Charles Wilkinson’s Environmental Trilogy

This post originally appeared as a DOC Member Spotlight.

Although Charles Wilkinson recently completed three documentaries about the climate crisis, he’s not interested in pointing a finger at people in big cars.

“What I’ve found is that when you come across as holier-than-thou, you turn off at least 50% of the audience. You just seem so precious. I’m part of this culture. You see a guy driving by in a Hummer, I get him. I like to drive. I like to drive fast. I love travelling. I love so much about this lifestyle that is unsustainable.”

This sympathetic and often humorous approach characterizes Wilkinson’s environmental trilogy, which does not so much condemn climate offenders as explore our mutual responsibility. The series’ first two docs outlined the issues: Peace Out (2011) asked whether we’re compromising our planet for energy-guzzling comforts (Wilkinson’s answer: “yeah, we sure are”), while Oil Sands Karaoke (2013), about a Fort McMurray karaoke contest, questioned why we aren’t doing anything about it. (“We’re just all so busy with our own stuff,” Wilkinson says.) But for Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World (2015), which won the Best Canadian Feature Documentary Award at Hot Docs this past April, Wilkinson shifted focus from the problem onto potential solutions.

Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the Northwest Coast of British Columbia, has been home to the Haida Gwaiian people for more than 10,000 years. And while they have faced immense setbacks—including logging and over-fishing—the community has made significant strides in an ongoing battle to protect its land. Wilkinson sees Haida Gwaii as a promising model for the rest of the world—an idea he first realized when visiting the Haida Gwaii Film Festival to screen Peace Out in 2012.

“I spent maybe 10 minutes on the ground and realized that this was a place that could show the rest of the world that there is some hope, wherever you happen to be,” he says, “That’s what made us so passionate about trying to find a way of expressing the vibe that’s there is on Haida Gwaii.”

Wilkinson’s enthusiasm when discussing Haida Gwaii is reflective of his high-energy career. After a childhood performing on a kids’ variety show —“I grew up in the circus, basically“—Wilkinson worked a series of odd jobs before pursuing a degree in filmmaking from Simon Fraser University. He made his first short doc, Tiers: A Story of the Penitentiary (1982), through the National Film Board before graduating, but spent most of his professional life directing fiction before launching full-time into documentary about eight years ago. It was a welcome return to the genre that initially drew him to the craft.

“My parents always took me to see documentaries when I was a kid, and I thought they were wonderful. Just the way you could see the world in what appeared to be a really unbiased way. Nobody was selling you anything, nobody was making anything out of it. It just seemed so clean.”

These days, Wilkinson isn’t only about clean—he also keeps his productions lean. After a career on larger-scale dramatic sets, his crew now consists solely of himself and his filmmaking partner Tina Schliessler, who is also his life partner of more than 30 years. They perform almost every role—including producing, directing, cinematography and editing—which affords a flexibility not possible with bigger teams. Wilkinson estimates they spent a total of four months at Haida Gwaii, gradually extracting their story, as well as the trust of the area’s inhabitants.

“The more time that you spend on a location, the more you learn about it,” he explains, “and invariably, you don’t really realize what you should be asking or what you should be looking for until your last day. Honestly, so many things in Haida Gwaii happened the day after we were supposed to leave.”

With his climate trilogy complete, Wilkinson is developing new work—although he’s keeping the details close. Having successfully made the transition from fiction, however, he can confirm one detail: “It’s a documentary.”

To read more about Wilkinson’s films:
Haida Gwaii: On The Edge of the World
Oil Sands Karaoke

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