Navigating Histories: The Films of Gary Marcuse

An intense look at the accomplishments of the political documentarist

19 mins read

“We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” — George Orwell

There’s a precious scene in Gary Marcuse’s Nuclear Dynamite (2000) when scientists from the Livermore Laboratory in California arrived in the Inupiat village of Point Hope, Alaska, in 1959 to explain to the local people why they should be happy to have a brand new harbour, blasted out by nuclear explosives, about 25 miles away from their homes. The scientists brought with them an animated film showing how the radiation from the explosion would be “washed out of the ecosystem,” by which they meant out to sea. Radioactive fallout, they promised, would blow away from the village, if the wind was right. But there was a problem. The Inupiat whalers brought tape recorders to the meeting—some of the tapes have survived—and grilled the scientists. An older man spoke up from the back of the room, asking whether the scientist had said this was an experiment. Yes, they had. “So you don’t know what will happen,” the villager says. With the help of a local priest, news of the planned blast leaked out to the national press. The atomic scientists blamed the priest for the taping but what they hadn’t realised is that the Inupiat, along with the Canadian Inuit, rely on oral culture as the basis of their societal history. They were early adopters of recording technology. Tapes were widely circulated by dogsled between villages. They were also sharp listeners, as the scientists discovered. The experiment was postponed and, after the atmospheric test ban treaty was passed in 1963, never revived.

“In a lot of my work, I’m trying to listen outside the culture that I was raised in. To have an ear for it, to be able to convey it—and that has led me to admire the work of psychologists and anthropologists.” —Gary Marcuse

Gary Marcuse is a producer, journalist, educator, media analyst and activist, past national chair of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC), founding member of the Vancouver branch of the DOC, past president and national executive of the Writer’s Guild of Canada and award-winning film and radio documentarian.

Significantly, he is also the co-author of Cold War Canada: The Making of a National Insecurity State, 1945–1957, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what has happened to this country since the end of World War II.

Though Marcuse is best known as a film documentarian, this early research and writing endeavour can be seen as a pivotal moment of his practice, a turning of ideas about how fear is managed to pursue and maintain power. Cold War Canada shows how authority conveniently degenerates into politics for power’s sake and how ideology leans in to eclipse reason to the detriment of democracy. It is not only an uncommonly informed, detailed and brightly enlivened reflection on the Cold War in Canadian and world history but it also presages our current Canadian psycho-political social formation.

Disenfranchisement has many forms. During the Cold War it was easy enough to tar your opponent as a communist infiltrator; any social activist could be portrayed as a fellow traveller. In 2015, if you’re thinking outside the fossil fuel paradigm, you’re under suspicion; if you’re politically active and critical, you’re under foreign influence; if you oppose a pipeline, you’re an eco-terrorist. It’s Harper’s Canada: government by belittling and belligerence whose primary product is insecurity and the exaltation of ignorance.

In contrast, the formal properties of the oeuvre of Gary Marcuse consist of purposeful humanitarian reason, emotional listening and contextualized historical references, passionately informed by environmentalism, media analysis and humanist psychology.

“Completely central to my work is the fact…. [that] I am usually trying to build up a picture of somebody’s experience which is going to lead the audience to reframe their own perspectives.” —Gary Marcuse


The Mind of A Child (1995), Marcuse’s first film, foregrounds the innovative and successful educational work of First Nations teacher Lorna Williams of the St’at’imc Nation. She applies the trust-building relationship techniques originally developed for teaching and engaging the traumatized children of the Holocaust by Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli development psychologist, to the education of First Nations children, Canada’s homegrown survivors. In the film Lorna Williams’ personal story is recounted: she’s the last of four generations who were sent to Canada’s notorious residential schools and had to struggle to regain her cultural roots as her identity was hollowed out by the imposition of colonial intent.

