Having been there during the G20, images of Toronto becoming a war zone—burning cop cars foregrounded by throngs of protestors clashing with riot gear-clad police—are burned into my mind. It was a dark time for the city, and it raised serious questions: when is it truly necessary to take a stand? What is the threshold at which citizens should cast aside peaceful protest and engage an overly forceful state? Two recent documentaries have approached this very question for better and worse.
Tales from the G20 is an arresting look at the protests surrounding last year’s G20 summit in Toronto and the police action that accompanied them. Apart from a few brief interviews with figures within the protests—field medics, a homeless man forced out of the downtown core, a student—the film operates like a slice-of-life documentary. But the events it covers are larger than life, and the surreal images of riot police marching with synchronized intimidation tactics are just a small part of the disturbing footage largely captured by co-director Justin Saunders.
This one hour doc does not ostensibly take a position on the altercations, though the angle of coverage is certainly one-sided. It’s an important choice that prevents the film from being undermined by a lack of facts, statistics and expert opinion. And by letting its images do the talking, it allows ambiguity and doubt to seep in as well, to its great benefit.
Watching a police car burn conjures a bevy of emotions, many of which are incompatible or conflicting. While police brutality at the G20—to which friends of mine were subjected—summons Old Testament-style pride in vengeance, watching citizens set fire to a symbol of an institution that largely protects rather than oppresses is both sad and deserving of scorn.
Tales from the G20 is far too edited and political to be thought of as merely observational. The filmmakers leave room for ambiguity, but the finished product ultimately endorses protestors through its choice of footage and by its one-sided vantage point. That said, it avoids detrimental bias by omitting demands for change. And by doing so, it bypasses the quagmire Franklin Lopez’s End:Civ – Resist or Die falls into.
Instead of tackling the specific, End:Civ tries to represent larger global questions at hand: why aren’t we serious about inequality? Will industry ever open its eyes to environmental destruction? Why can’t politicians agree on positive societal change? And though it is a thought-provoking work, it unfortunately comes off as a bit of an extended rant.
The film is based on two books by noted dissident author Derrick Jensen that suggest the very foundation of our world—cities and civilization—should be deconstructed before our current way of life destroys the planet: a kind of cauterizing burning before self-inflicted wounds do us in.
A film based on such an extreme concept certainly needs to draw a road map of how this happens, with concrete justification. What does the process of going from the apex of civilization to a hunter-gatherer existence look like? For my money, this happens with an incomprehensible amount of violence and destruction. What makes Jensen—who narrates this one hour documentary—and his compatriots think we can go back without destroying ourselves in the process? Are proponents of the “anti-civ” thesis truly willing to give up medicine, modern shelter and institutional education and return to a life that is nasty, brutish and short?
Proposing the elimination of civilization as a necessary tenet of change is just one example of Jensen’s reductive absolutism. He boils down huge swaths of people into useful little groups like ‘fascists’ and ‘psychopaths,’ and treats extraordinarily complex issues as if there’s a clear solution you’d see were you as smart as him. This undermines his position, because it is difficult not to disregard this type of snide arrogance.
Which is unfortunate because he offers some much needed articulation for the political fringe, helping it play its role as a punchy counterbalance to compensate for an increasingly soft and shapeless left. It is undeniably important for someone to voice a radical position and philosophy, because that is often where the ideas that cause meaningful change originate. But arguing with an air of superiority makes it easy to dismiss the entire part of that spectrum as delusional.
To be fair, the film tackles more than just Jensen’s theories. It convincingly argues for the need to shift away from viewing nature as a resource cache humans are entitled to rather than a highly interdependent system we are a small part of. It also sheds needed light on the rampant hypocrisy of Greenpeace’s upper management, which has become somewhat of a launching pad for future lobbyists for the very industries it claims to resist against. This point is particularly well supported by an interview with Paul Watson, one of the earliest members of Greenpeace, who reminds viewers that former presidents of Greenpeace Canada, Australia and Norway now work for the logging, mining and whaling industries, respectively. In his mind, Greenpeace has become just another corporate job.
But from an audience standpoint, End:Civ sets up Jensen’s worldview as the framework through which we watch the rest of the film, whether this is intended or not. This makes it difficult not to let Jensen’s demeanor influence the way one receives the rest of the film.
Ultimately, both End:Civ and Tales from the G20 may not persuade some viewers as they both suffer from a lack of reliable sources. However, it is asking quite a bit to have anti-government positions substantiated by “experts.” There are too few radical leftists who carry the kind of institutional weight audiences are used to seeing in documentary, not to mention such foregrounding of established voices runs counter to both films’ positions.
But these works suffer nonetheless. A film built on interviews with regular strangers works to a point, but it is unconvincing—or at least less convincing—when it is not backed by statistics or historical evidence. The on-the-ground filmmaking style of Tales is fantastic for many issues, but when you’re dealing with something as complex as world trade and its critics, just following the dissidents is not enough to be taken seriously by those not already on this side and by those who could use a decent eye-opening to the perspectives and issues at hand.
This absence doesn’t cause Tales from the G20 to lose much of its power, however, because the film does not claim to be anything but an account—one-sidedness aside—of the event. If nothing else, it provides some strikingly clear first-hand images of unacceptable police behavior to bolster the rapidly growing hard evidence that is pointing to an affinity for violence within certain police circles.
The best aspect of these films is that both force viewers to consider a tough question. Exploitation and repression occur every day in countries around the world. When do you decide that you’ve had enough? What’s your threshold?