It was one of those moments that’s so small and yet so profound they know they won’t soon forget it.
Filmmakers Nova Ami and Velcrow Ripper were visiting a monarch butterfly reserve in Mexico with their year-and-a-half-old son, Phoenix. He was in a carrier, strapped to his mom, and they were both covered in butterflies. Phoenix was peacefully sleeping – until a butterfly landed on his nose and woke him up.
It was the look of wonder on his face that stays in his parents’ mind.
And it was that same wonder with which the couple approached the making of their film, Metamorphosis – a feature documentary about climate change that has been earning praise at international film festivals and is now being released in theatres across Canada. It’s opening at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver on June 26.
But don’t read those words “feature documentary about climate change” and expect something preachy or political. Rather, Metamorphosis is what the filmmakers describe as “a poem for the planet.”
“We wanted to add to the conversation. We wanted to create a film that people would want to see,” Ripper says, on the phone from Toronto, where the couple is attending the film’s opening. “We wanted it to be fresh and cinematic and poetic.”
Ami – a former Burnaby resident who grew up here, attending Lyndhurst Elementary and Cariboo Hill Secondary – says the pair came up with the title first. From there, it seemed natural to explore the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, whose existence is threatened by loss of habitat and climate change.
“They really emerged as a character in the film, and a visual metaphor as well,” Ami says. “The butterfly story, the metaphor, is something that stayed with us from the beginning.”
Watching the film will leave the viewer with a variety of powerful and poignant images of the orange-and-black butterflies, in death and in flight, exploring both their fragility and their resiliency in the face of what humanity is doing to the planet.
Around the butterflies emerge a variety of stories, set in locations around the world, that trace the various stages of the climate change crisis – emerging, thematically, along the life cycle of the butterfly.
The filmmakers break their story down into four main stages: There’s the chrysalis stage, where things begin to break down and turn into something new; the crisis stage, where we get a “wake-up call” about what we’re doing to the planet; the catharsis stage, where we grieve and process what has happened in the crisis; and the symbiosis stage, where new, mutually beneficial relationships develop between humanity and the planet.
Viewers are transported to a variety of locations and stages of crisis: wildfires in California, the aftermath of Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, the flooding caused by rising tides in Venice, the loss of coral reefs in the Caribbean. The film relies heavily on artists – a Venetian mask maker, a sculptor creating underwater “reefs” made of concrete – to take its look at how climate change is affecting the planet and what we can do about it.
It also finds people and organizations who are taking steps, both small and large, to change the fate of the planet: a New Mexico resident who created a self-sustaining “Earthship” in the desert; a company that turns unused swimming pools into greenhouse gardens; an architect who builds treed highrises in Milan; a company that installs free solar panels for people in need in the U.S.
It was important to both Ami and Ripper that they focus not just on the crisis of climate change but on the ability of humanity to find solutions to it.
“I think we have a lot of faith in the creativity and ingenuity and resilience of both the human species and the natural world,” Ripper says, though he acknowledged it won’t be an easy journey. “It is going to take a radical change in our culture and our thinking.”
Not surprisingly, tackling a subject as vast as climate change was no small project. Metamorphosis was about four years in the making from beginning to end.
It was originally sparked, Ami notes, by Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in November of 2013. Coming from a Filipino family, she says, she was hit hard by the devastation of the storm that killed more than 6,000 people. It make the couple talk about how an event like that could change a person, and how humanity copes and changes through such crises.
Becoming pregnant with Phoenix, who’s now three years old, was another turning point. Ripper notes it really made them question what kind of planet we’re leaving for the new generation and what we, as citizens of the planet, are prepared to do about it.
Phoenix was just a baby when the couple began filming, so he spent much of his early life in a carrier, strapped to his mother and travelling all over the world. It started when he was four months old, with a 20-hour journey to Vanuatu. Ami carried Phoenix on her front and had a drone strapped to her back.
“I felt like one of those coat stands, with something hanging off every limb,” Ami says with a laugh.
They arrived at the South Pacific island with no real agenda, other than to explore the effects of Cyclone Pam.
“Being a documentary filmmaker is a bit like being a detective or an explorer,” Ripper says. “Sometimes you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
What happened, in the end, is a film that both are proud of.
Ami notes they deliberately avoided the convention of the “talking head” in putting together the documentary, choosing instead to let the locations and the people speak for themselves. It was a risk, she acknowledges, but judging by audience reaction, it’s one that seems to have paid off – allowing viewers to focus on the visual impact and the poetry of the unfolding story.
Ripper notes that a huge amount of the credit for the beauty of the film goes to the “absolutely brilliant” Vancouver-based cinematographer Grant Baldwin, who worked with Ripper to film Metamorphosis – and who taught Ripper the tricks and techniques to create the visual effects he wanted on those occasions when Baldwin couldn’t join them on their travels.
They also worked closely with their producer Lauren Grant, and Bonnie Thompson and David Christensen of the National Film Board.
Plus, of course, they credit their secret weapon: Grandma power. Their mothers have traded off duties, travelling with them to help look after Phoenix while his parents are working.
In the end, the long journey has been worth it.
Critical reviews – from such publications as The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and Le Devoir – have been full of praise. And, even more importantly, the audience reaction has reinforced to them that their mission has succeeded: people are saying it’s a film that isn’t preaching but that makes them think, a film that’s beautiful to watch, and a film they want to see over and over again.
“I was thinking today, it doesn’t get much better than this,” Ripper says.
CHECK IT OUT
What: Metamorphosis, a documentary by Nova Ami and Velcrow Ripper
Where: Vancity Theatre, 1181 Seymour St., Vancouver
When: Tuesday, June 26, 6:30 p.m.; Wednesday, June 27, 8:30 p.m.; Thursday, June 28, 5:45 p.m.; Sunday, July 1, 3 p.m.
Tickets and information: www.viff.org