Top docs at Vancouver International Film Fest

Particle River, From Neurons to Nirvana and Village at the End of the World among columnist's favourites

There’s a fine crop of documentaries at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. Here are a few of my recommendations from the media screenings:

“I doubt anyone believes that the most pressing issues facing the nation include an insufficient understanding of the origins of the cosmos,” says New York Republican representative Sherwood Boehlert in an early ’90s news clip from Particle Fever. In rejecting a proposal for a superconducting supercollider as a nerds’ boondoggle, the U.S. Congress knocked the ball over to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which had invented the first graphic interface for the Internet — the World Wide Web — for physicists to share their data. So much for the claim of no economic return from basic science.

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Swiss-based CERN’s other claim to fame is the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC might as well be a unicorn farm to most tabloid readers, but filmmaker Mark Levinson does justice to the science through clever, informative graphics. He traces the passion of personalities behind the scenes as they fire up a machine the size of a seven-story building to coax the elusive Higgs boson — the so-called “God particle” — from high-energy subatomic collisions.

In a working model of international cooperation, the LHC brought together hundreds of scientists from across the world to puzzle out, among other things, whether we live in a universe or “multiverse.” “Why do humans do science? Why do they do art? The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human,” says Stanford theoretical physicist Savas Dimopoulos in the film. Stick that in your corncob pipe and smoke it, representative Boehlert.

A different angle on inner space is explored in From Neurons to Nirvana: The Great Medicines. Writer, director and visual artist Oliver Hockenhull outlines the mounting peer-reviewed evidence that nonaddictive psychoactive substances (including ayahuasca, psilocybin, LSD and MDMA) can have profound healing effects when used in a safe, therapeutic setting. The benefits, say a conga line of clinicians, psychologists, neuroscientists and authors, extend from the treatment of alcoholism to the anxiety of terminal cancer patients, and beyond. This could have been a snorefest of talking heads in lesser hands, but through judicious editing and sublime visuals, the filmmaker succeeds with colourful advocacy for a new medical paradigm informed by “cognitive liberty” — the freedom to dictate one’s own consciousness. (In a recreation of the famous Good Friday Experiment, Hockenull uses a recorded sermon from Dr. Martin Luther King’s mentor, Rev. Howard Thurman, to fuse science, art and spirituality into a seamless whole.)

Other docs definitely worth a look include the luminous Village at the End of the World, which traces the triumphs and tribulations of the residents in the Greenland village of Niaqornat from the 24-hour darkness of the Arctic winter to the peach-coloured light of spring.  Closer to home, Charles Wilkinson’s Oil Sands Karaoke follows a range of colourful characters competing in a singing contest in a Fort McMurray bar. The scarred landscape of their work environment seems to be a source of cognitive dissonance for some of the competitors, who win the viewer over with their hopes, dreams and fears.  

If I had magical powers, I would teleport the arses of all British Columbian MLAs and MPs into theatre seats for screenings of Twyla Roskovich’s Salmon Confidential, a damning portrait of our Faustian bargain with foreign-owned fish farms. “What’s happened in Canada is that salmon disease has become a federal secret,” says activist marine biologist Alexandra Morton, as she navigates tight-lipped bureaucrats, muzzled fisheries scientists and sold-out politicians. At just over an hour, enough disturbing data is revealed to make Salmon Confidential a must-see film for anyone who cares about our ecology, economy and democracy.

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia examines the life and work of the prolific screenwriter, novelist, talk show raconteur and politician. Arguably the finest political essayist of the 20th century since George Orwell, Vidal lived for decades in self-imposed but contented exile in Ravello, Italy. His long-time, cynical estimate of his people’s empire-building offered a more reliable map of our times than the Bush-era cheerleading of his one-time protégé, the late Christopher Hitchens. As Vidal said toward the end of his life, “the four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.”

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