Thursday, February 14, 2019

Racing Against Time

As Custom Made Theatre begins preparations for its upcoming production of Passion (the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical that people either love to hate or hate to love), I've been thinking about how passion manifests itself in our daily lives. For many people, their passion is centered on their family (parents, spouses, siblings, and children); for others it may be channeled into their religion or volunteer activities.

Some people develop lifelong passions for the arts, sports, science, and/or politics. While watching Jeb Corliss's impressive short film entitled Tales from the Edge, I was impressed at how he used the film as a tribute to a deceased friend who had relentlessly pursued a grand and dangerous passion.

Among the artists who died in recent weeks were Carol Channing (the Broadway legend who had a lifelong passion for making people laugh), Sanford Sylvan (an operatic baritone with a passion for communicating the lyrics of songs he sang in recital), Michel LeGrand (the French composer and jazz pianist who wrote more than 200 musical scores for film and television), and Kaye Ballard, an American actress and singer who made her career on Broadway, in nightclubs, as well as on television. Each and every one of them was driven by a passion which defined their career and, in many ways, their life. As Tennessee Williams insisted:
"The world is violent and mercurial -- it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love -- love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love."

The 2019 SFIndieFest screened two documentaries which depict types of passion the media rarely focuses on.
  • Both have important tie-ins to the clash between nature and capitalism.
  • Both focus on people whose passions developed in response to the world in which they live.
  • One film focuses on a small set of environmentalists with a unique bank of wisdom acquired over decades of field work inspired by a most particular passion.
  • The other focuses on a group of men whose lives were going nowhere (or had fallen apart) before they signed up for a unique kind of job training in the hope that the experience could spark a passion that might reignite their souls.
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As I write this column, Northern California is being drenched in precipitation from an atmospheric river that dumped snow in Hawaii before moving east across the Pacific Ocean. A quieter, almost haunting beauty permeates much of Guardian as its protagonists patrol a lonely river in British Columbia while monitoring the health of the local salmon population in an environment far from urban centers where decisions about government funding are made. Courtney Quirin’s documentary focuses on a devoted type of worker who is quickly disappearing from the Canadian workforce and whose job (largely due to underfunding by politicians) will soon vanish.

Filmmaker Courtney Quirin

An environmental journalist with a background in wildlife biology, Quirin is currently a documentary film resident at SFFILM. The blurb for her low-key film reads as follows:
“Part hermit, part biologist, Guardians live on boats full-time in one of the last pristine frontiers of the world to monitor salmon, the backbone of the ecosystem, economy, and culture along British Columbia's coast. But, in an age of science censorship and soaring natural resource development, Guardians (and the wildlife they have dedicated their lives to protecting) are now disappearing. Inadequate environmental impact assessments and crippled environmental legislation are still governing the fate of the Canadian landscape.”
Poster art for Guardian
“Soon after his inauguration, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, initiated a review of environmental and regulatory processes in response to environmental legislative rollbacks under Stephen Harper. However, despite Trudeau's inaugural promise to reinvest in ocean science, restore the scientific capability of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and use scientific evidence in environmental decision-making, liquefied natural gas projects continue to be approved without the amendments to environmental legislation Trudeau promised three years ago.”

The primary people Quirin interviews in her film are:
  • Doug Stewart, who has lived on his boat in the Great Bear Rainforest since 1977.
  • Carol Stewart, Doug's wife (who has lived with him aboard the Surfbird for over 20 years).
  • Stan Hutchings, who has worked for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans as both a fisheries officer and Guardian since 1979.
Stan Hutchings is the second oldest Guardian

With only seven Guardians still employed at the time of filming (Doug is the oldest, Stan the second oldest), Quirin's documentary quietly and graphically explains how corporate greed and the policies of Stephen Harper's conservative government have had an adverse effect on maintaining wildlife in a previously unsullied frontier along Canada's Pacific coast.

While the panoramic vistas and scenes of life in the Great Bear Rainforest are often breathtaking, Doug and Stan's faithful dogs nearly steal the film. Here's the trailer:

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Suppose you grew up in a small town and yearn for adventure and excitement. Sure, you could enlist in the Peace Corps, the Navy, or the U.S Coast Guard, but what if you crave a bigger challenge? What if you want to really "feel alive"?

Suppose you've had problems with substance abuse but have finally managed to get clean and live sober. You've burned a lot of bridges behind you (family, friends, and employers) and need to jump-start your life in a new direction. Who can you turn to?

Suppose you've recently been released from prison. You're physically fit, but have trouble getting hired because you're an ex-con who's covered with tattoos. You've still got a family and are determined to bring new meaning to your life. Who will hire you?

Poster art for Wildland

The surprising answer can be found in Wildland, a timely documentary co-directed and co-produced by Kahlil Hudson and Alex Jablonski. Originally entitled Young Men and Fire, Wildland follows a group of working-class men as they undergo training to become wildland firefighters. Some have difficulties overcoming their fears, realizing their dreams, and facing down their demons. Others are willing to do the hard work and wait through long boring hours before the call comes to get into gear and go fight a fire. Most of the men, however, do not come across as big talkers.

Poster art for Wildland

After obtaining permission from the Oregon Department of Forestry to embed with the Grayback Forestry Type 2 Initial Attack hand crew of firefighters in Merlin, Oregon, the film crew underwent basic training for firefighters, passed a Work Capacity Test (Pack Test), and were qualified to work on the fireline with the forest crew (they only shot footage of ODF fires as opposed to fires being fought by the U.S. Forest Service).

A scene from Wildland

With an original score written and produced by Tyler Strickland (and performed by the Orchid Quartet), Wildland follows these men through their initial training under the mentorship of an "old-timer" in his seventies through the course of a fire season in Northern California. As filmmaker Alex Jablonski recalls:
“Tim Brewer, the crew boss in the film, was someone who stuck out right away. He’s sharp-tongued, funny, and has a ton of experience. He’s also not particularly friendly at first. When we zeroed in on his crew to follow them, I went up to him and said, ‘Hey Tim, I’m Alex -- we’re doing this film and we’d be interested in talking to you about maybe following your crew.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘You know I’m a dick, right?’ Then he walked away and avoided me for a week.”
Poster art for Wildland

With so many wildfires having ravaged California in the past few years, some scenes may hit viewers close to home. Others may find themselves fascinated by what makes these men so eager to take on such high levels of risk. Here's the trailer: