The uphill battle to safeguard federal lands

Local activists gather in Salt Lake City to protest the Trump administration’s boundary reductions to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. (Photo by Andrew Burr)

By Richard Ades

As if the upcoming presidential election weren’t momentous enough, a new documentary offers evidence that American’s public lands are on the line.

David Byars’s Public Trust is a beautifully photographed homage to the 640 million acres of wilderness that belong to all of us, as well as a concise history of the struggle to keep them that way. That history is brought up to date with an account of the Trump administration’s moves to exploit some of the most pristine and vital areas for commercial development.

Though a wide spectrum of activists, ranchers, government officials and others appear during the film’s 98 minutes, the face that’s seen most often belongs to journalist Hal Herring. Herring says he spent his youth hunting and fishing in northern Alabama, but he later traded in his shotgun for a computer so he could warn people about forces that sought to turn federal lands into money-making opportunities.

Byars makes the case that protecting and even extending public lands was a bipartisan issue for much of the 20th century, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Even in the 21st century, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both added new protected areas by declaring them “national monuments.”

When Donald J. Trump took office, however, he made it clear that his sympathies lay elsewhere. Not only have his secretaries of the interior been men with multiple links to the energy industry, but he’s showed no compunction about overturning protective measures instituted by his predecessors.

Spencer Shaver and Hal Herring paddle through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. (Photo by Jim Hurst)

The documentary gives three endangered areas special attention. One is Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, which attract canoers and other nature-lovers to the state and create thousands of local jobs. Another is the Bears Ears area of Utah, considered sacred by Native Americans. Finally, there’s the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, home to the caribou on which the Gwich’in people rely for their survival.

Each of these areas has its defenders, one of the most devoted being Bernadette Demientieff of the Gwich’in Nation. She and other activists are shown gathering support and debating critics in attempts to fight off intrusions by would-be exploiters with deep pockets. But their efforts begin to seem futile once the Trump administration puts its finger on the scales.

Educational, inspiring and, most of all, troubling, Public Trust is ultimately a call to arms against those who seek to steal our national heritage for the sake of a quick profit.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Public Trust (no MPAA rating) is available via YouTube beginning Sept. 25, with more outlets to be added at a later date.

Seaside thriller centers on tale of modern-day slavery

Kea (Mony Ros) and Chakra (Sarm Heng) face the fishing trawler’s dictatorial captain (Thanawut Kasro) in Buoyancy. (Photos courtesy of Kino Lorber)

By Richard Ades

It’s fitting that I watched Buoyancy on Labor Day weekend. The film is about a boy whose quest for honest work turns him into a virtual slave aboard a Southeast Asian fishing trawler.

Though designed as a tense thriller by Australian writer/director Rodd Rathjen (making an assured feature-length debut), the film also documents a real-life tragedy that entraps thousands of boys and men who are simply trying to better themselves.

The protagonist is Chakra (Sarm Heng), a 14-year-old Cambodian who resents having to work in the fields for pay he’s then forced to turn over to his father. After hearing about the wages that can be made in Thai factories, he steals away one morning for a prearranged rendezvous with men who will smuggle him over the border along with other job-seekers.

There he meets a stranger named Kea (Mony Ros) who has misgivings about what they’re getting themselves into but needs to make money for his wife and family. Kea smells trouble when they’re ordered to board a ship that supposedly will take them to their factory, but by then it’s too late. He and Chakra are forced to join the beleaguered crew of a fishing boat captained by the brutal and dictatorial Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro).

Sarm Heng as 14-year-old Chakra

Scenes aboard the trawler paint a picture of exhaustion and misery. Chakra and fellow crew members spend their days shoveling netfuls of tiny, wriggling fish that reportedly are bound for pet food. At night, the men eat meager bowls of rice before settling down to sleep on the floor of the ship’s hold.

Through it all, Chakra faces each task with the kind of dogged determination he apparently learned growing up in harsh poverty. He even curries favor with the captain by personally giving him the larger fish that occasionally end up in the net.

Others, however, are less resilient. In some cases, their bodies give out; in others, they attempt to escape or rebel against their captors. In each instance, the captain and his underlings maintain order by responding with ruthless and sometimes creative sadism.

The film’s largely silent scenes of day-to-day misery and casual cruelty, masterfully depicted by director Rathjen and cinematographer Michael Latham, capture the sense of numbing hopelessness anyone in that situation would feel. Anyone but someone as young and adaptable as Chakra, that is, who is gradually transformed by what he’s seen and endured. Despite being a fledgling actor, Sarm Heng handles the change with understated power.

A sad story with a climax that’s both exciting and disturbing, Buoyancy earns its stripes as a thriller without undermining the real-world tragedy it seeks to expose.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Buoyancy (no MPAA rating) opens Sept. 11 via the Wexner Center’s virtual cinema series. For information, visit wexarts.org.