In The Magnitude of All Things, one of the films featured in the Powell River Film Festival this year, director Jennifer Abbott draws a parallel between losing her sister to cancer and the losses brought about by climate change. She takes us to the melting Arctic, wildfires in Australia, the Amazon, the island nation of Kiribati, coral reefs, Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion protests. She shows how we all grieve as beloved creatures disappear, as places we love are irrevocably altered. She introduces us to the people who bear witness to that loss and do what they can to stop it or at least slow it down.
Her parallel is apt. Faced with illness, some rage against the circumstances that brought it to them. Some fight for recovery, a cure. As the possibility of a cure wanes, people often despair. Flip that over and introduce hope. People can move from hope for a cure, to hope for more time, to hope for a sister’s hug, to hope for an easeful death.
In the environmental movement, we are always setting deadlines. We have x number of years to do a, b, or c before a species, an ecosystem, humanity itself is doomed. But with climate change, our hope can no longer be for a cure. It is already happening and will continue to happen. We can hope to reduce its effects, to slow it down – we can plan for what looks like is coming our way. Grieve, yes. Despair, no.
The way Abbott made her film thoughtful, beautiful, enlightening and moving is the kind of art that can engender such hope. Just as she grieves over the loss of her sister, the people she featured in her film are grieving. They are also taking action, as is she by making this film. As artists are doing all around the world.
I’ve been trying an antidote of Scottish novelist Ali Smith these days – her quartet of Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer spiral around Brexit, the mistreatment of refugees (how can there be, one of her characters thinks, people who actually raise money to send a ship out to the Mediterranean to STOP other ships from rescuing drowning people?), the terrible hatred and misogyny women face online, the way politicians lie, climate change. In the midst of any of her inimitable rants, the shell cracks open to reveal wonder and joy – when good people find each other and find ways to laugh, and, yes, to hope. She’s grand.
As I write this, I find myself leafing through Autumn looking for examples to illustrate points I’m trying to make. Rather than gathering data, I soon find myself wandering happily through the ways Daniel Gluck (my favourite character in the series) is present in the world, marveling at his wonderful relationship with the young Elisabeth even as he spends the entire book asleep. I stop at line after line and smile. There is goodness in the world, and wit, and humour, and love in spite of it all, in spite of every single terrible thing we do to each other. In the making of something like Autumn or something like The Magnitude of All Things, the artists make hope available to us. Not for a cure. There is no fixing us or the world. We are all broken. But if birds can adjust their songs so they can still find each other in the midst of urban chaos, then so can we. Just keep singing. Painting. Dancing. Writing …
*Art, art i want you is Andrea Dorfman’s music video for Tanya Davis’ song Art.