Monday, April 27, 2009

Tribeca Film Festival - The Burning Season

Here's a movie that'll make you want to go out and change the world.

Burning Season was broadcast last year as part of the Frontline series, minus the orangutans and the shall we say pragmatic look at the Bush Regime’s so-called environmental policies, which can best be summed up the sentence: “We believe that every tree on earth is just another baby ream of Xerox paper.” There’s also a sentence that sums up the difference between that version and this version: “Oh THAT’S what you were talking about.”

Director and writer Cathy Henkel juggles three stories and a civics lesson, interspersed with images of orangutans wandering through what look like war zones. (The orangutans really are the human face of this story.) An Indonesian farmer wrestles with the need to clear forest land in order to produce a cash-bearing crop of palm wine seeds; a rescue worker is trying to save as many orangutans as possible from the burnt-out wastelands that used to be their home; and a driven young idealist is trying to get corporate backing for a carbon-trading system which would hit up environmental polluters by having them fund reforestation projects.

It’s an accomplished juggling act, interspersed with stunningly-animated sequences that provide the civics lesson. I say “stunningly” not because the animation is so beautiful, but because of its stark and primitively individual look, like captured silhouettes from some allegorical puppet show. Maps of countries sending smoke to the skies from their denuded forests are like head-shots from an info gun (when you factor deforestation into the carbon emission graph, Indonesia is the third worst offender in the entire world, behind only China and us).

The main storyline follows Dorjee Sun (the idealist), who ironically enough embodies the American ideal of entrepreneurial gumption even as he fights, in essence, America’s deliberate refusal to address the issue he wants to find a solution for. If anybody ever tells you that young people have no drive or idealism, show them this movie. Sun is inspirational, articulate, and charmingly implacable.

Overall it’s a great mix of stuff you didn’t know, stuff that makes you want to go out and change the world, and stuff that makes you realize orangutans are like Humanity’s second cousins. There’s a moment towards the end where a female with a baby clinging to her fur has been reforested, if you will, and when the door to the crate she’s in opens up, she sticks her head out like a refugee expecting to be shot at, only to see this jungle, these trees she probably hasn’t seen in months. Then, just as warily as that refugee, she moves off into the vegetation, throwing a look over her shoulder that says “I get to leave? I get to go here? It’s okay, really?” As I said before: the human face of the story.

And oh yeah -- this is all happening in 2007, when there was actual corporate cash money around for ideas like this. Which makes for an oh-no kick-in-the-gut epilogue, let me tell you.

Highly recommended. And for more info (and orangutan pictures):

The Burning Season

Ten Things You Can Do To Change The World

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