15pm


Wavumba (Jeroen van Velzen) – After leaving his childhood in Kenya for boarding school, a grown-up van Velzen revisits the Wavumba people he remembers to explore their stories of the sea, where the human and spirit worlds intersect. Following elderly fisherman Masoud and his grandson Juma, Wavumba examines the traditions, memories and changes surrounding the sea, the sacred island, and the people.

Masoud is a real character, full of old shark tales and overflowing with knowledge of traditional fishing practices. He squabbles with his grandson, who has taken over the physical parts of fishing. Both Masoud and van Velzen are negotiating the same conflict between their memories and the present reality of what fishermen are like. Both remember fishermen as tall, strapping heroes, but find in their place bent, wiry old men with missing teeth. As both memories and people deteriorate, so too does the tradition of deep-sea shark fishing, with fewer young people taking up the task.

Van Velzen narrates, half placing himself in the film with references to the stories he was told as a child, but the rest of the time he stays out of it. This history with the subject would have been a more valuable addition had it been woven in more adeptly, but instead when van Velzen comes in it seems like he’s just blatantly stating the film’s themes, instead of allowing them to be shown and discovered. Comparisons between Masoud’s life and the stories told by the two other elders featured in the film are also pretty obvious. It’s a film that had a lot of potential, and some interesting moments, but it gets repetitive and doesn’t dive deep enough into the roots and context of the place and people. (Jenna Hossack)


Screens: Friday, October 13th, 4:15pm


Future Weather (Jenny Deller) – There’s been a lot of buzz around Future Weather since it was shown at the Seattle and Tribeca film festivals this year – and it’s deserved. It’s a story of fraught mother-daughter-grandmother relationships, the accessibility of science, and a young girl in a messed up family trying to find something stable and predictable to hold onto.

Thirteen-year-old Laduree’s (Perla Haney-Jardine) mother takes off for California, leaving her to fend for herself until her grandmother (Amy Madigan) finds out and takes her in, putting Laduree’s study on trees and carbon sinks in jeopardy. At the same time she’s working on a science club project with the awkward new kid Neel (Anubhav Jain) and her teacher Ms. Markovi (Lili Taylor). Laduree uses science to measure and put order into her life, and to understand change. It’s this dogged attachment to these methods that alienates her – from her family, other kids, the general public – at the same time as it comforts her.

The direction and cinematography is beautiful, including wide-open landscapes that suggest possibility and exploration even as Laduree wants to cling to what she knows. It’s also a great exploration of women’s relationships both in and out of the family context –  it’s a Bechdel test winner, with women talking to each other about science, nature, and their relationships with each other and the world. The acting is superb, particularly Madigan and Haney-Jardine. Indeed, the latter is one to watch. At fifteen, Haney-Jardine carries off Laduree’s gravity and maturity effortlessly, along with a yearning for stable and normal relationships with humans instead of plants. She’s a know-it-all without being a smart aleck; resilient, vulnerable, stubborn and pensive all at once. Watching her is familiar, loving and heartbreaking. She is the centrepiece of a masterful first feature, and both she and Deller have bright futures ahead of them. (Jenna Hossack)


Screens: Friday, October 13th, 6:30pm


Canicula (Jose Alvarez) – Alvarez delivers a 65 minute and nearly wordless ethnographic about a Santa Cruz, Mexico community celebrating the titular 40 day festival with no narration and very little context given. It’s strictly observational in every way, but for this type of candid look, it’s quite good, if a bit draggy at times.

Watching the community come together predominantly through craftwork and performance is intriguing to watch – especially the work of flying men who spin through the air at dizzying heights that’s spectacular – but after about 30 minutes the novelty starts to wear off. Thankfully, at just over an hour the film never has a chance to wear out its welcome, and it just might spark a new interest in making pottery from scratch. (Andrew Parker)

Screens: Friday, October 12th, 7:30pm


Semper Fi: Always Faithful (Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon) – The motto of the United States Marine Corps implies high standards of loyalty and devotion to fellow Marines and the country. One would expect that the country and Marine leadership would do the same for their recruits. Sadly, Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger found out the hard way that this isn’t always the case.

While looking for answers to his daughter’s death from childhood leukemia, Ensminger discovers other Marines and their family members who had lived at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, who also dealt with birth defects, cancers and other health problems in their families. Their tireless research turned up a thirty year long contamination of the base’s water supply with carcinogen-containing fuel that the USMC and Department of Defense not only ignored, but covered up – and that Camp Lejeune was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to contaminated military sites.

Ensminger and his colleagues are followed closely, revealing their personal histories, emphasizing their passion and determination to have things set right. The film also shows the injustices inherent in the environmental regulation processes, particularly how difficult it is for anyone other than industry representatives to show up at meetings and hearings. More than just exploring this particular issue, it also tells the story of the activist process – how people come to a cause, the stress of travelling and fighting, and the effects on activists’ families – and the way the United States is failing both the environment and its men and women in uniform. (Jenna Hossack)

Screens: Saturday, October 14th, SPECIAL $5 SCREENING, 12:15pm

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