Is David Suzuki a Force of Nature?

Director Sturla Gunnarsson creates an indelible portrait of this Canadian icon’s life and legacy

22 mins read

There’s a reason that Neil Young’s 1990 song “Mother Earth” carries the subtitle “Natural Anthem.” Its terse, coruscating opening chords are more than a little reminiscent of “The Star Spangled Banner.” In lieu of bombs bursting in air, Young envisions a “ball of fire in the summer sky” possessed of a “healing light.” In a voice rendered almost meek by the ragged glory of the surrounding guitar work, the singer asks the Earth, “how long can you give and not receive?” It is a question tinged with equal measures of humility and righteous indignation.

This majestic track serves as the herald for Sturla Gunnarsson’s Force of Nature, a documentary about and featuring David Suzuki. It’s a fitting transition from one Canadian icon to another. First glimpsed in his dressing room in the moments before delivering a “legacy address” at the University of British Columbia, the 75-year-old environmentalist, scientist and CBC prime-time icon might be an aged prizefighter facing his reflection in anticipation of a final bout. “It kind of feels like this is a wrap of what I’ve been doing,” he says, addressing the camera. “It really is a nice completion.” A pause, and then a sideways smile. “I guess I can go home and die now.”

The joke is an attempt at self-deprecation but it hints at a stickier sentiment. Force of Nature is devoted to showcasing Suzuki’s continued vitality as a thinker and speaker, but this seemingly offhanded jest hangs over the film like a shroud. “He was at a point in his life where he was trying to distill it all,” says Gunnarsson in an exclusive interview conducted just days after the conclusion of the editing process. The director, whose last documentary was the 2009 Directors Guild of Canada award-winning Air India 182, was initially approached by producer Laszlo Barna with the idea to make a movie about Suzuki. “When we spoke about the film, [David] didn’t see himself as a subject,” says Gunnarsson. “He imagined something that would take his theories and present them cinematically. But what I saw was a guy who was 75 years old and at a very particular point in his life, dealing with his own mortality, and realizing that he wasn’t going to be around forever.”

Reached via telephone at his offices in Vancouver, Suzuki is hesitant to talk about the film in such personal terms. He says, in fact, that he’s always been confused by society’s desire to know more about public figures (which didn’t preclude him from writing an autobiography). He will confirm that he was tantalized by the potential of putting his big-picture ideas into a widescreen format. “I’ve always been very impressed with the difference in impact between a feature film and television,” says Suzuki. “When an audience member is at home, he might be distracted he has to go to the bathroom, have a beer, put the kids to bed. He’s not watching in a fully focused, concentrated way. Whereas some- one who pays 10 bucks and goes to sit in a theatre for 90 minutes has a very different relationship to what he’s watching.”

Cleanly photographed by Tony Westman and edited by the stalwart Nick Hector, Force of Nature holds audience attention without forcing it. The “legacy lecture” is more than just a framing device that allows for some gorgeous aerial nighttime shots of Vancouver and the UBC campus. It gives the film its spine. Approximately half of the film’s running time is devoted (non-consecutively) to Suzuki’s oration, which unfolds in front of a sold-out audience and is backed by an evocative stream of video images that transform the stage space into what Gunnarsson calls “a memory box.” “We didn’t want the images to be illustrative, like in An Inconvenient Truth,” says the director, as if anticipating the inevitable series of comparisons between his film and Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 Oscar winner, which of course also featured a very famous person speaking in public about environmental issues. “We wanted [our images] to be emotional and expressive.”

The projections are indeed quite lovely, though with all respect to Gunnarsson and his technical collaborations, the visuals might only really be noticeable on a second viewing. Chances are that most viewers will be too caught up in Suzuki’s words to really notice the pictures behind him. If Suzuki really did feel that this lecture was his last kick at the can, he chose to go down swinging. The speech addresses a host of early-21st-century realities, casting a glance back at the modernist upheavals of the previous 100 years, including the creation of the atomic bomb. It also has one eye on a future that he feels may be rapidly receding. In his best moments, Suzuki strikes the balance between layman-friendly accessibility and soft-spoken scientific authority that he has cultivated for more than 40 years as a TV presenter on The Nature of Things. His is a unique ability, resistant to charges of pedantry on the one hand and averse to accusations of dumbed-down compromise on the other. To hear Suzuki discuss the erosion of natural resources via the analogy of a test-tube crowded with bacteria—with one of the little buggers saying, “Guys, I think we’ve got a population problem here,” as exponential population growth takes its toll on the available pace—is to simultaneously appreciate the man’s storytelling abilities while shivering at his conclusions.

