Right Now’s 2017 Transitions Film Festival picks

By Rob Gilchrist, Alyssia Tennant, Athena Rogers, Heath Chamerski, Stephanie Griffin, Pia White, Rachael Imam and Georgina Haines
Transitions Film Festival 2017 artwork

The 2017 Transitions Film Festival starts tomorrow. Below are Right Now’s top picks from the program.

The Chocolate Case | Benthe Forrer

Review by Athena Rogers

The Chocolate Case follows three bold and ambitious Dutch journalists as they set out to expose the true extent of the chocolate industry’s reliance on child slavery and exploitation. In what begins as a tongue-in-cheek attempt to convict one of the journalists for the crime of knowingly purchasing chocolate produced through child slavery, the documentary makers are slowly drawn further into the West African cocoa industry.

Intent on convincing a major chocolate manufacturer to produce ‘slave-free’ chocolate bars to coincide with the release of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film, the journalists embark on a series of fruitless encounters with industry representatives. Frustrated by the lack of interest shown by the major chocolate manufacturers, the documentary makers set out to create their own ‘100% slave-free’ chocolate bar, which quickly turns into a fully-fledged chocolate company and one of Holland’s leading chocolate brands.

Recounting the company’s beginnings in the early 2000s when Fairtrade certification was in its early stages, the documentary is refreshing for its honesty in portraying the ambiguous and flawed nature of the Fairtrade certification in regards to child labour. It details the team’s sincere attempts to produce ethical chocolate bars, their dedication to tracing the cocoa sources and does not shy away from explaining their devastating decision to add the caveat ‘on the way to 100% slave-free’ to their product branding.

Along the way, The Chocolate Case challenges viewers to consider the extent of their personal responsibility as consumers of products produced through child slavery and challenges other manufacturers to do more to ensure their products promote fair work conditions. Yet, ultimately the documentary highlights the challenges associated with working in an industry that lacks transparency in global supply chains and provides insight into the reality of the cocoa industry in West Africa – conditions that even the best of intentions cannot easily overcome.

The Chocolate Case screens on 17 February in Melbourne and 13 March in Sydney.

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RiverBlue | David McIlvride and Roger Williams

Review by Alyssia Tennant

At the heart of river conservationist Mark Angelo’s ground-breaking documentary, RiverBlue, is the message that “through awareness, we evolve”. Directed by David McIlvride, the film explores in depth the global destruction of our rivers and waterways, and the devastating role that the fashion industry plays in this.

Through the harsh chemical treatment of clothes and the immense outpour of toxic effluent from factories, pollution is rife in our waterways. RiverBlue documents this deftly, as well as the impact that the leather and denim industries have already had on access to clean water.

The strength of the film comes from its expert panel, who describe with heartfelt passion the widespread pollution in countries including China, Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia. With powerful imagery – both shocking and stunning – the film uncovers the dark side of the fashion industry.

Whilst the film brings to light some of the toxic effects of industrialisation and consumerism, its focus is on the potential for positive change. The film offers sustainable alternatives to current practices, which are as harmful to people as they are to the environment, and demands significant change in the textile industry.

RiverBlue is challenging to watch, as it exposes viewers to the real impact that our hunger for affordable fashion is having on a global scale. Despite this, it is also refreshing. Solace can be found in the fact that there are genuine things we can do to further sustainable and ethical practice in the fashion industry. To know that there are concrete steps we can take as individuals not only provides hope, but also the conviction to be a part of the change.

RiverBlue screens on 21 February in Melbourne, 14 March in Sydney, and 23 March in Brisbane.

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A Plastic Ocean | Craig Leeson

Review by Alyssia Tennant

A Plastic Ocean begins in an unusual way. Its director and writer, Craig Leeson, didn’t begin filming with the intent to create a documentary about plastic waste. Rather, his journey began amidst his search for the elusive blue whale. It was during this search, however, that he and his team of filmmakers discovered the overwhelming amount of plastic waste sprawling across the ocean.

Following this discovery, Leeson teamed up with former BBC Blue Planet producer Jo Ruxton and World Champion freediver Tanya Streeter to document the shocking depth of our plastic waste problem. Filmed over four years, Leeson explores the impact of our overdependence on plastic and its devastating consequences. As they scour the globe, they highlight the potentially irreversible damage that has been done to the ocean and its wildlife.

A Plastic Ocean is unique in its unrelenting show-all attitude. In a combination of graphic shots and personal stories, viewers are exposed to footage including baby turtles ingesting plastic bags, seabirds’ stomachs bloated with waste, and children exploring landfills where they are forced to live off trash, as they forage for reusables so that their families can afford food.

