Calgary

New documentary about Canada's boreal forest reveals how it's in trouble, director says

The director of a new documentary about Canada's boreal forest called Borealis says his team realized while making it that the iconic wilderness was in a lot of trouble — including in Alberta.

Director Kevin McMahon says the damage is especially apparent in Alberta

Canada's boreal forest stretches to the horizon in this aerial view from the documentary Borealis. The film, which looks at Canada's boreal forest, was shot in various spots including Banff, Jasper and Wood Buffalo national parks in Alberta.  (Primitive Entertainment)

The director of a new documentary about Canada's boreal forest called Borealis says his team realized while making it that the iconic wilderness was in a lot of trouble — including in Alberta.

"There's a big shot toward the end of the film where it's a drone shot that runs for like three minutes over Jasper National Park. And most of the trees are dead because of the mountain pine beetle," director Kevin McMahon told CBC Calgary's The Homestretch on Tuesday.

Other parts of the forest, like around Grande Prairie, Alta., are also in trouble, he said — particularly because of drought.   

"We are collectively having a pretty considerable impact on the forest and Alberta is one of the places you can really see the evidence," said McMahon, whose film is a co-production between the company he co-founded, Primitive Entertainment, and the National Film Board of Canada.

Kevin McMahon directed the feature documentary Borealis, which was a Primitive Entertainment co-production with the NFB. (Primitive Entertainment)

For Borealis, the film crew travelled deep into the heart of Canada's iconic wilderness to examine how the plants and animals there survive the destructive cycles of fire, insects and human activities. 

Canada's boreal forest is vast, stretching from coast to coast and covering some 270 million hectares.

The film was shot in a variety of national and provincial parks, including Banff, Jasper and Wood Buffalo national parks in Alberta. 

An image from the documentary Borealis shows a woodland caribou. The boreal forest is home to the threatened species. (Primitive Entertainment)

The documentary describes how the forest cycles through burning down and having a rebirth.

"The only way it can regenerate is to burn itself down again," he said.

"That's basically the story of the movie. And to do that, you know, we had to travel all over the forest to find little bits and pieces that represented various stages in its life cycle."

McMahon says he first got interested in the boreal forest 10 years ago while filming something else.

"I just became fascinated with the way it worked.… It's not just a collection of trees. It's one unified thing. So I thought, that would be an interesting thing to really dig into," he said.

Much of the early years were spent raising money and doing research about forests, then they spent most of the past year shooting it and the winter editing it.

One of the more inspiring voices in the film was a tree planter they interviewed while in Grande Prairie, McMahon says.

"She was planting trees, but she's also an herbalist. She's somebody who has studied how you can get medicines and food and various things out of the forest," he said.

"We spent a lot of time wandering around in the forest with her and she was telling us what all the plants did … but she's also planting and rebuilding the forest."

If you want to catch the documentary Borealis, it can now be streamed for free on NFB.ca and TVO.org.


With files from The Homestretch.

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