Arts Review

Planet in Focus environmental film festival, A preview by Marc Glassman

Planet in Focus environmental film festival, A preview by Marc Glassman featured image

Planet in Focus environmental film festival
A preview by Marc Glassman

Toronto hosts over seventy film festivals a year but few are as important or as long-running as Planet in Focus, the annual environmental event, which acts as a clarion call for those who believe in climate change and the absolute necessity to save the globe from industrial polluters who would rather make profit than preserve the world for their grandchildren. But I would say that. I am the senior programmer for the festival.

Consider this a preview of Planet in Focus rather than a review. I believe that we’re in the Anthropocene Age, and that we have to fight to save our planet. But I also love great films—and, in particular, great docs.

Here are some of the films screening at Planet in Focus, which is using the Al Green Theatre at the JCC and Innis Town Hall at UofT as its main venues. For more information, go to

Here are some of my favourite picks:

Midian Farm

Liz Marshall’s latest film, Midian Farm, is a highly personal project. She ventures back to the 1970’s when her parents were pioneers in the back-to-the-land social and spiritual movement, in which youth from Toronto left their urban life for a communal one in the country. Few, if any of these young people had experience or understanding of farm life, making their rural lives a fully immersive learning experience. Marshall’s compelling doc reveals that the most challenging task for her parents and the rest of the commune was navigating and creating a new utopian social order. The stress of maintaining a new lifestyle in an unfamiliar environment proved too difficult and in less than a decade, the project and the farm were abandoned. The film’s storytelling relies on former members of Midian Farm sharing their individual perspectives of this communal project. Through their stories, Marshall reconciles some of her earliest childhood memories and their impact on her life.

Becoming Animal

Bold, sensuous and philosophical, Becoming Animal is a unique collaboration of cinematographer and director Peter Mettler, director, professor and actor Emma Davie and performance artist and philosopher David Abram. A profound adherent of animism, Abram believes that the human body inevitably connects with other animals—and indeed, with everything in the world including plants. Using his acclaimed visual style, Mettler plunges us into nature where Abram’s beliefs can be experienced in a way that borders on the spiritual. The Grand Teton Park in the mountainous northwest region of the U.S. is the environment that the trio wisely chose for their main location. Its diverse wildlife population and extraordinary peaks and valleys are perfect for this gorgeous—and challenging—film. From elk to snails to the vistas of the Tetons, this film is a delight to the senses, awakening the animal in every cinemagoer.

The Reluctant Radical

When Ken Ward, environmental campaigner turned radical activist, resorts to civil disobedience to fight the fossil fuel industry, his life is put on trial, literally and figuratively. Scenes from a courtroom battle interplay with images from his life, showing the heavy personal and professional impact of his environmental dedication.

The Blessing

Cultural values clash with economic survival and lived realities in this portrait of a Navajo coal miner conflicted about his role in digging up lands he considers sacred, and his daughter, a young Navajo woman bucking traditional expectations as a football player with dreams of riding in the rodeo.

Genesis 2.0

Despite a local taboo against disturbing wooly mammoths, Siberian brothers Peter, a man of tradition, and Semyon, a man of science, search their native land for the animals’ remains for different reasons. This philosophically profound film has echoes of Werner Herzog as geneticists battle black marketeers in the frozen tundra.

The Experimental City

In the 1960’s Athelstan Spilhause, inventor, scientist and philosopher, proposed the creation of the city of the future, entirely built from scratch, making use of all of the latest technology to provide solutions to the problems facing daily metropolitan life: waste, pollution, transportation, etc. The Experimental City, which was to be constructed in Minnesota, attracted the attention of key American figures of the time, including Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Buckminster Fuller as well as civil rights and military leaders. This expertly designed film, which recreates the look and feel of the Sixties, evokes a period of optimism, when people thought that science and advanced thinkers could resolve

any dilemma. Ironically, this creative doc turns into a cautionary tale as citizens of Minnesota ended up opposing the project.  Come dive into a time when an Experimental City could be envisioned–if not realized.

Beyond Climate

This inspirational film follows renowned environmental educator Dr. David Suzuki as he passionately points out the climate challenges faced in British Columbia. Suzuki and filmmaker Mauro’s film is an attempt to help the province’s transition towards an environmentally-respectful future, in which humans “move back and give nature a chance.”

Rodents of Unusual Size

Imported from Argentina, webbed-footed orange-toothed ‘swamp rats’ escaped from fur farms into the Louisiana wetlands in the 1930s. Since, they’ve swelled in population, threatened ecology, and still captured hearts with their bizarre looks and beautiful fur. This comical and insightful film is the emblematic tale of invasive species run amuck.

Sharkwater: Extinction

Rob Stewart’s final film is a testament to his bold investigative skills, intense dedication to the preservation of sharks and immense courage as a eco-warrior and deep sea diver. We follow Stewart as he looks into the underbelly of corruption, encountering politicians and fishers who continue to defy the banning of shark finning around the globe. Travelling to Costa Rica, Panama, Cape Verde, the Bahamas and the U.S., Stewart uncovers the final fates of sharks, whose lives have been taken away due to greed and profit. Over 100 million sharks are killed each year and Stewart, whose blockbuster success Sharkwater was a major factor in the official halting of shark hunting globally, was engaged in a personal mission to find out what had gone so wrong since that time. Tragically, Stewart wasn’t able to complete his quest to expose the killers of his beloved whales but this film is a lasting record of his valiant attempt.

Click here for more film reviews from Marc Glassman.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
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