Perhaps the most confronting part of the film – and the least widely acknowledged in discussions about pollution – is the emphasis on the trickle-down effects plastic has on the human race. A very powerful part of the film deals with the ways in which plastic (usually in the form of micro-plastics) is transmitted up the food chain, and how it ends up on our plates as seafood.

This film is necessary viewing for anybody who is concerned about our overuse of plastic but is not yet motivated to do something about it.

A Plastic Ocean screens on 28 February in Melbourne, 11 March in Sydney and 25 March in Brisbane.

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Freightened | Denis Delestrac

Review by Rob Gilchrist

In today’s globalised world, it is increasingly common for the goods we use on a daily basis to have travelled farther than even the most intrepid traveller. But what is the true cost of this intensifying globalisation of goods? While cheap products are now more readily available than at any other time in history, there are widespread effects that are often ignored in our hunt for bargains and convenience. Noting this, writer and director, Denis Delestrac, attempts to lay bare the impact of the ever increasing shipping industry in Freightened – The Real Price of Shipping.

Freightened, narrated by Trevor Hayes, begins by emphasising the size of the industry and scope of the problem. Startlingly, roughly “90% of everything we consume” in the West arrives by sea. But this is only part of the story. Much of what we eat, wear or use is comprised of various parts, from various ports across the globe, coming together to form a cheap product at the cost of countless lives along the way.

This may seem an exaggeration, but as Freightened journeys across the various intricacies of the industry, an awareness begins to develop about the true damage created by this essential industry. From the abuse of cheap labour, to deliberate manipulation of international law, with a lot of environmental degradation thrown in, these industry heavyweights are responsible for significant worldwide damage.

Despite this, Freightened does not get lost in the calamity and does not let the message get lost in the details. In fact, with calm recognition of economic facts, Delestrac leaves the watcher with hope for a better future, laying out careful considerations that would drastically change the face of shipping and restore balance to an essential, irreplaceable industry.

Freightened screens on 2 March in Melbourne.

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White Waves | Inka Reichert

Review by Heath Chamerski

“It’s much more attractive for people to modify the environment, rather than modifying their own behaviour. But surfers have trained themselves to fit in with the rhythms of nature”

The above quote, from surfer and activist Tony Butt, perfectly encapsulates the message of the absorbing environmental documentary White Waves, which shines a light on a group of surfers who have become campaigners against often invisible but insidious ocean pollution.

As stated early in the documentary, surfers have traditionally been viewed as a selfish group, who feel like they own the waves. This unfair stigma is shattered repeatedly in the film, which details the efforts of European surfers fighting those who pollute the sea.

Focusing on the crusading efforts of board riders in both France and England, we’re introduced to the various members of two groups, Surfrider Foundation Europe and Surfers Against Sewage, who fight, both in the courts and on the beaches, to protect the more than 700 ocean organisms at risk from pollution and debris. But it is not an easy task, with harmful murky black liquor to small plastic wheels being just some of the things that the groups have taken corporations to task over and demanded they lift their game.

While this documentary is largely made up of talking heads and is not as cinematic as most surfing documentaries, White Waves is inspirational, but also frustrating at times in that the battles these activists are fighting should have been settled decades ago. The coverage of the activism in both England and France also gives this film a large scope and effectively contrasts the issues both countries face.

Despite the serious issue the film tackles, White Waves is an overall optimistic experience about some incredible human beings whose efforts will no doubt have positive consequences for us all.

White Waves screens on 23 February in Melbourne.

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What Lies Below | Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais

Review by Stephanie Griffin

Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’ What Lies Below examines the environmental impact of industry, excess and waste on Canada’s extensive waterways. Lawrence Gunther, a fishing enthusiast and conservationist, acts as guide and interviewer. Gunther is a physically blind man attempting to lead the philosophically blinded to a state of environmentalist enlightenment.

Gunther gives audience to the creatures struggling to survive beneath the surface of the water; and to the unheard local communities who have witnessed the carnage of an ecosystem under siege. His visual impairment does not limit his capacity to relate to nature. In fact, his immersive and interactive relationships with fish, water habitats, and his guide dog Maestro, demonstrate kinship with the natural world.

By feeling the environment, listening to it, and smelling it, the viewer is encouraged not to objectify the natural world or to assume its purpose is to be consumed by humans. Those aspects of the environment that humanity benefits from, but cannot see, are validated.

The film is extremely concerned with promoting sustainable fishing practices. Gunther cannot escape the inherent contradictions in recreational fishing, where people are simultaneously seeking to connect with and to overpower ocean life. However, it is the overt commodification of fish that is shown to be morally void rather than morally ambiguous. Large-scale industrial fishing processes forebode an unsustainable, stark and inhumane future.

