Director: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee
Runtime: 92 minutes
An intense focus on globalization connects three strands at the core of the Elemental. although the broader theme is we are all connected by virtue of starting our lives as a liquid. In every instance it’s an uphill battle, and director Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee chronicles this battle in the Australia, US, Canada and India.
Returning to life’s simplest form, Jay Harmon, an entrepreneur who freezes a whirlpool concludes many of nature’s design characteristics take this shape (including human organs including our heart). He hunts for capital to move his designs beyond prototypes, building fans, module clean water systems and the most ambitious, a jet engine fueled atmospheric mixer.
The film also follows Rajendra Singh, who mounts a crusade to save the Ganges River from unsustainable development – bringing to bare issues of memory, place, historical connections and economic development. The connection to the land is apparent in one of the film’s most beautifully photographed sequences.
The third strand takes on a different style, almost employing social realism. Following the personal life of Eriel Deranger who mounts a campaign in Northern Canada against the Keystone XL Pipeline, vetoed by President Obama. The 2,000 mile long pipeline was slated to move oil from the Alberta Tar Sands down south to the United States. Going rouge in a way, Deranger speaks out, threatening the interactional bridge she has built between the indigenous communities of Alberta and the wealthy donors in the United States. Prone to action, she is noticeably uncomfortable amongst the elite at a cocktail party as she struggles to simplify her struggle to an elevator pitch.
Elemental is a fascinating and intimate portrait — I believe the best social advocacy documentaries tell us the “how” verses the “why,” showing us behind-the-scenes every struggle for every dollar to continue to keep fighting. This does so, with alarming intimacy as Deranger and her partner decide to have a child, while she struggles to raise her own teenage daughter, who in the process is growing tired of the effects of her mother’s advocacy. This alone is strong enough material for a feature documentary.
Director Vaughan-Lee ties these threads together masterfully allowing each narrator to tell their story, showing what works and what doesn’t work. The purpose of advocacy I’ve come to learn in the past few years of graduate school is that unlike a negotiation in which each side has some power, often the powerless are fighting to prove a point. All of these causes are well worth it. Elemental is a rare, fresh look at environmental issues and sustainability that does not shy away from the personal impact the decisions to dedicate one’s life to a cause entails.
Elemental is currently screening at the Austin Film Festival.
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