Friday, 24 April 2015

HOT DOCS 2015: HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD - Review By Greg Klymkiw ****

How To Change The World (2015)
Dir. Jerry Rothwell

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Preamble: A few things about Robert (Bob) Hunter that contribute, for me personally, to his legendary perch in Canadian history.
"If we wait for the meek to inherit the earth, there won't be anything left to inherit" - Robert Hunter
Robert (Bob) Hunter was many things. Mostly, I just always thought he was cool. And well, you'd kind of have to be that to have accomplished so much in so short a time (he died of cancer at age 63).

As a dyed-in-the-wool Winnipegger, I especially thought it was cool, given Robert Hunter's deep concern for Canada's Aboriginal people, that he was born in the City of St. Boniface which eventually amalgamated with all the wonky neighbourhood city-states along the Red, Assiniboine and Seine Rivers of Manitoba to become - you guessed it, Winnipeg.

All this rich land, which not only became the city we all know and hate/love (plus all points north-south-east-and-west) historically belonged to the Metis Nation, but was torn from their possession by the Canadian Government's land transfer scrip system which was virtually useless except to rich white guys who knew how to push it through the complicated bureaucracy to actually cash it in. The vast majority of uprooted Metis were starving, so they sold their scrip to the rich white guys, for pennies on the dollar.

Even more interesting to me was that Hunter's birthplace in St. Boniface ended up being the one community which contributed the most to Manitoba becoming (even now) Canada's largest French-speaking region outside of Quebec. Why? Many of the displaced Metis were also targets for violence because of the 1870 Louis Riel wars against the corrupt rich white guys of Winnipeg and the eastern power-brokers who held a vicelike grip upon the government of Canada. This resulted in a huge number of Metis forcing their Native heritage underground and bringing their French heritage to the fore and living in - you guessed it, St. Boniface.

His tenure as a columnist at the Winnipeg Tribune and Vancouver Sun was before my time. I didn't even become aware of him as a journalist until I moved to Toronto in the early 90s and began watching CITY-TV (when it actually had a real personality thanks to its eventually-departed head Moses Znaimer). Here, I began to enjoy the amazingly cool, almost Hunter S. Thompson-like "environmental reporter and commentator. I was soon compelled to begin reading his books wherein I discovered that he was Bob Hunter, the heart, soul and public face of the environmental group Greenpeace.

This, for me, was virtually cooler-than-cool and when he passed away in 2005, I was genuinely saddened that we'd lost him. Thankfully, this film now exists. It's not a biographical documentary of Robert (Bob) Hunter, but in many ways, it might as well be.

And now, the Film Review proper:

There were many things about Hunter I didn't know after all these years and I'm grateful to director Jerry Rothwell for his almost-epic-like motion picture documentary How To Change The World which presents a side of this great Canadian that was not only fresh to my already-admiring eyes, but kind of jettisons Hunter into some supreme inter-stellar glowing orb of coolness.

Rothwell poured over hundreds of 16mm rolls of film that had been canned and unopened since the 1970s. Seeing, pretty much before his very eyes, the visual history of the Greenpeace organization, Rothwell consulted with Hunter's colleagues, foes, conducting fresh interviews with all of them, blending the result of Herculean research and expertly selected and edited footage from the Greenpeace Archives. (The fact that Hunter was so brilliantly media-savvy pretty much accounts for this wealth of material even existing.)

What we get is the story of a respected counter-culture columnist who aligns himself with a motley assortment of friends and colleagues (most of them of the 60s/70s "hippie" persuasion) to head out on a boat in an attempt to stop nuclear testing on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean and then, with the same bunch, to go tearing after Russian sailors butchering whales up and down the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The campaigns continued and somewhere along the way, the movement of Greenpeace was formed.

With both the existing archival footage and the new interviews, Rothwell has painted an indelible portrait - not only of the key events in the movement, but the individuals themselves - as disparate a cast of characters you could ever imagine. What makes them cool is how different they are as people, but as such, they each bring individual qualities to the movement that had a symbiotic relationship - for a time. As is the won't of anything or anyone growing beyond initial beginnings, egos as well as legitimate desires/directions begin to rear their ugly heads and minor cracks in the "vessel" become tectonic plates, yielding high-Richter-scale fractures.

In addition to the dazzling filmmaking, I was swept away onto the high seas and weed-clouded back rooms of Greenpeace thanks to the perfectly selected and abundant readings of Bob Hunter's exceptional reads. Embodying Hunter is the magnificent character actor Barry Pepper who delivers us the man's words with the kind of emotion which goes so far beyond "narration". Pepper captures the soul of Hunter impeccably. It's a brilliant performance. (If anyone does a biopic of Hunter, Pepper is the MAN!!!

The first two-thirds of the movie is compulsive viewing. The first third, focusing upon seafaring derring-do is nail-bitingly thrilling. With Bob Hunter at the helm of some totally crazy-ass dangerous antics - like some mad, dope-smoking, Sterling-Hayden lookalike - Rothwell creates a veritable action picture on the high seas with an obsessive Captain Ahab targeting not whales, but the hunters of whales. (So much of the film is charged with a great selection of period hit songs and a gorgeous original score by Lesley Barber also.)

Who'd have thought environmental activism could be as thrilling as Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin "Master and Commander" adventures? The middle section begins focusing on the leaks in the organizational battleship that became Greenpeace. Mixing in more derring-do with internal conflicts is easily as thrilling as the intrigue-elements of O'Brian's high-seas swashbucklers.

The final third of the film tends to fall by the wayside a touch. It's not Rothwell's doing, as that of - gasp - real life. There's a great deal of sadness and acrimony in this section of the film and part of me wishes that life didn't throw the kind of curve-balls that surprise your favourite batter at the plate into striking out. This is ultimately a minor quibble though, in light of the sheer force, power and entertainment value of the picture. What epics don't suffer from a sag or three? At least this one eventually builds to a note of well deserved and earned high notes and the movie finally packs a major one-two emotional punch. When this happens, tears might well be flowing amongst many and the lapses of real life will be fleeting, especially when you exit the cinema feeling, "Goddamn! That was one HELL of a good show!"

The Film Corner Rating: **** Four Stars

How To Change The World is making its Canadian Premiere at the 2015 edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Visit the Hot Docs website for dates, showtimes and tickets by clicking HERE.