Meet Charles Wilkinson, director of the award-winning documentary Peace Out, a globally recognized, high-impact film that investigates the lengths the human race will go to in search of more energy. I had the privilege of speaking to Charles recently about his experiences with environmental issues and his hopes for Canada’s environmental future. Our conversation left me not only incredibly inspired, but also eager to apply my skills as an environmental scientist, a resource manager (in progress), and a Peace Out viewer to improve the way we currently go about energy production and consumption. Here, Charles talks about his journey towards becoming directing Peace Out, the motivation behind the film, and how the global energy crisis affects everyday Canadians just like you and I.
Charles has a remarkable way of making you care about pressing environmental issues without actually telling you to. Peace Out questions the necessity of new, intensifying energy projects in Canada without having to rely on graphs or tables or pure quantitative information to get the point across. The film legitimately investigates the relevant economic, social, and environmental implications of a proposed damming project in western Canada from both sides of the equation. What I found most refreshing about Peace Out is that not once did I feel like a passive recipient of information; audience members are not spoon-feed feelings towards energy consumption. (You know, like the all too familiar, “Climate change is bad!” message we hear time and time again?). Charles provides ample room for you as a viewer to make up your own mind. We obviously need energy, but are mega hydropower projects better for the environment than expanding the Alberta oil sands? Some will say yes; others will say no; some will not know; others will say avoid all of the above. You will hear all of these answers at some point in Peace Out; the film does not actively seek an ultimate answer to the energy crisis but rather extends the conversation far beyond deciding what is ‘bad’ and what is ‘good’.
First off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? What brought you to the point you are now in your career?
“I’ve always been involved in entertainment. I was trained as a singer when I was 3 or 4. My brother and I sang together; we had a television show.” Initially, I’m a little surprised. But it starts to makes sense. “I’ve been involved in the media really all my life.” What he says next is even more surprising. “I did really poorly in school. I found it uninteresting, and so I dropped out a number of times.” I would never have guessed this about Charles, given how well-spoken and innovative he has proven to be. One may even be tempted to initiate the classic ‘don’t-let-schooling-get-in-the-way-of-your-education argument here. After some time of being unable to “find a round hole to fit my round head into”, he was accepted into Simon Fraser University as mature student. “And I pretty much knew I wanted to be a film maker when I came in.” However, Charles noticed a shift in Canadian film around this time. “[The government] wanted to put money into drama, and I wanted to make a living, and I love films, so I went into drama instead.” He has recently noticed a shift back to documentaries. “In the last decade, Canadian drama has started to subside…and there’s been much more emphasis on documentary.” So back to documentaries he went. “I’ve acquired all the technical skills, from almost birth on to be able to do this work relatively easily, since it’s quite complex work.”
Can you maybe take a moment and familiarize our readers with the main messages surrounding consumption and energy exploration in your film, Peace Out?
“What I began to realize very quickly is that whenever we talk about energy, we only talk about supply.” I had never thought to reduce the issue of energy consumption down to its (not so) simple roots of supply and demand. But it’s more or less true – we really only talk about needing more oil, finding more oil, even the concept of peak oil. What if we just reduced the demand? “Peace Out is the story of a river, and the river is the sympathetic protagonist.” It’s been a while since I learned this term in ninth grade English, so I was thankful when he continued, “The Peace River is an extraordinarily beautiful place; it’s hard to describe how beautiful it is. We [looked at] the site of the proposed new Site C dam, and we looked into whether hydroelectricity is good or not. Turns out, it comes with enormous costs. Costs that our grandchildren will not thank us for bearing.” Resentful grandchildren seem to be the biggest fear for Charles.
He asks the same question for fracking. He asks the same question for nuclear power. He asks the same question about the expansion of the Athabasca oil sands. “I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to see that the Fort McMurray project is not sustainable.” But what about all of the claims made by the Canadian government stating that oil companies are being ‘green’ because they are taking the initiative to replace retired sites with grass? “People mix two ideas together. Those are two completely separate ideas. The oil companies in the Fort McMurray region could be mining that oil in the most environmentally friendly way imaginable. Even if they could do that, we would still be burning this stuff. We would still be creating greenhouse gas emissions by burning it. So it doesn’t matter how environmentally sound their practices are. It just doesn’t matter.”
He goes on to talk about why the film can be so challenging for viewers. “The points of view that the [oil and gas] industry experts express are really rational. They make a lot of sense. But then you’re given the point of view of Greenpeace. And their view makes a lot of sense. And it forces you to do something that you don’t like to do, and that is to think.”
What ultimately inspired you to direct Peace Out? Was there a specific event or point in time when you realized the importance of the consumption issues facing Canadians?
“Generally, I’ve always been very conscious of environmental issues, and I’ve always felt a real tension inside myself.” Why? Internal combustion. “I’ve always really liked working on cars, and yet, at the same time when I did a brief stint as a mechanic, I stenciled ‘Walk’ on the pocket of my overalls. People thought that was my name. But it was just my advice: walk. Why do you need to drive to the store to get milk? And there’s always been this tension.” Some of this interest stemmed from the somewhat comparable story of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, constructed in the 1960s. When he eventually traveled to the site of this dam, he was stunned. “All I could see when we first looked at the reservoir was hundreds of thousands of acres…when you look out to the horizon you’re surrounded by this paradise.” His thoughts? “Wow, we did this.” Charles makes a point to distinguish between true energy consumption and the act of wasting energy. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I really need to provide electricity to this newborn baby in an incubator so it doesn’t parish.’ That’s a dedicated use of power that anybody would support. But just kids leaving all the lights on in the house for no reason at all, the idea that unthinkingly we create that level of devastation, just seemed appalling to me. And that’s what’s got us started on that.’” When Charles says us, he’s referring to his wife, Tina (who produced and co-edited the film), as well as his sons, who play important roles in the creation of these documentaries. “It got me started on taking a lot more seriously what the scientists have been saying to us. I was forced to stop and listen.”
I definitely find Peace Out to be an extremely influential and inspirational film. Of all the environmental crises facing the Canada and the world today, what in particular encouraged you to focus your film on many of the issues facing Site C and the Peace River?
Unexpectedly, I receive a short lesson in psychology. “When someone asks us a question that we cannot give a straightforward answer to, we have to engage more of our brain and do some thinking. And of course, we don’t like to do this. This phenomenon is described in psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. “So frequently, when someone asks us a question, we’ll answer a different question. A really clear example is in the case of the oil sands. When I would ask people in Fort McMurray what they felt about the environmental damage that was being done by burning fossil fuels and creating greenhouse gas emissions and raising the temperature of the planet, their answer would talk about how environmentally friendly the energy companies are. But that’s not what I asked.” This is why Charles finds it fascinating to talk to people about an issue as complicated as climate change. “How do we get people to just kneejerk react against the things that cause climate change, such that we don’t even have to debate them anymore?” So, based on these criteria, does he think that the Site C dam should be approved? “The answer is no, it is not a good idea. Kneejerk reaction. It is not a good idea because it is a supply side band-aid and will increase GHG emissions, therefore, no.” He hopes to help contribute to a universal kneejerk reaction to projects such as the Site C dam: ‘No’.
To learn even more about Charles, Peace Out, or his other books and films, visit his website: http://charleswilkinson.com. Peace Out will be available on iTunes beginning April 14th in Canada and the US. Stay tuned for the second part of the interview later this week.