TINY: A Story About Living Small

TINY: A Story About Living Small (Directors: Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith): Tiny home: a living structure that can range anywhere from 60 to 500 square feet and is typically in the 120 to 200 square foot range. Tiny homes are usually built on flatbed trailers, which make them both easily mobile and qualifies them as “temporary structures”, allowing for compliance with zoning laws and building codes.

Tiny home living is a growing movement embraced by people wishing to make a smaller environmental impact, for financial reasons, and because they generally just want to simplify their lives. Christopher Smith aspired to such a lifestyle, so shortly before his 30th birthday, he purchased a five acre plot of land in Colorado and subsequently set about building his own tiny home, with the assistance of his girlfriend, Merete Mueller. The pair decided to document their experience for a short film, but further explorations into the tiny home movement saw the project, aided by a successful Kickstarter campaign, expand to TINY: A Story About Living Small‘s now 62 minute running time.

The co-directors, neither of whom had any building experience, soon come to find that even extra small-scale house construction is more challenging and time-consuming than they expected. Most of the construction work is actually done by Smith, who frequently relies on instructional YouTube videos to guide him and doesn’t come close to completing the project in the four month period originally estimated. Very few of the construction-related obstacles encountered are shown, to the film’s slight detriment (Smith admitted in the post-screening Q&A that they were mostly edited out). There’s a lot of people out there who, like me, possess less-than-stellar handyman skills and showing more of those trials and tribulations would have made Smith’s building experience a little more relatable, as well as added an extra level of small intrigue to the proceedings. Even still, by the time the project is completed, the tremendous sense of accomplishment felt by the amiable Smith and Mueller makes for a satisfying payoff for the viewer as well. An interesting side story also develops as the home takes shape involving the couple’s questionable future together, due to Mueller’s desire to pursue her writing career in New York City.

Interspersed with the scenes showing the couple’s building project are interviews with other tiny home dwellers and tours (very short tours, naturally) of their diminutive abodes. There are repeated testimonials about how much happier they all are with their downsized manner of living and the freedom it allows them, financially and in other ways (such as maintaining a clutter-free existence that relies just on essentials). A couple of different tiny home residents talk about working for years at white collar jobs that took up most of their lives and left them unfulfilled, leading them to reexamine their priorities and make the big change to living small.

Smith and Mueller’s delightful documentary provides an insightful look into the fascinating tiny home movement, with thought-provoking discussions on the meaning of “home” and how that concept fits into the context of the ever-changing American Dream.


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Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson

Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson (Director: Trish Dolman): There’s been no shortage of the spotlight on environmental and animal rights activist Paul Watson in recent years. In 2008, the Pirate for the Sea documentary examined his life, the popular Whale Wars show (on the Animal Planet channel), which follows his exploits fighting against illegal Japanese whaling, is about to begin its fourth season next month, South Park satirized him in an episode a couple of years ago, and now comes Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson. The film, making its world premiere at Hot Docs, took director Trish Dolman eight years to complete and results in a finely crafted account of Watson’s life’s work, also taking brief glimpses into the Canadian’s personal side.

A founding member of Greenpeace in 1971, Watson eventually alienated too many in the organization with his impatience at a perceived excess of bureaucracy and overly passive protest policies. In 1977 he left to start the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which he still fronts today. The organization employs aggressive, confrontational means in their crusade, whether it’s ramming (or even sabotaging) whaling ships, taking on other vessels in high speed chases, or firing smoke and stink bombs onto the decks of illegal fishing ships in an effort to disrupt their operations. Dolman captures some amazing visuals, both of the beautiful scenery and the dangerous situations that Watson and his crew place themselves in. A particularly moving scene shows Watson accompanying Emily Hunter as they scatter some of the ashes of her late father, environmental activist pioneer Bob Hunter, on top of an iceberg in the Antarctic.

Interviews with admirers (including actor Martin Sheen and Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis) and Watson’s peers in the environmental movement elicit strong love-him-or-hate-him reactions, both to his prickly personality and controversial, agitating methods. Much of the interview content is highly critical of Watson and certainly doesn’t paint him in a favourable light on a number of fronts (his own daughter admits that he placed the animals he defends ahead of the needs of his own family). This is to the film’s credit as, in conjunction with the equally extensive amount of praise he receives, it leaves the viewer feeling that they’re getting a well-rounded portrayal of the man. Watson himself says that he has more faith in, and love for, animals than he does for humans. Despite his flaws, Watson possesses an oddball charm. Witness, for example, the devilishly inspired scheme he devises to retire his former ship, named the Farley Mowat, by putting the Canadian government on the hook for the cost, as well as embarrassing them at the same time. Absolute genius.

Effectively blending archival footage with the aforementioned elements, Eco-Pirate reveals Watson to be a complex, compelling figure who is tenaciously dedicated to his cause, which makes him someone both respected and reviled within the environmental activist community. Watson, who joined in the Q&A session following the film’s screening via Skype from overseas, says that he is pleased with how the film turned out.


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Wiebo's War

Wiebo’s War (Director: David York): David York opens his engaging film with an interesting scene. Wiebo Ludwig, the subject of the film, is sitting around a table with several of his sons and the film crew, and Wiebo is concerned that most of what he stands for “won’t come across” because the director and crew are atheists.

It’s a bold move, and potentially one that will put many people off Ludwig right away. But it’s also a necessary tactic, because for the next 90 minutes, it will be difficult not to be pulled in by Wiebo’s charisma, passion and evident good sense.

In the mid 1980s, Wiebo Ludwig, an ordained minister with the historically Dutch Christian Reformed Church, decided to uproot his family from their Ontario home to go and live “apart from the world” in northern Alberta. It was an experiment in holy living, but also in self-sufficiency and community-building. Along with another couple and all of their children, they settled on a parcel of land they dubbed Trickle Creek. As their children grew older, they intermarried and had their own children. They raised animals and were able to support themselves in both food and energy.

But these were not technology-shunning ascetics like the Amish. They wanted to farm and worship God, but were happy to be part of the wider world when they needed it. Unfortunately, the world quickly impinged on their bit of paradise.

In the late 1980s, the oil and gas industry moved in when they discovered that Trickle Creek was sitting over a huge reservoir of natural gas. One of the most shocking revelations of the film is that despite the Ludwigs’ deed to their land, they only own the top six inches, and have no ownership or control of the mineral rights that the EnCana gas corporation is so eager to exploit. Whether this is Canadian law or just Alberta’s, I still think it’s something that needs to be challenged.

York’s film uses lots of material shot by the Ludwigs over the years, including flaming tap water, an image used more recently by Josh Fox’s Gasland (review), which would make a great companion piece to this film. There’s also horrific footage of dead and deformed livestock, and in one indelible scene, a stillborn infant.

In the 90s, the Canadian news media was abuzz at a campaign of sabotage against the oil and gas industry including explosions at well sites. Ludwig was convicted in connection with these acts and served 18 months in prison. Many years pass but now there is another string of bombings in northern British Columbia, and Ludwig is again the prime suspect. Even though York follows him for several years as these events play out, we never really know the extent of Ludwig’s involvement. We do, however, begin to understand the extent of his family’s desperation to live unmolested.

Since Wiebo is eager to declare that his actions flow from his biblical principles, I think it’s cogent to examine them. Ludwig and his family are in a unique position, able to fulfil the biblical function of the prophet, which is to speak the truth to power. But in the process they are also subject to another biblical maxim: that a prophet is without honour in his own country. Their separation from the community allows them the freedom to criticize the oil and gas industry because they are not economically dependent upon it. The people in the towns around them don’t have that luxury, and so there is a built-in resentment that is only stoked higher by the Ludwigs’ religious beliefs and practices, which are subject to small-town gossip and distortion. It’s a fascinating dynamic to watch at work, and it is behind another of the film’s unsolved mysteries, the shooting death of a local girl on the Ludwig’s property after two truckloads of drunken teenagers arrive in the middle of the night to harass them.

It dawned on me that if this film had been set in the developing world, audiences would feel immediate sympathy and even solidarity with someone who was resisting a greedy corporation and an apathetic government. Because it’s so close to home, I think reaction will be more mixed. The oil and gas industry has been quick to brand Ludwig an “eco-terrorist” and the Canadian media has been happy to advance this characterization. York’s film will help shade the black and white caricature we’ve been provided with, although Ludwig remains a complicated man. His initial misgivings are not groundless, and for a man who claims to answer only to God, his participation in the film is pretty remarkable. If it brings some additional critical attention to the practices of an industry that powers so much of Canada’s economy, it will be worthwhile.


