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Director Joel Heath on his award-winning documentary, PEOPLE OF A FEATHER

Rachel Fox

March 6th, 2012

Director Joel Heath's (pictured above, in the center) award-winning documentary PEOPLE OF A FEATHER explores both the aboriginal culture of Canada's Inuit and their relationship to the rapidly changing environment of their Arctic home. The realistic portrait Heath reveals is one of a unique hybrid, equal parts ancient tradition and the inescapable influence of modernity.

In its most compelling scene we see a family having a typical dinner in the family kitchen; hip-hop music plays in the background while mother serves up fried chicken and a toddler asks repeatedly for a "Pepsi!" in her native language. Father slices up a piece of frozen, raw seal meat for the young girl to nibble out of her pudgy hand.

In another scene we see the seal hunted, swiftly clubbed on the head  and efficiently butchered and parceled on the red-stained ice before being taken home by its hunter.

I ask Heath about this particular scene, which I imagine has the potential to upset the sensibilities of some people. In both the film and in conversation Heath articulates how those along the US and American Eastern seaboard, who derive much of their energy from massive hydroelectric dams, are responsible for an infinitely further-reaching, far more devastating effect on the overall ecology of the Arctic by simply switching on their lights.

"Hydroelectric projects are having more impact on sea ice than climate change," says Heath. And he should know, having spent years in the Arctic doing both his PhD and government research on the dangerous decline of a bird (the eider duck) that is intrinsically linked to the community of Sanikiluaq.

I spoke with Heath at a cafe in Vancouver last week.

What has the response been to the film?

It’s been great. People really liked it and we knew we had the momentum to take it to the rest of the world. We premiered at Hot Docs [Canadian International Documentary Festival] in Toronto and had an amazing reception there.

Bringing the guys from up there down here to Vancouver, where I’ve lived for ten years, was like worlds colliding. We won the Audience Award for Best Environmental Film at VIFF [Vancouver International Film Festival] and Best BC Film of 2011 [Vancouver Film Critics Circle]. It’s been an amazing response.

I think a real strength of the film is that I didn’t go up there with the intent of making a film; I went up to study ecology and the sea ice, using time-lapse techniques. It was a fairly natural transition to shooting the people as well. It started just for fun and then we realized we wanted to make something about the community. We wanted to show the rest of the world what was going on up there.

What kind of an effect can a film such as this one have on a “cause?”

What’s been really encouraging is the dialogue, especially during post-film Q & A sessions. People haven’t really thought about how hydroelectric projects influence the ocean and the marine environment; they think about the rivers that are flooding. To have people that are well-educated, well-respected environmentalists start talking about it and asking questions has been encouraging.

When you consider these sorts of enormous environmental issues, they seem totally insurmountable. Can they be effectively addressed and even dealt with in our, or even our children’s lifetimes?

Yes, absolutely. I think that’s one of the great things about it.

Hydroelectric projects, compared to a lot of other sources of energy, do have a lot of benefits. I think if we use this resource differently we can not only have less of an impact on rivers and the marine ecosystem but address a lot of other energy requirements as well.

For example, all the communities within hydroelectric projects are still burning coal and diesel. If there was a way to store the energy besides water behind the dam and we found other ways to distribute it and worked more closely with the hydro-ecological cycle, then we could definitely find better solutions. That’s what we’re trying to work towards.

That’s the silver lining, then, isn't it? That we can affect change and maybe we actually get to see improvements. Is hydroelectric energy considered clean?

It is renewable. There are impacts on the lands that are flooded; initially the flooding can produce mercury which contaminates the land and the food. Apparently, that declines after the project has been in operation for quite a while and “matured.”

The biggest thing is that people on the East Coast use a majority of their power in the winter and spring runoff happens in the spring. Normally cold snow melts, comes down all at once, punctuates the currents and sort of “cleans the land” in the spring. Whereas now, the water sits there all summer, gets warm, and then it’s dumped at the opposite time of year. That affects how the ice forms and how it breaks up; freshwater freezes at different temperatures than saltwater; it’s complicated how it all comes together.

All the shipping in the St. Lawrence peaks in the spring and Iceland has a plan to use their hydroelectric energy to produce hydrogen fuel for shipping; if we had something similar here we could potentially help shipping companies transition from gas to cleaner energy sources like hydrogen fuel, which could also stop things like chronic oil spills.

What was your subjects’ response to watching themselves?

It was good. We spent five years making the project and you never know how it’s gonna work out! But they were happy. Knowing that people here, down south, saw it and were really into it… knowing that that can make a difference is a big thing for them.

Does it matter if the eider ducks disappear from the planet?

Well, they have the warmest feather in the world! For these people [the Inuit], it definitely does. It’s a resource for them that they’ve relied on for hundreds and hundreds of years, for their clothing and their food. Their culture has been associated with them as well.

The ducks have an important impact on the ecosystem; they eat mussels and sea urchins. They are the keeper of the sea-ice habitat up there. Maybe some people in the city wouldn’t notice if they were gone or not. I don’t know.

They key thing though is about the relationship between the people and the eider duck; the eider really is the “canary in the coal mine.” It affects people’s safety, out on the land; when they travel their skidoos have been going through the ice.  This is critical sea ice habitat for polar bears, too -

I read some reactionary blogosphere bemoaning about this year's Oscar-nominated documentary films vs. the eventual winner, UNDEFEATED. Sometimes it seems like, more so lately, the "truest measure" of the success of a documentary film is relative to its ability to inhabit some sort of social cause; as though "success"  has more to do with championing a cause in the zeitgeist than on the substance and execution of the film itself. What are your thoughts on the social “responsibility” of the documentarian?

It’s huge. Of course, there’s a responsibility to make sure you are communicating the truth.

My background is in science and I have written numerous papers but not many people are going to read those compared to how many people are going to see the film! You can really reach a large number of people that normally wouldn’t read about it. If you can do it in a convincing and artistic way, and people take something way, then that can be really compelling.

There’s something about the visuals – a flock of birds, the landscape, the people. I had no idea that ducks looked like that when they dove under water! This genre of documentary really brings us, as an audience, to places we might not ever know about or go to.

For sure; this documentary is very visually driven and we let the images speak for themselves. I think even for me, these time-lapse images that show the floe edges move and break, I didn’t even really understand how they worked until I saw it myself! It really helps explain what’s going on.

This film was about letting an audience know what the people, animals, and ecosystem are really like so that they have an impression about what’s at risk, rather than talking heads.

In addition to being a finalist for direction and cinematography crafts at the New York International TV and Film Awards,  PEOPLE OF A FEATHER will be screening at the following locations; check the website for updated information.

March 6th-9th, Denman Cinema
March 10th-13th, RIO Theater*
SAT, March 10th San Francisco Ocean Film Festival
MON March 12, 7:00PM @ Empire Theaters
WED March 14, 7:00PM, Al Whittle Theater
THR March 15, 7:00 PM Carbon Arc Cinema (Kyber Building)
SAT March 17th, 2:00 PM - Env. FF @ SMITHSONIAN
SAT March 24th, TBA
TUE Mar 27th & WED Mar 28th
Cleveland International Film Festival

THR Mar 29th, 7:00PM IMAX
FRI Mar 30st - SUN Apr 1st, Winnipeg Film Group
WED Apr 4th - THR Apr 5th, Winnipeg Film Group

FRI Apr 20 - TUE Apr 24th, Bloor Cinema
April 2012 TBA
April 2012 TBA
April 2012 TBA

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