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Animals On Film

FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead

May 1, 2007

It is only in recent years that mainstream programs about nature and wilderness have begun to inform viewers that all is not well in the animal kingdom. Habitat destruction and species extinction have been played down in nature programs and films about animal welfare have been forced underground. Broadcasters have defended this self-censorship with the rationale that no one wants to watch depressing images about how humans are wrecking the planet and that it is better to enhance appreciation for wildlife through positive images. Perhaps. But would March of the Penguins have been any less successful at the box office if it had pointed out that global warming threatens to make the Emperor penguins� epic journey across the frozen wasteland of Antarctica even more hazardous? As An Inconvenient Truth has unequivocally shown, audiences want the hard truth about the state of their world. Cozy images of wilderness idylls just don�t cut it anymore.

The Animal Voices Film Festival tackles man�s relationship with animals head-on. In a series of documentaries of an hour or less, the fest looks at issues around activism, veganism and vegetarianism, animal testing and industrial farming practices. (The film festival runs at Vancity Theatre, June 2-3, noon to 9 PM. Tickets $5/day. See www. animalvoices.org/filmfest.)

One film likely to spark fierce debate is Direct Action and the Politics of Nature. The 38-minute film comprises an interview with controversial animal rights activist Dr. Steven Best, an associate professor of humanities and philosophy at the University of Texas. Best refers to the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) � known for their paramilitary activities � as "freedom fighters," engaged in America�s "new civil war."

Best insists, during his 2003 presentation that, while "� the gloves are coming off," this radical language comes from a compassionate world view. "You are belittled for having compassion, that compassion is seen as something abnormal," he says. "The greatest perversion, the worst doublespeak ever created yet, is to call people who fight for the earth and for the animals, for them to be called terrorists, when the real terrorists are the people who are raping the planet and destroying millions of lives."

While this low-budget production by Rattle the Cage Productions offers good insight into the thinking of radical animal rights activists, to elevate it to something above pure propaganda, it cries out for a counterpoint to Best�s controversial assertions.

The second of the two of the films I previewed is Nature Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History. The film deals with the subject of rehabilitating chimpanzees used in lab experiments, to test HIV, for example, and in the entertainment industry. They are typically incarcerated afterward, usually because they have become too big to handle.

It�s sad to see the psychological and physical damage inflicted on these clearly-intelligent and emotional animals, especially given that we Homo sapiens have so much in common with them. But this is ultimately an encouraging film, showing how a few passionate individuals are managing to relieve the suffering of these creatures by removing them from their lonely prisons and introducing them to fellow humanized chimps and finding them homes in outdoor parks.

Civic Duty, billed as a psychological thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock�s classic Rear Window, is set during the paranoid climate of post-September 11. Instead of Jimmy Stewart�s character convalescing with a broken leg and his camera, however, this film features a laid-off and emotionally unstable accountant (Peter Krause) who, after spying on his new neighbour, becomes convinced he is a terrorist.

With its stylish editing and use of media images, the film initially promises to offer a stimulating critique of the US�s response to the terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, compared to Hitchcock�s teasing ambivalences about characters and their motives, this film has all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Once it�s clear in which direction we�re headed, the tension fizzles and it descends into melodrama. The ending is laughable and the film, as a whole, feels like a missed opportunity. You also have to keep reminding yourself that those familiar Vancouver locations are actually meant to be somewhere in the States.

In a different league is Sarah Polley�s Away From Her (out on May 4), a poignant tale about a couple married for 50 years coming to terms with the onset of Alzheimer�s disease. The film, which stars Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in the lead roles, has been lavished with praise � impressive given that Polley is still in her late twenties and this is her directorial debut.

Robert Alstead recently completed the 80-minute documentary You Never Bike Alone, a documentary about Vancouver�s Critical Masses. For screening info and the DVD, visit www.youneverbikealone.com


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