Cabin Music | Photo by Brian Leisring

Doc Highlights at Planet in Focus Environmental Film Fest

Fest runs Oct. 12 - 22

10 mins read

After an unseasonably warm September, Toronto’s Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival heats up conversations about the world’s ecosystems. PiF returns to in person screenings this year with the acclaimed Sundance doc Deep Rising, directed by Matthieu Rytz (Anote’s Ark) and narrated by action star Jason Momoa, at the Paradise Theatre. PiF also features new works by festival favourites Liz Marshall (The Ghosts in Our Machine) and Andrew Nisker (Ground War), while highlights from the festival circuit like Foragers offer timely conversation starters and dramatic works like How to Blow Up a Pipeline should get audiences fired up. This year’s festival again offers an inclusive framework for environmental cinema and engages audiences with human rights stories that are intimately linked with currents of climate change.

Here are some documentary highlights at this year’s Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival.


Cabin Music

Friday, Oct. 20 at 7:00 pm

POV is proud to co-present the Canadian premiere of Cabin Music on October 20th at the Paradise Theatre. Following a successful launch at DOC NYC, Cabin Music is a unique self-portrait by composer, pianist, and filmmaker Jason Carson. Cabin Music is a film twelve years in the making and it observes Carson’s trips to a strawbale cabin that he built in a remote location after experiencing an awakening, temporarily quitting music for two years, and then backpacking around the world. The documentary harnesses his experimentation with music, sound, and landscape as his cabin enjoys a sonic interaction with the notes that arise from his piano. Carson will attend PiF for both a performance and post-screening conversation.



Deep Rising

Thursday, Oct. 12 at 6:30 pm

Planet in Focus opens with this dive into the possibilities for alternative energy that come from mining the ocean floor. Featuring stunning underwater cinematography and an immersive consideration of both sides of a heated debate, director Matthieu Rytz invites a conversation about the alternatives to fossil fuels in a world that doesn’t seem willing to change its practices. Deep Rising features action superstar Jason Momoa as narrator, whom Rytz cast for the film after realizing that actor Jane Fonda and marine biologist Sylvia Earle might result in a film that preaches to the converted. “[I]n a brainstorming session, I thought, ‘Aquaman!’ Not only is Jason perfect as Aquaman, he’s also Polynesian. He has the ocean in his DNA. His father is Kānaka Maoli,” Rytz told POV in an interview during Sundance. “There was a very beautiful moment when we recorded in Santa Monica. He got stuck at one point. He’s such a big strong man and he almost started crying, he was so moved. There’s a lot of emotion, he didn’t just do a voiceover gig—he’s seriously concerned about the state of the ocean.”


s-yéwyáw: Awaken

Friday, Oct. 13 at 7:00 pm

Planet in Focus flexes its expansive “environmental cinema” muscle with Liz Marshall’s thoughtful portrait of reconciliation. The film draws upon the knowledge of Indigenous elders. Marshall follows three Indigenous “multimedia changemakers”—Ecko Aleck, Alfonso Salinas, and Charlene SanJenko—as they learn about their roots and the experiences of elders that form the backbone of Indigenous resilience today. There are painful conversations here, but Marshall puts the Indigenous perspectives at the forefront and allows the participants to guide the conversations with elders while the camera observes as stories as passed between generations. Marshall and Salinas will join the audience for a Q&A following the screening.


The Hearing

Sunday, Oct. 15 at 7:00 pm

Not to be confused with the immigration hearing documentary of the same name that screened at Hot Docs earlier this year, The Hearing is a timely portrait of Canada’s system for granting and denying asylum to parties looking to rebuild their lives. Director Peggy Nkunga Ndona, working with director Emilie B. Guerette, turns the lens on her family’s plight to establish a claim for asylum in Canada after making a perilous escape from the Democratic Republic of Congo. As with the Hot Docs flick The Hearing, which tackles the asylum process in Switzerland, Nkunga Ndona and Guerette’s film offers an intimate glimpse into a complicated process in which the lives of participants hinge on a judge’s interpretation of facts, stories, and necessity. Nkunga Ndona and Guerette will participate in a Q&A following the film’s screening.


The Climate Baby Dilemma

Thursday, Oct. 19 at 7:00pm

Planet in Focus bestows its 2023 Canadian Eco-Hero Award on Dr. Britt Wray, whose work about climate anxiety is explored in the documentary The Climate Baby Dilemma, directed by Victoria Lean. The Climate Baby Dilemma takes a cue from Dr. Wray’s writing about emotional responses to environmental change and looks at a generation of people as they confront the ethical choice to bring a child into a world with such an uncertain future. Dr. Wray’s upcoming book Generation Dread looks at the ways in which people may respond to the burnout and emotional weight associated with climate anxiety. The screening of The Climate Baby Dilemma includes the presentation of the Canadian Eco-Hero award to Wray and a panel discussion that includes director Vicki Lean and film participant Emma Lim.

Learn more about The Climate Baby Dilemma in Marc Glassman’s video interview with Lean:



Friday, Oct. 21 at 8:30 pm

Winner of the John Kastner Award at Hot Docs this year, Silvicola is an artfully engaged work from director Jean-Philippe Marquis. The film tackles the issues of deforestation through an unexpected lens as follows the stories of several people who work in various capacities in the logging industry in BC. What follows is a complicated debate as alternatives for work and resources need to replace the industry that feeds families at the expense of the environment. Silvicola illustrates how the process of cutting down trees is simply a matter of economic necessity for some, while others find summer gigs by planting trees for future harvest. “You talk to a logger, and many know about the whole ecosystem: the way trees communicate underground, and the bugs and the fauna and the flora,” Marquis told POV. “They often know as much as biologists because they’re just in there all day.”



Friday, Oct. 22 at 6:30 pm

Andrew Nisker is something of a PiF staple. After bringing his films The Dark Side of Chew, Ground War, and Coral Ghosts to the festival, Nisker is back for the world premiere of his new film Nuked as PiF’s closing night selection. Nuked is a provocative study of the moral consequences of nuclear warfare. The documentary looks at the impact of nuclear warfare on the remote location of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, a small site in Micronesia. The film tells how the atoll’s residents were displaced and the location was used by as a testing ground by the Americans, as if forcibly moving 167 people justified the study in warfare. Uncle Sam detonated numerous bombs on the picturesque cove in the 1940s and 1950s and while some residents were allowed to return many years later, they became unwitting Guinea pigs for the lingering consequences of nuclear fallout. Director Andrew Nisker and Bikini Atoll mayor Anderson Jibas will participate in a Q&A following the screening.


Planet in Focus runs Oct. 12 to 22.



Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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