Michael Zelniker is no stranger to the camera. From his career acting in front of it, to his move to behind the scenes, Zelniker has spent his life dedicated to film, television and theatre. But his newest project, which will premiere at Cinéfest Sudbury on Sept. 18 at 12:30 p.m., is more about his dedication to the environment.
The Issue with Tissue: A boreal love story began as a look into a situation Zelniker was deeply troubled by, the act of cutting a vast number of trees in the boreal forests to be used predominantly for toilet paper.
But as he began documenting the situation, travelling across the country, learning and filming as he went, the theme changed. “The movie is no longer about toilet paper, it is what I call the most obscene illustration for what's gone wrong,” Zelniker told Sudbury.com.
He said he has always been an environmentalist, describing himself as an eight-year-old growing up in Montreal and admonishing people for littering. It was his love of the Earth and his work in film television and theatre that had him travelling 16,000 kilometres over 42 days. He came home with 125 hours of footage.
The idea for the film came from Zelniker’s work with the Climate Reality Project, the program created by former U.S. vice president Al Gore. In the wake of Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, based on his book of the same name, many people found the need to do more to prevent climate change. Instead of adding to the carbon in the atmosphere by flying around the globe speaking to the turmoil that climate change would cause, Gore established an organization, the Climate Reality Project, and in 2018, Zelniker was invited to take part in the training, eventually becoming the chairperson of the Los Angeles chapter, the largest chapter in the project.
Zelniker had graced the stage of theatres across Canada, starred in many films and television shows and had begun working with students, teaching at film schools for the 14 years leading up to the work with the Climate Reality Project. But it was one message that made this film a must for him.
“I received an email from one of the organizations that I'm a member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, telling me that these large, intact old growth forest landscapes across the boreal are being clear cut for toilet paper,” Zelniker told Sudbury.com. “I used to spend summers about 100 miles north of the city (Montreal) at summer camp, and I was a very troubled little kid, and I was always in trouble; I actually hated camp. But the one thing that soothed me, comforted me was this endless vista of trees and forests, as far as the eye could see, right out to the edges of the horizon. So when I learned about these forests that really saved me as a little kid, I just started reaching out to people.”
But as he filmed and interviewed for the film, and included discussion with Indigenous elders, knowledge keepers and chiefs, his film began to change.
“As I began to speak with the elders and leaders who welcomed me into communities, and they shared stories that were important to them, that became critical, that became central to the telling of the boreal story.”
Zelniker said he learned that any story about the boreal has to place Indigenous people front and centre. “It is their home and has been for thousands of years. They've lived here sustainably for thousands of years, and continue to do so.”
“We have seen in Canada and and other countries around the world, where governments and traditional environmental organizations, including the Climate Reality Project, are connecting with Indigenous communities because they have a different understanding of our connection to nature and the rest of creation. And it's an understanding that will serve all of us to understand,” he said.
That’s why the film changed to focus more on what Zelniker believes is a larger systemic issue. “The larger systemic issue that we're going to have to confront and reconcile is the one of disconnection, which allows us to do things like colonization,” he said. “This disconnection is what allows us to go into wild spaces, exploit resources without any care or concern for the way we're impacting the rest of creation, or even the future of our children and the generations to come. And we've been sold this attitude, this quality of disconnection by the corporate interests that benefit from it.”
He said that the disconnection is leading us directly to climate change.
“We are clear-cutting these old growth, large, intact forest landscapes that we depend on for our very survival, an ecosystem that most people know nothing about,” Zelniker said.
He said that while most people think of tropical or temperate rainforests as the area in need of protection, northern boreal forests store more carbon than any other terrestrial landscape.
“Two billion birds nest in the boreal every year, its home to more than 600 First Nations. This landscape, this ecosystem that many people know nothing about, we literally depend on for our very survival.”
He said the best advice will come from the trees themselves. “Trees have been on the planet for almost 400 million years, they certainly have something to teach us about sustainability, and survivability.”
The story evolved through its creation, but so did the medium.
“I originally thought we were making a two-hour feature film, but in fact, what we have is a five-and-a-half hour docuseries that I've cut into three episodes,” said Zelniker. “Once I had the semblance of this larger story, I then decided to cut a feature length in order to serve as a kind of appetizer to the longer series.”
Zelniker plans to travel the film festival circuit with the feature as a way to invite people to access the larger series, which will come out soon after the movie.
The movie will have its first showing at Cinéfest Sudbury International Film Festival this weekend.
“The idea that we're premiering at Cinéfest Sudbury in the middle of the boreal, to me, it's only fitting. A movie about the boreal and the Indigenous peoples who call it home will have its world premiere in the boreal, that’s fantastic.”
You can find more about the film, as well as the full schedule for the 2022 Cinéfest Sudbury International Film Festival, by clicking here.