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2016 Film Festival: Debris

    Film Festival, Food & Entertainment, People & Places    March 1, 2016

The following article was written by Robert McTavish as part of a series of articles about filmmakers coming to the Salt Spring Film Festival on March 4-6, 2016. Filmmaker John Bolton will be attending the festival and leading a discussion about the film following the screening. The Filmmaker series is sponsored by Stonehouse Bed and Breakfast.


It’s not every coastal dweller who keeps an organized library of flotsam and jetsam. But over the years Tofino parks worker Pete Clarkson has seen alot come in and tucked it away for use in his often fun and irreverent artwork. Then, near the end of 2011, something new began washing up on shore. It was debris, and it had crossed the Pacific ocean from the Tōhoku area of Japan, where in March of that year, a 9.0 earthquake and the resulting tsunami killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands. When Clarkson mentioned the estimated 1.5 million tonnes of incoming marine debris in a talk at the Vancouver Aquarium in 2013, filmmaker John Bolton immediately felt more than the pull of an interesting coastal issue. Images of his next film began to wash over him.

That short film now heads to the Salt Spring Film Festival. Debris is a twist on what Bolton calls “an artist profile or process documentary – where the work of creating is the story.” At just under fifteen minutes long, the documentary takes viewers on a concentrated emotional journey with self-proclaimed “intertidal artist” Clarkson and his harvested materials, all the while bearing in mind the devastation incurred at the time and place this Japanese debris was set afloat. The result is Clarkson’s memorial to the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, and Bolton’s cinematic tone poem to the shared anxiety of potential disaster.

Bolton discovered quickly that one doesn’t need to invoke Japan to feel the stressful undertow of vulnerability on Vancouver Island’s west coast. “I’d never been to Tofino,” he says, “but the first thing you notice is the Tsunami Hazard Zone signs.” As both writer and director, the Vancouverite found his focus ebbing from the ingenuity and power of the artistic process to the all too human fears and hopes that lay under the surface of such work. Being in Clarkson’s community and meeting the people, he realized the fundamental connection the artist was exploring: “After all, if a tsunami hit Tofino, it is not inconceivable that the wreckage from that would not simply go the other way.”

Of course the wreckage, this debris, is where the connection begins. “A big focus for us was the house timbers,” says Bolton, referring to the sturdy beams that were snapped and sucked away by the waves. “These were once people’s homes, where their families lived.” To further his point, in the film Bolton isolates a wooden tabletop found by Clarkson, eerily similar to the one his son made that anchors the artist’s own waterfront dwelling – “the heart of his home. Yes, he’s part of the Pacific rim and of the world,” Bolton says, “but we also see him as a husband and father. It’s his perspective.”

A director certainly provides perspective as well, and Bolton utilizes a unique soundscape of ocean sound and ambient music to chart the eternal tensions where land and water meet. The scenery is gorgeous, as most islanders know, and the sunny sky while touring Clarkson’s studio fits the impish and delightful pop art aspect of his works. Yet the crew lingered long enough to sample all types of west coast weather, including a fitting stormy last day on location filming Clarkson’s final touches on the Tohoku-dedicated public sculpture he calls “Swept Away.”

Where the film goes now is still in planning, as it’s premiere at Vancouver’s Festival earlier this year has raised considerable interest as well as an outpouring of emotion. Though hard at work on several new projects, Bolton’s personal hope is to take it to Japan in the near future. For now, he’s happy to bring and discuss the film at the Salt Spring Film Festival in tribute to the resonance of art in the wake of the worst earthquake in Japanese history, but moreso to echo Clarkson’s own words: “in memory to those affected” on every coast of the Pacific.

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