When a mining company makes the claim they’re going to bring wealth and prosperity to your town, it’s best to take their words with a grain of salt. Sure they may provide plenty of jobs for the town now, but when the resources run out, they usually take their ball and go home. To make matters worse, they leave the town with a huge environmental mess to clean up. Shown on the same night are documentaries Shadow of a Giant and After the Last River both portray towns screwed over by mining towns
The first was interactive online documentary, Shadow of a Giant. Since 1948, Giant Mine was a thriving gold mine in Yellowknife. That is until its latest owner Miramar Mining Corporation closed its doors in 2004. Now Yellowknife’s left with a load of decaying buildings and 237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide, a chemical so fatal even a pill full of this stuff can kill a person. With the mine crumbling and algae eating away at the walls holding in the arsenic, it now threatens to leak into the Great Slave Lake.
For the festival, Director Clark Ferguson presented the documentary as a half hour documentary, which is also an interactive website. With the website, Ferguson divides the documentary into a series of five minute short films, each focusing on a different subject from a look underground the mine to the houseboats residing in Great Slave. In between, the website offers historical details of Giant Mine, from a timeline of the mine and the functions of various buildings to the various mining corporations who owned the mines and the costs of remediation. No stone is left unturned.
While not as interactive as Shadow of a Giant, After the Last River is more intimate and just as powerful. In this case, the mine is De Beers and the town is Attawapiskat, Ontario. De Beers sees a profitable new frontier with Victor Mine, the first open mine pit of its kind. De Beers offers promises of prosperity for the Attawapiskat community in return for its unmanned wetlands. They are still waiting for any sign of prosperity. It’s made perfectly clear in the opening scene of an elder couple sitting in front of their inadequate shack. The film then cuts to 3 months earlier in Toronto, with De Beers celebrating the opening of Victor Mine, with champagne and a performance by a contortionist.
In contrast to Ferguson, director Victoria Lean takes a more personal approach known as point of view documentary. Over the course of five years, Lean looks into the lives of Attawapiskat residents. Nearly everyone’s home looks more like a construction site than a house, with exposed wall and no insulation. In one horrifying scene, a mother reveals her daughter’s bedroom walls are covered in black mold. Some of them have to live in tents during winter time. One school had to be shut down due to contamination. Even before then, the school has no music room, play ground or even a library. Due to inflation, the residents are left with high prices to everyday items. $67 for diapers? It was so bad; Red Cross stepped in for assistance. It all leads to a 48 hunger strike by aboriginal activist Theresa Spence, which cultivates in the Idle No More.
These films are a demonstration of the different ways documentaries can focus on a similar subject. Shadow of a Giant takes a more stylistic approach. In addition to the interactive website, the documentary also uses animation in some areas to provide humour. When WAMP Technical Director Davis Heslap talks about plans to restore a contaminated tailings pond, noting that it looks like a nuclear wasteland, he imagines a theme park called “Contamination land.” Then the film animates a theme park behind him, complete with a mine cart roller coaster and residents wearing nuclear suits.
After the Last River in contrast avoids all stylization in favour of a journalistic approach. Instead, she allows this story to speak for itself through a collection of one on one interview, news reels and her own footage. Both sides are effective in their own way.
Another difference between these films is outlook. Shadow of a Giant offers some hopeful notes, from the Giant Mine Remediation Program to the interviewee’s dreams of using alternative energy. After the Last River, however doesn’t see much hope. We see the creation of Idle No More, but like many issues, it follows the unfortunate cycle “There is outrage, there’s finger pointing and then it’s forgotten.” Instead, Lean ends with a call for the rest of Canada to not only listen but to understand Aboriginal issues; “We’re never going to be the country we want to be until we find a way to make this relationship work.” Right now, De Beers is also working in Yellowknife alongside Diavik and Ekati diamond mines. They have made positive contributions to local events, but it’s best to hope people will use documentaries as a way to keep history from repeating.