Talent On Tap – Kevin McMahon Translates Borealis

We all love a good story but the documentary, Borealis is told by the forest itself. It’s reaching out in its own cryptic language and Kevin McMahon has gathered the readers and scientists to translate what it’s saying. After watching this extraordinary documentary, it’s quite evident that the Borealis is crying out for help, while showing us the population at stake. I’ve watched environmental documentaries prior to Borealis, but I watched this one twice because it was narrated so well, the story was compelling, the music sounds angelic and the cinematography is absolutely stunning. The camera seems to have a personal relationship with everything it looks at. This film will explain action and reaction in relation to climate change, how a forest can defend itself from insects but not from drought and how animals and plants can coexist in harmony. 


Kevin McMahon began his career as an investigative reporter before shifting to film in the 1980s. He has directed more than 20 films and produced dozens of hours of non-fiction television. His work is focused on environmental themes, viewed explicitly—in subjects like Niagara Falls, the cod fishery and nuclear weapons—and obliquely—in stories about the guru Marshall McLuhan, Haida and Inuit communities, or the nature of human intelligence. Known for bringing unusual perspectives and personalities to documentary, Kevin has collaborated with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, rock musician Gord Downie, performance artist Laurie Anderson, comedian Mary Walsh and actress Sarah Polley. 


Kevin’s work has garnered a variety of awards, including several Geminis, a top prize from the Canadian Centre for Investigative Journalism, a nomination for the Governor General’s Award in public-service journalism and honours from film festivals around the world. Kevin is also a frequent mentor to younger filmmakers; in 2006, he was the first Official Mentor at the Hot Docs festival. In 2011, he was named Canadian Eco Hero by the Planet in Focus film festival. 


Borealis can be streamed for free on nfb.ca and tvo.org. I had the great privilege of speaking to Kevin from his home in Toronto and it was incredibly inspiring. 


HNM “You’ve directed over 20 films since starting in the 1980’s and a large bulk of them, have been environmental films. Can your documentaries be considered a type of barometer for the environment?” 

KEVIN “That’s a really interesting question. It’s funny, I was just reading a big interview with Fred Wiseman in the New York Times today and the writer had said that Wiseman’s body of work tells the story of America. Likewise, I’ve been making these films since 1990 – so it’s been 30 years or so. If you take them as an aggregate, there’s The Falls, In the Reign of Twilight, Water Life, The Polar Sea (mini-series doc), Spaceship Earth, Equator: A New World View (mini-series doc) and they’re a pretty good yet superficial record of the transformation the planet has been undergoing in the past 30 years. I always say, even the sh#tiest documentary has value, because it records a log.”


HNM “There must be a tremendous amount of planning and coordinating, whenever you take on a project this big. When you plan your shots, is it hardest to easiest and does chronological order matter?”

KEVIN “It’s never in chronological order, just like a screenplay – it’s the same thing, putting together a doc as it is a drama… in that sense. With the shooting, you tackle what you can logistically manage at any given moment. In the case of Borealis, we started shooting in the beginning of 2019; we shot our winter shots first and then shot throughout the summer. The film initiates through fire, we have to have fire – it was a crucial element in the film. In the previous year, there were fires everywhere – BC and Alberta, but 2019 was a very quiet year for fire. It wasn’t until late August that there was a fire up in the NorthWest Territories and we went up to capture it. In the case of this film, we really knew our story, I had written a treatment that was practically a screenplay and made a storyboard because the story was very straightforward. The shooting consisted of finding the pieces that fit into the overall theme.”         


HNM “You have multiple narrators in the film, how did you decide which one was best to talk about a specific scene?”

KEVIN “I started out, interviewing a lot of people. In most of my previous films I’ve used the same technique of interviewing a lot of people and then melding their voices together. In those cases, I’ve always had to use an over-the-top narrator – such as Gord Downie, Laura Anderson and others, to weave the narrative. In this case, the narrative was pretty straightforward. I was looking for people with an expertise in a variety of areas. When we were cutting from one to the other, it worked pretty well.”  



HNM “Is there a common thread or a theme in the film?”

KEVIN “Yes, I would say so. The common thread in this film would be community, the forest as a community. We look at it as a collection of individual trees – everything we’ve learned from science in the last 10 years by a researcher Suzanne Simard and her short film, In Your Back Yard. Through Suzanne’s research, we’ve discovered that trees talk to each other. Not only can they communicate but they also share resources. It’s revolutionary science because, although people have speculated for years about it, nobody has actually proven it. We took that science and combined it with other science that has been done on the Borealis forest. Really, what we’re doing is showing a portrait of a community – how it operates together; trees, funguses, animals, birds. Everything influences everything else and that’s really the theme.”      


HNM “What is the big attraction for filming nature and the environment as opposed to making more films on humans or social issues?”

