Vancouver Film Festival features documentaries that 'follow the money'

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Now in its 28th year, the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) will once again showcase an extraordinary collection of Canadian and international filmmakers and their work. From October 1 – 16, the VIFF will feature 640 screenings of 377 films from more than 80 countries.

Included in this film-lover’s buffet are 92 feature length documentaries. Here we review some of the films that tackle issues of social justice, ecological integrity and peace. For a synopsis of more, the VIFF program helpfully lists films by a couple of themes, The Way of Nature and Follow the Money. As a number of these films illustrate, when you follow the money you often find ecological destruction in its wake.

Oblivion (Netherlands, Peru, 2008, 94 min)

A documentary doesn’t have to be a Michael Moore-esque polemic to pack political content. Moore is a masterful filmmaker, and I don’t agree with those who accuse him of ruining the genre. He has merely expanded its range and its impact. (The problems have come when lesser mortals like Morgan Spurlock -- lacking the artistic sense or political savvy -- have tried to cash in.)

After watching the documentary Oblivion, I have little idea about the political agenda of the filmmakers. And that's not a problem. The achievement of this film -- spare in its narration, beautifully shot and edited -- is to show us a few slices of the lives of the working poor in Lima, Peru. In this world of corporate spectacle and boosterism, it is refreshing, and sometimes jarring, just to see the everyday existence of marginalized people. To show us their lives and the shantytowns where they live after long days toiling at fancy hotels -- this is in itself political in an important sense.

Among the many vignettes, there’s a bartender who has mixed drinks for every corrupt politician the country has seen; a humble tailor whose father was arrested because a president put the sash he had sewn for him on backward; and, particularly moving, many scenes of children’s acrobatic busking at Lima’s crowded intersections. 

* is the media sponsor for Oblivion.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers (USA, 2009, 93 min)

This is a captivating documentary, the inspiring story of Daniel Ellsberg, a high-level planner and analyst at the heart of the military-industrial complex who made a deeply moral decision that helped hasten the end of the Vietnam War. The film traces Ellsberg’s development from a brilliant young “true believer” in the cause -- in this case, a savage war justified by anti-communism -- to history-making dissident.

Once Ellsberg made his decision to leak thousands of pages of ‘Top Secret’ government documents that detail a history of lies and brutality in the sale and conduct of the war -- risking jail and bringing opprobrium down on his head -- he required help from the press to get the news out. The New York Times in-house attorney not only had guts, but a sense of the importance of a free press. And so on June 13, 1971 the Times broke the explosive story. When a furious Nixon responded with a court order to halt publication, the Washington Post and a host of other papers joined in publishing the Pentagon Papers.

The genie was out of the bottle and, eventually, the U.S. would finally be on its way out of Vietnam (it would take a few more years, and Nixon was re-elected before resigning in shame in 1975). Arguably one of the reasons for today’s imperial wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond is that the contemporary corporate press is more complicit and self-censoring than ever.

It was the notorious war criminal Henry Kissinger who tagged Ellsberg as “the most dangerous man in America,” and one of the devices that makes this film effective is the use of the “Nixon tapes” to fill in the narrative. Listening to the president and his war cabinet casually discuss the prospect of dropping a nuke on the Vietnamese helps us understand just how important Ellsberg’s decision was. With a body count of 58,000 Americans and over 2 million Vietnamese it’s hard to imagine, but the devastation from the U.S. war on Southeast Asia could have been even worse.

Ellsberg’s story is a great reminder that when there’s a truly mass anti-war movement -- something sorely lacking in North America today -- even cogs in the war machine will defect and join the cause. Ellsberg, for his part, remains active, still fighting the good fight for peace and justice.

H2Oil (Canada, 2009, 81 min)

I can’t say for sure whether I would want to see this film on the big screen. Right from the opening credits, the sights and sounds of Alberta’s ecologically devastating ‘oil sands’ overwhelm the senses -- and this on a screener DVD I watched on my laptop. But of course the devastation of the tar sands needs to be seen up close. (Another film at this year’s festival, Petropolis, features extensive aerial footage of the toxic tailings ponds.)

