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Documentary on carbon from Victoria filmmaker airs Friday on CBC's The Nature of Things

Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Succession star Sarah Snook on board for film
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Victoria director Niobe Thompson (right) with composer Jonathan Kawchuk during a music recording session for Carbon – The Unauthorized Biography. Credit: Ryan Wilke

When it comes to making a documentary about a misunderstood chemical element only a small percentage of people truly understand, it never hurts to dream big and ask high-placed people for assistance.

The worst they could say is no.

In the event that person agrees to help, however, said film has a real shot with audiences. That is the fate that befell Victoria filmmaker Niobe Thompson, who partially credits the pandemic with helping him secure two well-known contributors — renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Succession star Sarah Snook — for a new documentary he co-directed, Carbon — The Unauthorized Biography.

“It has something to do with the pandemic and our connections and relationships,” Thompson said of his ability to attract Tyson and Snook.

“But the simplest answer is, we asked. Neil was sitting at home and had a bit more time than usual on his hands. That might not have happened outside of a pandemic. It was the same thing with Sarah [who does the voiceover in the film]. She loved the idea, and wanted to be part of a film that was a fresh take on the climate emergency.”

Thompson’s documentary with writer-director Daniella Ortega is already reaping rewards. Carbon premièred this week at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema, and has its broadcast premierè tonight at 9 p.m. on CBC’s The Nature of Things, after which it will move to the CBC Gem free streaming service.

The film is also headed to Copenhagen for a film festival screening next month, and will be broadcast on ABC in the near future. None of which comes out of left field. Thompson, who grew up in a Cree community in remote Northern Alberta, and moved to Victoria from Edmonton in 2019, has won three Canadian Screen Awards and two Emmy nominations for his work.

His latest project, a Canadian-Australian co-production, attempts to “rehabilitate carbon from high school chemistry class and tell the story of carbon in her own words.”

He filmed scenes nearby in Clayoquot Sound and Fairy Creek, but the production team also travelled to Australia, Mongolia, Tasmania and Alaska for shoots. The documentary looks at carbon neutrality, carbon footprints and carbon taxes and what those actually mean, and presents a compelling argument in favour of the element, which is forged in the extreme heat and pressure of a dying star.

“We very rarely take a step back and look at what carbon is actually doing in our world, which is to insulate our planet and make life possible,” he said.

Carbon the element accounts for 20 per cent of each person’s individual biology; it also built the planet we inhabit. But as one of the most abundant elements in the universe, it still gets a bad rap, Thompson said.

To explain what he considers the most misunderstood element on Earth, Thompson said they needed more than just Tyson and Snook. He and Ortega recruited a distinguished team of talking heads to bring the project to the masses, and recruited researchers, astrophysicists, cosmologists, ecologists, geologists, scientists, engineers — even an animal sexuality expert — to connect the dots.

“There are a whole set of stock images and phrases that trigger people, and put them in their tribal positions on the issue. It’s very difficult to get people to open their eyes to the issue in a fresh way.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com