KEVIN “To me it’s about the story. I started out as a newspaper reporter and have covered many different things. Over the period of my career, I believe the biggest story is about the environment; how humans impact it and how they’re impacted by it, how things are changing and how we view the environment. All of these things combined is the biggest story there is. When people look back on this era, they’ll look at 3 enormous things; the environment, the reconfiguring of social power and social equity and the technology that has impacted both of those things. For me, the environment is the important story to tell and they’re really fascinating stories to make. I like being in the wilderness, I like going to those places and meeting the people that live and work there. I grew up in Niagara Falls, where there’s this incredible environmental phenomenon with this extraordinary commercial culture stacked on top. That’s been imprinted on me from an early age and has always influenced my work.”       


HNM “At the end of the film, there is some strategic tree planting going on. Is it necessary to micro manage the Boreal forest to ensure its future?”

KEVIN “She was actually doing some industrial tree planting in an area where there’s been a mine or clear cut. They’ll typically plant spruce and pine and have to be strategic because pine will grow where its dry and spruce will grow where it’s wet. They also have to be a certain distance apart, which an inspector checks to ensure they’re properly planted. Many people ask me what they can do to help after they watch one of my films, and in this case – I tell them to plant a tree or sponsor someone to plant a tree, it’s one of the easiest things to do, to plant something green.”  


HNM “Have you ever considered a documentary on a tropical forest?”

KEVIN “Funny you should ask, we just did a 12 – hour television series called Equator: A New World View… but you know how hard it is to get anyone to pay attention in this country. It was done through The Discovery Channel in Canada but they ended up putting it on Animal Planet, where it ran last winter. It was a co-production between Canada, France, Germany and Japan. We sent 6 or 7 film crews all around the equator for a year where we went deep into the rainforest and were looking at how climate change is affecting the plants and animals but also the people and the culture. Previous to that I did a 10-hour series called The Polar Sea, which can still be screened from The Knowledge Network and TVO’s website in Ontario. We go from Iceland, all the way to the Northwest Passage and then to Alaska. We’re looking at climate change, issues around colonialism, culture and various other things.”


HNM “Considering you capture everything on film, do you also document your findings and are they ever published in any environmental magazines?”

KEVIN “The short answer is no, we shoot everything on HD and archive everything. We recently sent my company’s archives to the University of Toronto, where they’re getting sorted out. I’ve started some writing and am trying to distill the lessons that I’ve learned from doing all the different docuseries into something that I’ll publish once it’s finished. Typically, no though because we’re documentary filmmakers, so it’s the film part that we’re going for.”     




HNM “How long did it take to collect all the footage for Borealis?”

KEVIN “I don’t remember how many shooting days we had but it was about 4 or 5 months. We’d go out for a couple of weeks, come back and regroup, plan the next string and then go back out. We had a half a dozen major shoots, where we’d be out for a couple weeks each time.”    


HNM “There’s been a big push to have more inclusivity in film and TV. Is that ever in the back of your mind when you’re crewing up?”

KEVIN “Firstly, I’ve worked with the same crew for more than 20 years and they’re very multicultural. My cinematographer is Vietnamese, my sound recordist was born here but his heritage is East Indian and Japanese. In the case of this film, two of the executive producers are women. In documentaries, women make up the majority of membership in DOC, which is the Documentary Organization of Canada. I think we have a pretty fair balance between genders and a reasonable representation of the multicultural nature of this country.”


HNM “Do you have a preference between shooting in the cold or tropical heat?”

KEVIN “My heritage is half Irish and half Italian, so I’m happy in the heat and happy in the cold. Living in Canada and shooting as much as I have, I’ve learned to be comfortable in the cold.”   


HNM “What’s next on the rise?”

KEVIN “I’ve actually got 2 really great projects lined up. I’m doing a documentary embedded inside a newspaper. It’s about journalism in the era of fake news. I’ve always wanted to make a Fred Wiseman inspired documentary, so I’ll be starting that soon. Next summer, I’ll be doing a collaboration with Peter Mansbridge as a co-production between Canada and Germany – we will be going around the North Pole, we’ll be in the arctic. It is going to be about Canada and the other nations around the arctic and what will happen once it goes from a large ice mass to a blue ocean, because 20 years from now it’s going to be another Atlantic Ocean. It will be open and navigable – people will be sailing through it, so what’s that going to look like. We’re going to go up there and around the pole to see how that’s going to change and that will be for CBC.”     



Kevin continues, “The information environment has always been important to me. I strongly believe that the way we shape our physical environment has to do with how we look at it. The way we look at things has to do with how we process information. We just finished a series called Writing the Land, which is about new Canadian authors. We do a variety of projects and we like to keep it fresh.”


HNM “Where we can see Borealis?”

KEVIN “It’s streaming for free and it’s available at NFB.ca, which is the National Film Board and TVO.org, which is TV Ontario’s main website – they’ll be up for awhile and I hope people have a chance to enjoy it.”

Borealis is an exceptional film that spells out what is at stake if the climate continues to warm. It offers a personal conversation and introduction to a forest with a lot to say. It’s waving the white flag but not enough are listening… yet. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *