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Deconstructing the nature documentary

Filmmaker Michael Allder has traveled the globe to document the natural world, and for more than a decade was executive producer of The Nature of Things with David Suzuki. But despite all of his experience, he expects to learn something himself from the public lectures he will be giving at UTSC this fall.

“I think it’s a fascinating opportunity,” he says. “For 13 or 14 years at the CBC I managed 20 films a year. I didn’t have the time to deconstruct them. The main focus was to make the best film you can.”

But his lecture series at UTSC this fall will let him step back and examine in detail 10 documentaries about the nature, the environment, and environmental activism, together with the filmmakers who created them.

Allder will present a public lecture series and environmental sciences class called Picturing ‘Truth’: Environmental Science and the Media. The series will include the showing of excerpts from documentaries, discussions with some of the best-regarded documentary filmmakers in Canada, and on occasion talks with academic experts who played key roles in the films.

Allder says that film and TV documentaries about nature and the environment are hugely influential, and often are the general public’s primary source of scientific information. But filmmakers face problems of budget, access to sources and locations, and difficult conditions in sometimes dangerous places. They also have to figure out how to distill complex issues down to an hour-long narrative-driven TV program.

"It's going to be more lab than lecture," Allder says. "I'm looking forward to lots of class participation. I want to deconstruct and discuss all the issues that affected the making of these films, especially relating to the environmental science."

Allder has produced and directed television shows and films, and his resume includes a stint at the National Film Board, where one of his productions was the cult hit Project Grizzly. He’s now an independent director, and is developing a series on restoration ecology for ARTE, the Franco-German TV network.

The idea of the lecture series came up while Allder was working with Nick Eyles, UTSC professor of environmental science, on the popular CBC-produced series Geologic Journey and Geologic Journey II, which traveled North American and the world to explain geology.

Among the films he intends to discuss in his lectures will be Wiebo’s War, a film by David York about environmental activist Wiebo Ludwig; Kenton Vaughn’s Ghosts of Lomako, a film about the endangered bonobo; Jeff Turner’s The Bear Man of Kamchatka; and Gary Marcuse’s Waking the Green Tiger, about environmentalism in China.

The lectures will be Wednesdays beginning Sept. 12, from 7 to 10 pm in IC 130. When possible, Allder will screen the entire documentary starting at 9 pm. The lectures are free and open to the public.

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