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Last year, I was very excited by the first “season” of FUTURESTATES, a series of shorts commissioned by the Independent Television Service (ITVS) to explore the following question: ” What will become of America in five, 25, or even 50 years?” There was some very strong work in the first group of films, including Play (David Kaplan and Eric Zimmerman), Silver Sling (Tze Chun) and Plastic Bag (Ramin Bahrami).

Of the ten new films slated for the second season, six will premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. And I can share that there are some even more powerful films in this batch. I was excited to see that Barry Jenkins, who directed the unique Medicine for Melancholy (review) would be contributing a film, and his Remigration poignantly explores the themes of race, class, and urban renewal that he touched upon in his earlier feature. Another director who uncovers some fascinating issues surrounding race is A. Sayeeda Clarke, whose White shows us a society in the grip of climate change where black people are forced to trade their genetic advantage in order to take care of their families. I also loved Kimi Takesue’s That Which Once Was which features a healing relationship between an 8-year-old Caribbean boy and an Inuit ice sculptor, both displaced and traumatized by the changing climate.

In addition to highlighting important issues confronting our planet, the best of these films are able to capture beautiful images and introduce us to memorable characters facing issues our children and grandchildren may yet face. And best of all, FUTURESTATES episodes are all available (or soon will be) to watch in their entirety online, free of charge. Not only has the series proven educational on the environmental front, but I’ve actually discovered some new filmmakers, the rest of whose work I now want to discover.


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Dreamland (Draumalandið)

Dreamland (Draumalandið) (Directors: Þhorfinnur Guðnason and Andri Snær Magnasson): My wife and I had the very good fortune to visit Iceland in September 2008, mere days before the collapse of their banking system. Since we were there partially to cover the Reykjavik International Film Festival, we were invited to a reception by the wonderful people at the Icelandic Film Centre where we saw clips of films in progress and were able to meet the directors. One of the most interesting projects we saw was Dreamland, based on the best-selling (at least in Iceland) book by Andri Snær Magnasson. I was able to speak to him that day and looking back, his sense of urgency as he warned of the short-sightedness of Iceland’s politicians was eerily prescient. The ensuing economic collapse has had ramifications around the world. So you can imagine how eager I was to finally see the finished film. Unfortunately, my high expectations were not to be met.

Dreamland starts out well enough, giving a quick primer on recent Icelandic history since achieving independence from Denmark in 1918. Founded to be resolutely neutral, it didn’t take long to become a cog in the Cold War shortly after World War 2. The government allowed the US military to build a base at Keflavik, and that base provided 2,000 jobs until it was closed in 2006. In a nation of just 300,000, this was a major economic blow, and so Iceland’s leaders went looking for a quick fix. With an abundance of clean geo-thermal energy, they decided to offer the surplus to the aluminum industry. Aluminum smelting is one of the most energy-intensive and environmentally-unfriendly processes in the resource business, but Iceland’s leaders figured that it would all happen in sparsely populated areas. Apart from the environmental effects, though, Magnasson argues that this kind of megaproject actually harms the Icelandic economy in the long run. He’s turned out to be right.

I’m sure in his book, all of this is laid out and argued in a coherent fashion. The same cannot be said for the film. Early on, we’re warned ominously by experts that politicians often use fear to control the electorate. Iceland’s politicians warned that if they didn’t build these megaprojects, the economy would not grow and that jobs might disappear forever. However, Dreamland stoops to the same fear tactics to make its case, and the irony seems lost on the filmmakers. Ominous music accompanies aggressive helicopter flyovers of unspoiled landscapes, and these shots are used over and over and over. Half of the talking head interviews are with Magnasson, who is only identified as “Writer” and not as co-director of the film nor as author of the book on which the film is based. The other interviews are unhelpful, with some subjects seeming to jump from one side of the argument to the other later in the film. Magnasson also presents a few too many shots of farmers and their families who will be affected by the aluminum plants. One or two farmers would have made his point.

The overall effect is that his few valid points are lost as the film becomes a heavy-handed and mind-numbing polemic. One clumsily-edited sequence attempts to equate the environmental damage of extracting bauxite (aluminum’s raw material) in India with smelting aluminum in Iceland, when the two processes are completely different.

I bought a copy of his book in English when I was in Iceland in 2008, and I’m looking forward to reading it, now mainly to see how a respected and intelligent journalist could turn it into such a jumbled mess of a film.

Official site of the film



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