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A scene from the documentary Kivalina v. Exxon.

3 out of 4 stars

Kivalina V. Exxon
Directed by
Ben Addelman

The title of Ben Addelman's haunting, well-paced and timely documentary is the name of a high-profile lawsuit launched in 2008 on behalf of the 400 Inupiat people who live in an ancient village perched on a small barrier island on the Chukchi Sea in Northwest Alaska.

The suit alleges two dozen major energy companies have contributed significantly to the greenhouse gases that have caused global warming. Storms are growing fiercer, sea ice is melting. The ground is literally disappearing from beneath the villagers' feet. It will cost an estimated $250-million to relocate Kivalina. No government agency is willing to foot the bill for a project serving such a small population, so the villagers want the companies named in the lawsuit to pay up.

The two lawyers representing the village once worked on opposite sides of the 1990s big-tobacco lawsuits; their comments comparing what has been called "the most dangerous lawsuit in America" to their earlier work are fascinating. But the film, which won best doc at the Whistler Film Festival last December, offers much more than a David vs. Goliath story.

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Addelman takes us deep into complex community life. Steve Cosens's beautiful camera work captures the stark landscapes, brutal weather and cosier corners of the town (the church choir in particular) so we really feel Kivalina is being battered in every imaginable way – there's a mining company up the river, big oil swoops into town for a dog-and-pony show about a nearby project, overcrowding and substance abuse are eroding the community's health and spirit.

At the heart of the film is Colleen Snow, the feisty tribal administrator and mother of six who puts herself on the front line to save the village. As the film so eloquently illustrates, in Kivalina the devastating effects of global warming are not in the future but, most urgently, here and now.

Kivalina V. Exxon opens June 15 at the Hot Docs Bloor Cinema in Toronto.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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