How to See Things

Lessons in perception from five documentary filmmakers + an exclusive video message from Rainforest creator Richard Boyce.

THE FIRST MOTION PICTURES were simple observations. About 125 years ago, when the medium of film was hatching, it captured snippets of basic human and animal behaviour. It allowed us to witness things we hadn’t.

THE FIRST MOTION PICTURES were simple observations. About 125 years ago, when the medium of film was hatching, it captured snippets of basic human and animal behaviour. It allowed us to witness things we hadn’t.

Modern films typically try to seduce us with different attributes – escape, elation, explosions – and a constant regurgitation of themes and ideas, most of them fictionalized hints of human experience. Curiously, the proliferation of creative technology and humanity’s ever-astonishing impact on the planet has revived the root motivation of film. The quantity and caliber of documentaries being made about vital environmental issues is unprecedented, and the opportunities to viscerally witness how humans are reshaping the physical and social environments around them – for better, worse or somewhere in between – have never been riper. We needn’t be satisfied with mere entertainment. The deluge of docs lets us defragment the consequences of globalization, climate change and mass consumption, carefully regard our mistakes and inventions, and evolve based on the things we’ve seen. Watching and learning is half the battle.

Stand on the Front Lines

Filmmaker and activist Richard Boyce went way off the beaten track to find harrowing stumps of 1,000-year-old western red cedars. He’d already kayaked beside the same section of Crown land, along the shoreline of Quatsino Sound off northern Vancouver Island, a hot spot for sport fishers, whale watchers and cruise ships. Yet from the water’s surface, the forest still looks intact. Boyce says this is because the clear-cut is designed using the land contours to hide logging from fishing boats and tourists – to preserve the concept of BC’s supernatural wilderness, rather than the ecosystem itself.

Boyce’s Rainforest: The Limit of Splendour (2011) counters the “false image of the forestry industry in Canada” offered by government and industry officials with his front-line investigation of logging’s impacts on coastal BC. The filmmaker climbs 300-footers to explore the canopy’s vibrancy, speaks with native elders and working loggers among the trees, revisits contentious forestry projects and plunges deep into the landscape for scars. “Go past those gates or deactivated logging roads and you see what’s really going on,” says Boyce. He thinks logging companies are “fairly conscientious” in public areas, but a 100-km drive and 15-km hike into the bush reveals eroded mountainsides, torn-up riverbeds and clear-cut old-growth, “because at that point they think nobody’s watching.”

The photo of Boyce overlooking Quatsino Sound surrounded by huge stumps is where Rainforest’s heart-punching final scene takes place. This image’s shock value has also aided his protest efforts in other ways. In 2009, five years into working on his film, Boyce was contacted by a Natural Resources Canada representative asking for “dramatic photos of our fabulous old-growth forests” for use in display materials by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, which promotes the industry to trading partners abroad. He replied by sending this photo and other images of clear-cut carnage to all 14 council ministers, and rallied other Islanders to do the same. No ministers responded.

Boyce’s current project, Coastal Tarsands, takes a similarly intrepid approach to framing the sea-level predicament in Kitimat, BC. He believes the location was chosen as the terminus for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline because it’s so remote and hard to document. He wants to topple that barrier and “provide concrete evidence of the completely different reality than the one being presented by Enbridge and the government.” To do so, Boyce arranged tugboat access and some time this spring to film 30-metre storm waves, hurricane-grade winds, the 24-foot-tide change every six hours, the area’s surge channels and whirlpools, and other seasonal changes. “All of these things can compel people to see that it is such a challenging environment, especially if you want to put supertankers through it.”

His plan is to release Coastal Tarsands as a series of vignettes during 2013, giving physical exposure to the Kitimat ecosystem during the BC election cycle, and as the Northern Gateway hearings and public debates play out. He also hopes his work will help dispute well-funded pro-pipeline messaging, such as Enbridge’s misleading animations of the supertankers’ navigation route. “People can make up their own minds about which one is real.”

A\J presented Rainforest: The Limit of Splendour at the Princess Original Cinema in Waterloo, ON on June 19, 2013. Look below for an exclusive video message, a Coastal Tarsands preview and ways to take action.

Get more lessons in perception from filmmakers Jeroen van Velzen (Wavumba), Su Rynard (Silent Skies), Kristy Neville (Dolime Dilemma: Water Proof?) and Ed Burtinsky (Manufacturing Consent, Water). Order your copy of the Art & Media issue today.

Exclusive video message

Watch our exclusive behind-the-scenes video from Boyce, plus unseen footage from his new project, Coastal Tarsands, about the fragile coast around Kitimat, BC, the proposed terminus for the Northern Gateway pipeline.

Take Action: Logging

Check out these organizations to help save Canada’s forests:

Take Action: Pipelines

Here’s what Richard Boyce has to say about tar sands resistance:

Letter campaign, petition, T-shirts all work! I think it would be much more effective to address the government directly from Ontario, rather than jumping on the band wagon of a BC group. Focusing on local MPs, PM, Ministers of the Environment and Natural Resources all at the same time can cause a stir. The sky is the limit really as far as raising a stink.

Follow along with our pipelines coverage at, and check out The Tar Sands Solutions Network and Environmental Defence for just two of many other sources of information and ways to take action.

Eric is the founder and executive director of Night\Shift, downtown Kitchener’s nocturnal adventure festival, and he helped craft the rebranding of A\J as its editor-in-chief (2012-2014). He has a dusty Bachelor of History from uWaterloo and has worked as a journalist in Canada since 2000, holding editing positions with up! Magazine (WestJet Airlines’ in-flight publication), AdbustersReader’s Digest and other publications, and contributing as a writer to Canadian GeographicMaisonneuveCanada’s HistorySwerveSaturday Night and others. He also used to curate a blog about great Canadian record cover art at