Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Spirit Bears, Tar Sands, and Conservation

SPOIL from EP Films on Vimeo.

The Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival took place two weekends ago.  The film Spoil took home the prize for Best Film - Mountain Environment.  This documentary is an advocacy piece for the conservation of the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, which is currently threatened by plans for a tar sands oil pipeline that would put massive oil tankers off the coast.  The film is under forty-five minutes and well worth a look--in the time it takes to kill your brain with The X Factor or Glee (guilty on both counts, don't you worry), you could learn a little something about tar sands and the Great Bear Rainforest, listen to some nice music, and drool over incredible nature footage. 

The film follows the efforts of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) as they put together an environmental campaign to stop the tar sands plans.  Along the way, you'll see the lengths to which nature and wildlife photographers will go for that perfect shot--including tromping around (respectfully) in bear country, dodging spawning salmon, and braving jellyfish stings to the face.  There are otters, bears (my favorite animal), wolves, whales and plenty of gorgeous forest and ocean shots.  It's worth a watch for the natural eye candy alone--put it in full screen for the best effect.

The film also discusses the importance of the area to the Gitga' First Nation, whose members guide the iLCP photographers and take a few nice photos along the way as well.  The Gitga Nation opposes the oil pipeline, which endangers their livelihood.  The coastal waters through which the supertankers must navigate are treacherous.  In one poignant scene, the director chose to compare maps between the "relatively easy" route of the Exxon Valdez and the proposed channel for the new tar sands pipeline, which requires five angled turns to the Exxon Valdez's one.  We all know how that story turned out--and these new supertankers will carry almost ten times as much oil.  Tar sands extraction is also extremely damaging to the environment.  Of course, big bucks are at stake--this project is meant for foreign export, mostly to China.  The discussion of this BC oil proposal makes the Keystone XL Pipeline, a joint Canadian-American project currently on hold (thanks for something, Obama!) look like an even stupider idea.  An oil spill in this area, or in any area, would be catastrophic, as we have seen only too recently. 

It becomes clear over the course of the film that the real star of Spoil, however, is the Spirit Bear--a black bear with a recessive gene that turns its coat white.  Spirit Bears are important to the Gitga' and a tourist attraction for the adventure travel crowd.  National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen heads out with local guide Marven Robinson, who has been around bears for many years and knows some of them from when they were cubs.  After twelve days of searching, they come across a white bear, who passes within two feet of them.  Nicklen described how close they came: "You could smell his breath, you could look into his eyes."  In the end, it is this moving encounter (yeah, I cried a little bit) that gives the greatest argument for protecting and conserving this unique area. 

If you're interested, you can see National Geographic's coverage from its August issue: Spirit Bears, Paul Nicklen's photos, and more on the BC tar sands project.  If you can't see the film at the top, you can go here.  If you think you'll dig the films from Banff, check out their awards page for more films or the schedule for their world tour.  And if you'd like to get involved, visit PacificWild.org.