Aside from its visual impact, H2Oil succeeds because it tells the story of the tar sands in an accessible manner, and because it gives priority to the voices of the indigenous peoples downstream in Fort Chipewyan -- those most directly affected by the destruction.


American Casino (USA, 2009, 89 min)

This film is must viewing for anyone who wants to understand the processes that led to last year's financial meltdown in the United States. A no-nonsense documentary, it explains in clear terms the complicated Wall Street games -- likened to one giant 'ponzi scheme' -- that led to the subprime mortgage crisis and highlights the human cost paid by those who lost their homes, pension funds, etc. Filmmaker Leslie Cockburn brings an analysis that includes race and class. American Casino is a sort of straight-laced sibling to Moore's more flamboyant Capitalism: A Love Story.

Dirty Paradise
(France, Switzerland, 2009, 76 min)

In 2007, newly-elected President Nicolas Sarkozy -- anxious to live up to his hyper-president, man of action billing -- made a brief trip to French Guiana, the anachronistic slice of France's colonial legacy located north of Brazil in South America. The photo-op, however, did nothing to alleviate the plight of the indigenous Wayana people. This film captures the dignified but seemingly doomed struggle against the upstream gold mining that is poisoning the river and causing a health crisis for the Wayana.

(USA, 2009, 104 min)

Another South American country, another story of ecologically destructive resource extraction destroying the health of the local indigenous people. In Ecuador, Texaco left the equivalent of many Exxon Valdez spills of toxic waste in open pits on the territory of Amazonian peoples. This has resulted in spikes in cancer rates, not to mention a lack of potable water.

This documentary follows the indigenous leadership and their U.S. lawyer -- charismatic and intriguing characters -- in their epic lawsuit against Chevron-Texaco. While the legal wrangling drags on, more and more indigenous people have been forced to abandon their ancestral homelands.

(USA, 2008, 92 min)

This film follows Nicholas Kristof, a veteran New York Times correspondent, on two trips to Africa to write about humanitarian catastrophes. While the occasional talking head fills in information about Kristof’s biography -- a well-traveled, award-winning reporter who helped break the story of Darfur -- the film follows a harrowing journey to the war-torn Congo, where the world’s deadliest conflict has been grinding on for years beneath most of the world’s radar.

Unfortunately, very little information about the historical and economic causes of the Congo’s misery -- such as the plunder of mineral resources by the West -- is provided. The narrative is reduced to Hutus against Tutsis, and warlords running rampant. At one point Kristof laments that Iraq has made the West reluctant to intervene to ‘provide security.’

Kristof explains that his goal is to rouse the conscience of his readers and spur them to action. His method is to highlight a tragic case of individual suffering in order to generate compassion for the millions more victims. This approach, justified by citing research on the psychology of compassion, ends up feeling -- to this viewer -- a little bit too much like ambulance chasing. The film, unfortunately, accepts the ‘charity impulse’ as the only possible way for the westerner to understand Africa. This obscures rather than clarifies the real political and economic history of domination and plunder.

Around the World with Joseph Stiglitz (France, 2008, 87 min)

Since last year’s financial collapse, Joseph Stiglitz’s economic prescriptions have gained a wider hearing internationally. This documentary takes a whirlwind tour of globalization with Stiglitz as our guide, beginning in his hometown of Gary, Indiana. Once a boomtown because of its steel industry, Gary today struggles along -- a multinational based in India has taken over one of the few remaining steel mills -- but whole neighbourhoods look a lot like Flint, Michigan. From the abandoned shops and homes of Gary, we travel to India, China, Botswana -- and to the Ecuadorian Amazon also featured in Crude.

The film is visually impressive, though there is a bit too much of the economist speaking directly into the camera. The narrative -- like Sitglitz’s assessment of globalization -- is uneven. He, along with various technocrats, politicians and other analysts, seem to still believe in a globalization (capitalism) with a more human face. Some of the indigenous people interviewed in the film are less equivocal. What they have seen of ‘globalization’ is just part and parcel of a longer-running process of dispossession of their peoples and destruction of their lands.

Derrick O’Keefe is editor of 


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