To be perfectly honest, a few of Suzuki’s rhetorical gambits ring hollow, like when he tries to emphasize the difference between the physical world and human society by reducing the world economy to nothing more than a phantom. It’s a provocative but simplistic formulation that doesn’t so much address the devastating complexities of globalized exchange as shunt them expediently off to the side. Still, the basic argument remains persuasive and scarily plausible: we’re using up our resources at a rate faster than the planet can replenish them. While he’s presented these ideas before in many different forums, Suzuki credits Gunnarsson for helping him to keep his discourse on track. “[Sturla] was as much the creator of the talk as I was,” says Suzuki. “I was putting down favourite lines from other speeches, and trying to cover everything at once. Sturla kept reminding me that I only had an hour, and he really helped me to shape the material and hone it down.”

Gunnarsson is wary about taking too much credit for his subject’s presentation, but he describes the process in very similar terms. “David is a raconteur,” he says. “He can burrow into subjects, digress, and then return to the first idea quite brilliantly. In a film, though, the spine needs to be very strong and precise. So I was thinking in terms of the overall filmic weave. I knew where all of the beats were. The speech had to work as a speech, of course, but knowing certain things about the rest of the production, we were able to make it work in other ways, too.”

The “weave” that Gunnarsson describes is the material arranged around the lecture footage, which intends to both supplement and transcend the portrait of Suzuki as a public figure. Gunnarsson begins the journey in a Tokyo barbershop, as Suzuki unravels his childhood recollections of “the summer that [he] was disgraced.” The disgrace, though, was really Canada’s: in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the War Measures Act paved the way for the internment of a generation of Japanese-Canadians, including Suzuki’s own family. Exploring the grounds of the Nikkei Internment Memorial in Slocan Valley, British Columbia, Suzuki is overwhelmed by the intersection of national and personal history, revealing that he was ostracized as a child by the other Japanese kids at the camp. Because Suzuki’s family was Canadian, he could not speak their native language fluently, and thus found himself stranded between two cliques—one Japanese, one Caucasian—neither of which wanted anything to do with him.

Suzuki’s willingness to open up about his past is admirable—and it apparently didn’t come all that easily. “The big fear going in was that we were just doing The Nature of Things: Bigger, Longer and Uncut,” says Gunnarsson. “[This] really was the number one challenge. We all like to stay in our comfort zones—that’s why they’re our comfort zones. And I think it took David a little while to get used to the fact that he was the subject of the film, and not the author. I noticed that during our interviews he would go from talking to me to talking to the camera, so we had to find ways to get around that, like asking the same questions over and over in a different context.”

To the director’s credit, he managed to circumvent this problem without resorting to pounding his subject. When Suzuki does show emotion—whether it’s about the difficult irony of his having apprenticed at a facility in Tennessee that had previously been instrumental in the development of the Manhattan Project or the slow dissolution of his first marriage due to his overwhelming work commitments—it feels natural rather than manufactured. During an interview shot at a bar in Oakridge, Suzuki talks about responding to the racism he felt swimming around him in that lily-white community by becoming a racist himself. “I hated white people,” he says flatly, and the moment feels remarkably unguarded—especially considering Suzuki’s famously telegenic persona.

It’s interesting to note that Suzuki’s career on The Nature of Things gets relatively short shrift. There’s almost as much archival footage of a shaggy-looking Suzuki skateboarding through the halls of UBC with his students in the early 1970s as there are clips of the program proper (though a landmark Nature of Things piece on a logging standoff in British Columbia is gone over in detail). One of the film’s more pointed compositions places Suzuki in a playback monitor as he rehearses promos for a new season of The Nature of Things, going through the paces of network brand extension with something less than enthusiasm. This is followed by a quick chat segment against the recognizable backdrop of CBC headquarters in Toronto, with Suzuki bemoaning the short-attention-span nature of contemporary television. “You don’t have time for profundity or to develop a thought…it’s just jolts per minute to carry it across,” he says, in plain view of his bosses’ offices. Gunnarsson cinches the joke by remarking from behind the camera that he’s going to indulge in a few seconds of dead air, just to bring the pace down.