“I was sent to residential school at six years old…there wasn’t any joy in living as everything was so regimented that I was always in a state of alertness, just constantly living in fear.” —Lorna Williams, The Mind of a Child

This is much, much more than one individual story, however. It is the premise of Reuven Feuerstein’s, and by extension Lorna Williams’ work (and, in many ways, with all of Marcuse’s oeuvre too), that cognitive development, the ability to reason and discern, is dependent on having a foundation of cultural transmission, of a meaningful history from which to project a future.

“In the mid-1800s there were 30,000 of us who lived in this valley. By 1950, there were only 500. Small pox and influenza were the two major diseases. I remember when I read that is when I fully realized the extent of the loss and the trauma that our people had experienced…and in a way it gave me new eyes to look at the strength still in the people and that they could persist and retain as much as of who we are as First Nations people—with that kind of a loss.” —Lorna Williams

Marcuse highlights that the forces of injustices, inflicted trauma and the deadly blind spots of the central or dominant culture are twined ills.

Taking a deeply compassionate and expansive approach to directing, he foregrounds historical, anthropological and emotional truths. What is demonstrated in the relationship between camera and subject presupposes a foundation of the director’s own presence, of an observational view that constantly works to mirror the humanity of his subjects and interviewees. This psychological stance is easy enough to state but takes a lifetime of commitment to listening to attain.

Marcuse’s next film, Nuclear Dynamite, could be a companion documentary piece to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. It’s a chronicle worthy of an Astounding Stories science-fiction pulp: at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were pursuing, planning and implementing nuclear explosions for massive geological engineering programs. The U.S. project, under the guidance of central-casting mad scientist and “father of the hydrogen bomb” Edward Teller, was promoted as the peaceful use of the atomic bomb, with the Biblical title “Operation Plowshares.”

The screwy zeal of some of these projects is extraordinary: a replacement of the Panama Canal by a staggered series of nuclear explosions to blast a trench across the isthmus; nuclear bombs to pound out an “instant” deep ocean harbour in Alaska; and oh yeah, baby, “Project Cauldron”—the use of ‘controlled’ nuclear explosions to liquefy bitumen in Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands—a project that had been approved by the Alberta Research Council, the federal department responsible for mines, Atomic Energy of Canada and the Defence Research Board.

Many are under the impression that environmentalism was initiated by the attention garnered by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which traced the movement of pesticides through the food chain. Nuclear Dynamite teaches us that the roots of environmentalism in North America began a decade earlier, in the early ’50s, with the justifiable fears provoked by the invisible terrors of radioactive fallout. There are extensive interviews with key players—scientists, activists, Indigenous peoples—and a montage of mind-boggling historical footage.

“The new hydrogen bombs, which Teller helped to invent, were a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. The Soviet Union tested the largest bombs ever made in the Arctic. The shock wave from the explosion circled the planet three times. Military tests were also carried out underground in Nevada, to cut down on fallout, but underground explosions were hard to control. When the power of the sun is ignited underground, tremendous forces are released. Temperatures rise to millions of degrees, rock and water are vapourized, and the hot gases force their way upward. Clouds of radioactive fallout from military tests below and above ground drifted across North America and around the world.” —Extracted from Nuclear Dynamite

Nuclear Dynamite documents the global awakening of the reasoning of environmentalism—that life is interconnected, and to act otherwise is devastatingly daft.

In Artika: The Russian Dream that Failed (2004), Marcuse reviews the Soviets’ intractable will to exploit the mining wealth of the Far North while at the same time civilizing—read colonizing—the cultures of the numerous aboriginal groups who had called the area home for a millennium. Two million Russians were moved up North and cities were built to mine the vast territory that had previously been home to First Nations tribes. As in Nuclear Dynamite, judicious use of archival material mixed with historical and contemporary investigations into anthropological and human rights issues, enlightened by an ecological sensibility, tell the tale. One cannot watch the film without seeing parallels with Canada’s own northern ambitions and treatment of First Nations.

