Elemental Dr Watson?

Michael Edwards explores a new documentary about three people who are confronting environmental degradation in a spirit of transformational activism.

Michael Edwards
10 July 2013

Screenshot from Elemental. All rights reserved.

What makes social activism a force for transformation, as opposed to one more campaign on the endless merry-go-round of well-intentioned advocacy by NGOs and charities? For me the answers are pretty obvious - the problems and solutions have to be rooted in ordinary people's lives, and there has to be a genuine sense of community or belonging that brings people together in common cause. Otherwise it's just more work and more money for the professionals who lobby "on our behalf," usually with little or nothing to show for it at the end of the process.

Another quality is honesty - getting real about activism and the struggles and compromises it involves; facing up to the inevitable questions that arise about who leads and who follows, and how difficult decisions get made when people have very different views; and confronting the lingering inequalities of race and gender, class, geography and sexuality that nearly always hide in the shadows, waiting to be ignored or waived away in the rush to get results. In my experience it's rare to find a documentary that acknowledges these things, partly because they can lead to the collapse of social movements and efforts by communities to confront those in power on a smaller scale. And that doesn't make for good TV.

That's why "Elemental", a new film by Gayatri Roshan and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee caught my attention when I watched it recently, and it's also why I'm recommending it to others. The film tells the stories of three individuals in very different contexts who are struggling to confront environmental degradation as more than a problem of public policy. The real issue is that people's connections to nature and to each other have broken down against the background of economic insecurity and divergent interests, with little available to replace or repair them. The film does not sugar coat the difficulties that this creates for its protagonists, who are shown struggling with the dilemmas of mobilizing people's energies in communities that are fractured.

This is particularly true for Rajendra Singh,a former Indian government official who takes a forty-day pilgrimage down the polluted Ganges River in an effort to raise the alarm, but faces opposition along the way, including from some of the people he thinks should be rallying to his cause. These difficulties are clear in this clip from the film called “Nadir,” in which Singh, close to tears, is confronted by angry opponents of his work and even of his presence in their community:

Nadir (Scene from "Elemental")

Meanwhile in northern Canada, Eriel Deranger leads one of many struggles against the Tar Sands and its proposed 2,000-mile Keystone XL Pipeline - the world’s largest industrial development, an oil deposit larger than the state of Florida, and the source of some of the dirtiest energy in the world. Deranger is filmed as she tries to balance her family responsibilities as a young mother with her commitment to stop the exploitation of the land she loves as a native Denè from the same region of Canada. She uses tactics that resonate with her community and its traditions, like the the "Healing Walk" that is shown in this clip from the film.

Healing Walk (Scene from "Elemental")

Part of the reason I like Elemental is because it's actually well-filmed, which makes a change from watching grainy videos of well-intentioned activists getting in the way of the camera. But it's more than that, I think. I like the fact that the film doesn't romanticize the struggles of its protagonists, since that makes it more persuasive.

Social activism was never designed for the faint hearted, and when it is as deeply-engaged with nature and human relationships as this it becomes even more of a struggle. But that's also where the transformational possibilities of this kind of activism come from. By eschewing the illusion of quick wins or magic bullets, and by making the "personal political" at every turn in the ways they respond to the challenges of organizing with other people, Singh, Deranger and the others show why deep-rooted changes have to have, well, deep roots. "It's elemental Dr Watson," I suppose.

Here's the trailer for the film, and if you want to screen Elemental in your community you can find out how to do that here.

Elemental is a new feature documentary from the Global Oneness Project.

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