“That was the one thing people didn’t get,” laughs Gunnarsson. “They thought it was a mistake that had been left in the film, which was the point.” All joking aside, however, Suzuki is more than willing to reiterate the point. “I was just on a panel in Banff talking about how to ‘green’ television,” he says. “I was very negative. I said that TV is in large part the problem. Our kids are watching too much television, too many games, too many screens. We need them to turn those damn things off and get them outside. We have a problem: Nature Deficit Disorder. If you’re not attuned to nature, you don’t care what happens to it.” Certainly Suzuki’s childhood experiences exploring—and gently raiding—the swamps around his home (which he rather cheekily reveals were the byproduct of not being able to score any dates with girls) informed his later forays into biology.

Gunnarsson isn’t willing to write off the tube as a tool for potential good, balancing his film’s implicit critique of the contemporary TV landscape against some more optimistic ideas. “We’ve had 50 years of science programming in prime time in Canada,” he says, “which may have played a role as to why we have a different relationship to the environment than people in the United States. You have to ‘get them young,’ like the Church says. It instills certain values. If you take away the last few years, when I think Canada has been willfully entering into the age of stupid, Canadians have historically been tuned to environmentalism. Greenpeace was born here. At base, there’s a more respectful relationship to the natural world than in some other industrialized countries.”

This idea of respect—the wary, humble kind afforded to entities possessed of great destructive power—is at the heart of Suzuki’s message. It’s a potential criticism of Force of Nature that it allows him to present that message without any intimations of dissent, but Gunnarsson has no problem reconciling his admiration for Suzuki with his imperatives as a documentary filmmaker. “I was at UBC when David was teaching there. He was a rock star professor and a very radical figure. When I look back at that time, what really attracted me to him was that he was following this idea of the numinous but approaching it through science…I was studying William Blake, and he was talking about seeing eternity in a grain of sand. And in the last 30 years, a lot of what he was saying has become accepted as conventional wisdom.

“He’s been very consistent in his philosophical and ethical outlook all that time. So I was curious to know: is he rigid and inflexible, or is he just a more highly evolved thinker than I am? It’s a little bit of both, maybe. I can say, though, that making this film made me a less cynical person.”

For his part, Suzuki still sounds plenty cynical, at least when discussing those who would seek to publically discredit the environmental movement he’s helped to shape both as a TV front man and test-tube tinkerer. Force of Nature was filmed before the BP oil spill, but Suzuki says that analyzing the fallout is instructive. “When the gulf accident happened, why didn’t the oil industry respond by just saying ‘Hey, we really screwed up, it’s our fault, and what can we do?’ he asks in the indignant tones of somebody who doesn’t expect a satisfactory answer. “Instead, it’s all about shouting down the science and keeping people off of the company’s back.”

This is not an optimistic assessment. And yet Force of Nature is not entirely a despairing film. The images of Suzuki in repose with his children and their families, or making a solitary pilgrimage to a spot he’d previously visited with his late father, have a sanguine quality that at once recalls and relieves the gallows humour of the opening dressing-room one-liner: they’re evidence that a man ever-restless in spite of his success has found peace even as he’s taken up residence in what he calls “the death zone.” And they also mesh with the closing passages of the lecture, in which the dark, apocalypse-now theorizing gives way to a plangent call for change that admits the possibility—and sustaining need—for hope.

“I’m enough of a realist to see where the curve is taking us, which is over the edge of a big cliff,” says Suzuki, echoing and expanding upon the words he says in the film. “But if we can find a way to activate the breaks, perhaps nature will be more forgiving than we were. All I can say is that it is looking grim, but we don’t know with absolute certainty that it’s too late, so we have to operate on hope. It’s not a very big life raft to hold on to, but it’s the only thing that will keep us going.”

“I think of David as a guy who offers hope in the face of the evidence,” says Gunnarsson. “Nobody knows better than he does about how fucked we are, but in spite of it, he still approaches the natural world with a sense of mystery and awe. And ultimately, I think that he believes that it is in that same mystery and awe that we will find our salvation.”

Adam Nayman is a critic and teacher in Toronto. He writes for Cinema Scope, The Ringer, and other publications.

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