So as to highlight the immediate threat posed by overfishing and water pollution to Canada’s waters, the film is deliberate and serious in construction. Hoss-Desmarais allows shots to linger on uranium wastelands, bitumen refineries and empty towns, reminding the audience of the consequences of prioritising profits above balance.

Overall, What Lies Below calls attention to the important and useful conversations on sustainable fishing practices being had in small Canadian communities; conversations that should reach global ears.

What Lies Below screens on 21 February in Melbourne.

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Wastecooking – Make Food, Not Waste | David Groß & Georg Misch

Review by Pia White

David Groß introduces himself as a food activist on a campaign against food waste. His mission is to travel through five countries in a car that runs on used vegetable oil, cooking only with what others have thrown away in a dumpster that has been converted into a mobile kitchen.

Though the premise is somewhat gimmicky, the issue at the heart of Wastecooking – Make Food, Not Waste is very serious. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, one-third of all the food produced around the world is thrown away. In the abstract, such a statistic can be almost meaningless, but Groß endeavours to explain what this means practically and to illustrate the scale of this excess.

Throughout the film, many interviewees recall how their parents instilled in them an adversity to throwing away food. Such values may seem old fashioned and at odds with the consumerism and convenience of today, but Wastecooking reveals that the end consumer is only a small part of the problem. Groß talks to farmers and fishermen who explain how much of their produce is unsaleable because it is the wrong size or an abnormal shape. He also accompanies garbage men and activists as they comb through the trash of large supermarket chains to show how much edible produce ends up in there.

While the film makes it clear that our problem with food wastage is not something that can be addressed on an individual level, it is earnest in its belief that sustained activism and campaigning could bring about the change required to fix the broken links in the global food supply chain.

Waste Cooking – Make Food, Not Waste screens on 24 February in Melbourne and on 11 March in Sydney.

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Signs of Humanity | Willie Baronet & Tim Chumley

Review by Rachael Imam

In the first moments of Signs of Humanity, Willie Baronet articulates how many feel when passing a person experiencing homelessness on the street. The combined feeling of awkwardness, discomfort and guilt from seeing a person in need – a person right in front of you – and failing to do anything about it. Born out of a desire to change the way he views and interacts with people experiencing homelessness, Willie has been purchasing the signs from people he meets for more than twenty years.

The film follows Baronet and his small crew for a month as they drive across America, meeting people, hearing their stories and buying their signs. Each city brings with it new tales of hardship and struggle, but also of optimism and unlikely friendships. The circumstances that brought these people to the streets are diverse, however, their desire for security, independence and real human connection is almost universally expressed. The signs themselves are works of art and the personalities of the people who made them can be felt in every line and curve.

Through these small, often poignant interactions, we are given the opportunity to hear from people who are so often overlooked and ignored. With its humble yet powerful approach, Signs of Humanity gives a face to the issue of homelessness, both in America and around the world, and encourages us all not to turn away from it.

Signs of Humanity screens on 22 February in Melbourne.

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Esteem | Peter Charles Downey

Review by Georgina Haines

Human destruction of the natural environment is a theme more often analysed from macro levels of politics, policy and industrialisation. Esteem offers a fresh and thought-provoking exploration of the theme from a starkly different angle, suggesting that the devastation of our physical environment mirrors humanity’s spiritual deterioration and decline. This bold and insightful exploration into the manifestation of the human psyche parallels the director Charles Peter Downey’s own story of personal growth and enlightenment from a childhood defined by tragedy and fear.

Through a series of interviews with Downey, experts from a diverse range of disciplines converge on a common message – that if as individuals we cannot learn to embrace vulnerability and be at peace with life’s inevitable impermanence, we as a society will forever be at war with Mother Nature, and ultimately ourselves.

Esteem exposes man’s endless consumerism as a desperate attempt to fill the isolation so symptomatic of modern society, and his destruction of the world around him as the fear-fuelled desperation to control and conquer that which makes him feel so small. Downey concludes that it is our low self-esteem that is at the heart of our ruthless abuse of the environment.

Understated in style and execution, Esteem challenges its viewers to acknowledge that the society we live in is often an institutionalised perpetuation of disconnectedness from our true selves; a legacy of avoidance and denial stemming from a deep-seated fear of all that makes us human.

At the documentary’s close Downey shares how he finally broke free from ingrained patterns of self-destruction, learned to look deeper within, and eventually to acknowledge the paradoxical strength of vulnerability. With this, viewers are left with the salient message that if, as individuals and as a society, we can engage in introspection and self-compassion, that if we can lovingly rebuild our innate relationship with the skies, seas and land that so give and sustain life, it is then that we may truly and finally inherit the Earth.

Esteem screens on 25 February in Melbourne.

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