There is a gentle forward momentum, a sense of curiosity as we follow the different strands of the story. Marcuse’s critical eye takes us to the edge of the precipice of industrial-scale human folly. Current and historical injuries to groups and the environment are countered by the activism of individual players, working and gaining their human and environmental rights.

Waking the Green Tiger: The Rise of a Green Movement in China (2011) has been winning awards, accolades and audiences around the world and is being used extensively as a tool for public discussions and environmental activism in China and elsewhere. It’s an exceptional accomplishment, an alluring document of civil engagement following an activist campaign to stop an ill-conceived mega-dam on the upper Yangtze River in southern China.

Historically referenced, the film employs rarely seen clips of Maoist managerial blundering and, in contrast, reveals the slow emergence of ecological appreciation and lucidity. Encouraging in outlook, the film presents a successful turn of events for people power in China.

Echoing activism, media building on media, Green Tiger includes a film within the film. Chinese environmental filmmaker Shi Lihong shot and directed a doc about the fate of a farming community that was relocated to make way for another dam. With Shi’s permission, Marcuse has seamlessly integrated this material into his own film. The clips included are fervent, tender and effective as we are brought face-to-face with the grievous outcomes of such massive displacement: the devastation of an ethnic group, a farming community, an entire environment.

This is what Green Tiger chronicles: the ruination of one community motivating a similar community to take effective action against its own potential devastation.

“I was screening Green Tiger along with Shi Lihong for university students. We were touring through seven cities in China—the smallest city was twice the size of Toronto…several of the older graduate students watching would say to me, ‘Is your film about the environment or is it about democracy?” —Gary Marcuse

“When Waking the Green Tiger found its way into an environmental film festival in Kuala Lumpur…they didn’t just say ‘Hurray, there’s some Chinese peasants who have stopped a dam… We want to do that…’ but they also said, ‘We have never seen a [documentary] program tell us a story like this…’ We ended up collaborating with a group of NGOs to subtitle the film into 10 more languages.” —Gary Marcuse

There’s finesse to the formal and technical aspects of Waking the Green Tiger, to its use of music, graphics and historical footage that mark it as Marcuse’s most masterly to date. However, what sets it aside is its participatory presentation—actions are seen through the eyes of Chinese filmmakers, journalists, activists and farmers. He also knotted in an interview with China’s former director of the National Environmental Protection, Qu Geping, an insider of crucial importance and the architect of China’s unprecedented environmental transparency laws.

“The campaign to protect Tiger Leaping Gorge, which ran from 2004 to 2006, not only safeguarded one of China’s most magnificent landscapes, but it also saved the homes of more than 100,000 ethnic minority peoples, making the campaign one of the biggest success stories of the past decade for China’s green defenders.” —Liu Jianqiang, interviewed in Green Tiger and author of “Defending Tiger Leaping Gorge”, a case study in the anthology China and the Environment: The Green Revolution (Zed Books, 2013).

Histories are us and it is through our ability to learn and interpret our own collective past and to imagine a preferred future that learning may take place. That is the struggle of the individual, the tribe, the nation, yes, but essentially it is the algorithm of humanity’s survival. Waking the Green Tiger is conjointly about the power of the documentary as a civil engagement and acts as an essential democratic instrument for informed public participation. As in all of Marcuse’s films the direction is towards a mindful inclusiveness superbly enlightened by a meticulous humanism. It’s a kind of alert hearing and responsive speaking, a skillful navigation of the past and the present that the world desperately needs for any livable tomorrow.

Gary Marcuse adds: I must share credit for that documentaries that succeed, as they occasionally do, with the key creatives, Betsy Carson, Stuart de Jong, Kirk Tougas, Rolf Cutts, Henry Heillig and Doug Wilde. Without them I’d only have fading memories of some good ideas. And how do we acknowledge that essential chemistry that emerges from a long association with a commissioning editor who recognizes, provokes and supports good work. In this case that was Michael Allder at the CBC.

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