Born and raised in Toronto, Mark Terry, 53, has been producing, directing and writing documentary films for more than 20 years. Some of his favourites include We Stand On Guard, about the first 100 years of Canadian military service, hosted by Gordon Pinsent, and a series of films he created for the permanent exhibit of the Hong Kong Museum of History (2001). But it was The Antarctica Challenge: A Global Warning that changed his life in 2009 when it became the only film invited by the United Nations to screen at the climate-change conference in Copenhagen. And his latest, The Polar Explorer, was also honoured as the only film invited by the UN to the conference in Cancun. It screens at the Planet in Focus Film Festival, Saturday, 5:30 p.m. Al Green Theatre, 750 Spadina Ave. Tickets are $12 at planetinfocus.org.
How did you meld your passion for two seemingly disparate things – icebergs and filmmaking?
Visiting the poles is the closest thing to visiting another planet without leaving earth. I've always had a fondness for icebergs for their frozen untouched nature. They're unusual and so beautiful. And the air is so fresh – I just love being in that environment. I saw that during International Polar Year, there was very little reporting from Antarctica, mainly because that area is so hard to get to. I wanted to go there to bring back a film that would report on the new climate-change research being done there.
You spend your life exploring an apocalyptic view about the global meltdown, yet you stay optimistic. How?
Only because I've seen it done before, I believe that it can be done again. The world's only unanimously approved environmental document was drafted in Montreal on Sept. 16, 1987. That United Nations document – the Montreal Protocol – marked the first time all the nations of the world, without exception, agreed to do one thing and did it. They agreed to ban chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs]that could be found in hairspray, for instance, back then, and other ozone-depleting man made substances found in all kinds of products, with elaborately detailed phase-out schedules. And it actually worked.
By getting rid of the hairspray?
Yes, effectively. They phased out the CFCs of the world and that was basically it. They figured if they stopped the CFCs, at least the hole wouldn't get any bigger, and after 50 years it might even start to repair itself. Well, the really cool thing is that when I was in Antarctica in January, 2009, the very first recording of that ozone hole shrinking was made, and I was there that day. Since then, it's continued to shrink. And here's the kicker: That's happened 25 years early. That's why I'm very optimistic.
Nonetheless, the poles are still effectively the earth's 'canary in the coal mine'?
Yeah – it's funny you say that, because that's what Achim Steiner said [executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme]about my first film. He said " The Antarctica Challenge: A Global Warming is the canary in the coal mine." And one of the scientists in my new film, The Polar Explorer, uses the same expression about the polar regions. The expression I like to use is that it's an alarm clock, and it's waking us up. All we have to do is pay attention to it and not go back to sleep. Nothing is quite as alarming as the Arctic warming twice as fast as any place else on the planet, and Antarctica warming five times as fast as anywhere else on the planet.
Are we past the proverbial tipping point?
There is no stopping the melting of the ice, and that's because the measurement of the warming of the poles has been steady for almost 40 years. It doesn't look like a stock market report that goes up and down; the temperature goes up every year … contributing to the world's rising-sea-level problem.
So if it's too late to stop global melting, why make these movies?
I'm so passionate about it because I feel like a voice in the wilderness. We are facing a very severe environmental crisis and people have trouble understanding it because scientists are so precise. They have so much expert information that sometimes the real message is lost. I try to make it understandable for people.
Let's turn the camera on you for a minute. As a Toronto-born global explorer who has shot at least one film on every continent, what keeps you coming back to this city?
It's home to me. The strongest feeling of home that I get here, aside from the obvious, is the way people are so friendly, as opposed to other cities where I've encountered fears and suspicion and sometimes people don't even make eye contact, like in Hong Kong for instance. My family settled around Todmorden Mills, which means a lot to me, because one of my ancestors started up Terry & Sons Pottery on Pottery Road. And the Latin root of the name Terry is "terra," which means earth, and people who made pots were then called "Terrys" or "earth people." There's an historic plaque now on the front of the building talking about Parshall Terry and his 12 sons. We go way back in Toronto.
So what's next for you?
Education is the key, so I'd like to bring these films to schools and universities and lecture about them. I would love to see young people interview scientists and bring their videos to the next UN climate-change conference because I think the future of this global environmental issue lies in the hands of the young people.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Special to The Globe and Mail