September 14, 2009 / 5:04 PM / 9 years ago

Apocalypse now? Dark visions at Toronto film festival

TORONTO (Reuters) - A new wave of documentaries at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival poses a disturbing question: is environmental and social disaster on a global scale imminent and perhaps inevitable?

A scene from "Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives of the Alberta Tar Sands". REUTERS/TIFF/Handout

Doomsday visions captured by three filmmakers at the annual industry event may have seemed a bit implausible only a couple of years ago. But after the global economy’s near-death experience over the past 12 months, such ideas may no longer strike audiences as radical or hard to fathom.

“Compared to ... even five years ago, a lot has changed in the consciousness of people about the environment,” said director Peter Mettler about his film “Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives of the Alberta Tar Sands.”

Mettler presents a bird’s eye view of the sprawling oil-sands projects carved out of the boreal forests of northern Canada, capturing the massive scale of the destruction there. His is not the only film to spell gloom, and even doom.

“Colony” by Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell is a mystery story about the pastoral world of beekeeping turned on its head by a phenomenon known as “colony collapse disorder” and its devastating impact on agriculture.

Michael Moore, always one to rake up the muck, has grabbed headlines for his take on 2008’s financial market meltdown with Capitalism: the Movie,” but perhaps a more ominous picture of a world in crises is painted by “Collapse” director Chris Smith.

Taken together, this wave of doomsday documentaries might make audiences wonder if they should be stocking their shelves with food and water. But Mettler, whose credits include “Gambling, Gods and LSD,” says the underlying theme is, more simply, raising the consciousness of how people see the world.

“That is the essential element of the problem about the oil sands,” he said. “We are short-sighted and disconnected.”


Development of the oil sands, the world’s second-largest proven oil reserve, is having a devastating impact on water, land, air and climate, environmentalists say, in an area that eventually could be as large as England.

Filmed from the air, “Petropolis” offers a perverse, almost meditative beauty as Mettler’s cameras soar over a vast wilderness from which oil-laden earth is scooped and trucked to smoke-belching “upgraders,” where petroleum is extracted.

Mettler avoids bombarding audiences with facts, forcing them to come to grips, visually, with images of destruction.

“It is meant to be a provocation for analysis, for discussion,” he said. “We have only been using petroleum basically for 80 years and look at the havoc it’s wreaked.”

“Colony” also focuses on man’s impact on the environment, but in different and little-known arena — beekeeping. It looks at how the collapse of bee colonies, which some experts blame on insecticides, is impacting the U.S. agricultural economy.

Filmmakers Gunn and McDonnell also humanize their tale by focusing on a family of beekeepers during 2008 and 2009, adding the tension of the economic meltdown to dramatic effect.

Finally, there is a single person’s point of view taken to apocalyptic heights in “Collapse,” which tells of Michael Ruppert, a Los Angeles cop turned futurist who sees the global financial crisis and dwindling petroleum reserves as nothing less than the beginning of the end to industrialized society.

Ruppert’s ideas revolve around the notion of “peak oil,” which says the world is rapidly running out of the only substance that can power civilization as we know it.

“Collapse” director Chris Smith shot what essentially is a highly focused monologue by Ruppert in what appears on screen to be an underground bunker. While he does not fully share his subject’s point of view, Smith said it forced him to think.

“What I hoped to reveal was ... that his obsession with the collapse of industrial civilization has led to the collapse of his life,” Smith said. “In the end, it is a character study about his obsession.”

Editing By Bob Tourtellotte

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