No one wants to go to the movies to be lectured or talked down to, a quality documentary filmmaker Susan Kucera recognizes and avoids. Her latest work, Breath of Life, following her 2010 debut Trading on Thin Air, covers some of the same material as Al Gore’s celebrated An Inconvenient Truth but easily surpasses it. Rather than provide a single topic, graphs, pointing, more graphs, charts and a narrator who drones on and on, she’s made a stunning, unusual cautionary film that blends mind food with a grand, wide-ranging imagery.
The first words uttered are a quote from Albert Einstein: “The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.” From there, we’re introduced to a series of men and women, who provide the film with a vast spectrum of talking points. We meet doctors, professors, farmers, environmentalists, writers and even world-famous evolutionist Richard Dawkins (the only celebrity on hand, a wise, refreshing choice that avoids the distraction of star-gazing). The initial topic at hand is the need for this generation to prepare for the future and face the dire facts regarding the outcome of our species and planet.
Set to a trance-inducing score, the subjects and accompanying visuals explore the subject of Earth’s sustainability. Hot-button topics like global warming come up but so do general, easily digestible talking points like fears of not enough food and water for the future, and the collapse of the credit system. A dire prediction is made regarding farming and crops ceasing to exist. As one farmer notes, “the West Coast has five days of food…five days.” A marine biologist notes how “we’re plasticizing ocean creatures.”
What results is neither a doomsday decree, nor a this-is-how-we’ll-stop-this instructional film. The intriguing “solution” offered isn’t specifically environmentalist acts, charity donations or more recycling bins. Instead, Kucera’s film is a plea against indifference. In preparing for our future, we need to start thinking beyond our current lives and think of what’s ahead for generations to come. The film is saying that, if we’re going to stop our destructive tendencies and save humankind, our means of survival is spiritual and intellectual, as well as actively environmentalist. Considering how self-consumed with Right Now this generation is (a trap myself and everyone I know falls in), Kucera’s practical but sharp suggestion that we start thinking about tomorrow comes across without heavy-handedness. In fact, Breath of Life could have been grim and downbeat but instead is thoroughly fascinating and offers a visual feast for the big screen. Cinematic mind food is rarely this tasty.
By far, the most engaging camera subject is Wayne “Vene” Chun, who anchors the Hawaiian portion of the film. Chun is a canoe paddler and environmentalist, whose work and insight is inspiring. He reminds us that, when it comes to making a clean ocean a priority, “whatever we put inside there, we put inside us.” He also notes, movingly, how there used to be one million Hawaiians and that the canoe term, “Huli,” meaning to flip the paddle, also means “change.” We also learn that “the ha” means “breath of life,” which “we plant over and over again.”
The establishing image is that of a circular glass sphere, which is revealed to be a window on a shuttle, overlooking the planet earth. This jaw-dropper is capped by sounds of breathing. Oddly and appropriately, this visually resembles the opening of Altered States, which was also about the need to expand the understanding of our existence and how science alone cannot be relied upon to save us.
Of the swirl of beautiful imagery that peppers every scene, the shot that stayed with me the most is of the shadows of palm trees, stretched across the surface of a building. It struck me that, if any shot sums up the theme of nature being obscured by progress and being prison to mankind’s efforts, it’s that one.
Breath of Life plays on Wednesday, May 6 at 7pm at Maui Mall Megaplex for one night only.
Photo: Breath of Life Facebook page