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Island filmmaker’s new doc explores the ‘wonderful and horrible irony’ of carbon

Carbon transitions from foundational element for life to one everyone loves to hate
Niobe Thompson, left, is the co-director of Carbon – The Unauthorised Biography. (Photo courtesy of Carbon - The Unauthorised Biography)

When the middle of this century comes around, Niobe Thompson doesn’t want his now-teenage daughters to look at a world made dramatically different by climate change and ask him, “if you knew, what did you do?”

It’s what inspired the Victoria filmmaker and his Australian co-director, Daniella Ortega, to make a film about the climate emergency that didn’t inflame the political polarization dominating the rhetoric about this scientific issue facing humanity.

That drew them to the thread running through origins of humanity, the Earth and much of the universe – carbon. It’s the element everyone loves to hate right now, Thompson said, but one that’s woefully misunderstood.

So in the now-streaming CBC Gem documentary; Carbon – The Unauthorised Biography, scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson break down the story of the element that makes humans and everything around them possible – along with the life-building and destroying paradox of carbon.

“I think I have a much broader understanding of where carbon is and what she does for us,” Thompson said in an interview.

The ‘she’ in this case is actor Sarah Snook, of HBO’s Succession, who voices carbon in the documentary, as Thompson said giving the element a personality was a key tenet of the film.

While scenes are shot all over the world, the pandemic reshaped the making of the documentary. While Thompson’s presence at in-person shoots was mostly limited to Vancouver Island rainforests and other parts of B.C., that was enough to give him a different perspective on carbon bonds, as he touched the ancient trees.

“All of that solidity is actually sucked out of the air and becomes these incredible cathedrals of carbon. I understood photosynthesis, but didn’t realize the forests around us are just solid manifestations of what’s floating around us.”

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It’s that deeper understanding Thompson hopes the film conveys, through dynamic visuals and engaging experts.

“It was very important to bring spectacle and visual power and emotion to the story, just to wake us up to the wonder of this element.”

While the film traces existence back to the carbon born in the hearts of stars, modern humanity’s interaction with the element has created an imbalance, pushing Earth toward tipping points.

Climate scientist Joelle Gergis says that scenarios experts have warned people of for decades are now unfolding and people are now having “to come to terms with these irreversible losses.”

“We are part of this generation that are witnessing the destruction of the Earth,” Gergis says in the film.

It’s those darker moments that lend to the poeticism of one square on the periodic table, Thompson said. As the film shows, it’s a baby born of carbon, in a world where there’s too much.

“Carbon has enabled everything for our species and for life on Earth, and yet at the same time, this imbalance of carbon in the atmosphere threatens to undo it all.

“It’s a wonderful and horrible irony.”

Vancouver Island's Clayoquot area is featured in the documentary; Carbon – The Unauthorized Biography. A version of the film is now streaming on CBC Gem. (Photo courtesy of Carbon – The Unauthorized Biography/ Handful of Films)

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