It is the best job in the world, being able to write about art. It’s particularly exciting when readers want to engage: amplify your ideas, debate your observations, complement them with their own. So often, though, you write into the wind and hope somebody catches onto what you’re saying and gives it a think.
But rarely in my years of writing has something like this happened.
I received an e-mail last year from Canadian filmmaker Niobe Thompson. I had written about him once before, when he released his documentary series The Great Human Odyssey.
He wanted to tell me about his new film, to be released in 2022. Carbon: The Unauthorised Biography had its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema Feb. 28, and will be broadcast March 4 on CBC’s The Nature of Things. It is a tribute to the chemical element that is causing so much trouble for us, but also created us.
In the film, co-directed by Thompson and Australian filmmaker Daniella Ortega, Carbon is a character with a personality and a story (and a gender – female, with she/her pronouns). Voiced by Sarah Snook (Shiv from Succession), Carbon is a misunderstood hero who has created an unlikely miracle (life) and is now contributing to a catastrophe. Not her fault; ours.
“She’s at the core of life. She makes this world possible,” Thompson told me this week at a Vancouver café. “Why shouldn’t Carbon tell her own story and speak directly to us?”
In the spring of 2019, Thompson was coming off a year-long sabbatical; he and his family had left Edmonton to travel the world. He had read The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells and was thinking a lot about climate change – and what he could do about it.
“Even though I’ve been working in this space for a long time, made two films about the tar sands, it really brought home that we’re in a serious crisis and we’re all going to be facing our kids at a certain point and they’re going to be asking: what did you do?”
He did some math: At the time, he figured his daughter was going to be his age in 2050, maybe raising a family.
“And I think 2050 is going to be a very different world in terms of the climate trajectory. So I really thought: well if this is a reassessment, if this is a moment when we’re taking a breather and I’m trying to figure out what to do with my remaining energies, what’s it going to be?”
He thought about going off the grid to prepare for the apocalypse. “But then in a more sober moment you think, well what do I actually have to give? And I’m a filmmaker.”
Then, he told me, he read something that August that further encouraged him. It was an article I had written about climate change and the arts, how artists were taking on this subject matter. And maybe, by doing so, could become the planet’s saviour.
“It’s like you just read my mind with that article,” he told me. “And I thought, wow, there’s other artists out there thinking about the same thing. Marsha’s kind of laying down the gauntlet and saying the science is settled; now the artists have a job to do. And it really helped clarify my thinking,” he said.
This was pretty thrilling to hear. I grappled with how to write this without sounding self-congratulatory; truly, that is not the intent. I just thought: this is really cool. How ideas build on one another and create something new.
“You throw a stone out into the pond and the waves are going to hit the shore at some point,” Thompson told me. “You threw a stone in August 2019 and I can’t be the only artist who read that and went yeah, that. And then started putting their life in order to go in that direction.”
Carbon was shot entirely during the pandemic, so Thompson would often be directing via Zoom, or relying on remote crews in far-flung locations. But it also meant access to some big names who might not have been available otherwise, like the superstar (sorry) astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
As for Snook, Thompson says she was totally on board. “What a gift to have an actor like that. And she really bit into the role,” says Thompson, noting that in spite of her rocketing fame, she was accessible and gave the role her all. “She did not mail it in.”
Not wanting to be called out by his daughters for fiddling while the planet burned, Thompson has made a personal commitment to always be working on at least one project dealing with the climate issue.
“You said it. Now that we know the science, it’s time for the artists to get to work,” Thompson, who is now based in Victoria, B.C., told me. The Rolling Stones’ Time Is on My Side was playing in the background.
“I have another thing to say to my kids when they’re parents about what did you do when you knew. This was one of the things that I did. I don’t know if it’s going to be thin gruel when we’re old to say these things, but we’re all just trying to use what we’ve got, right?”
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