Along the shores of the Pearl River in Xintang, China an environmental phenomena is taking place that is literally out of this world.
A satellite from space has captured the image of a large indigo-blue streak meandering through the water.
Despite the spectacular sight, this is not one of the Wonders of the World. In fact, there’s nothing natural about this blue water at all.
Xintang happens to be the blue jeans capital of the world, and the off-coloured river is a slurry of toxic chemicals, dumped into the water by factories that are producing 200 million pairs of jeans every year for North American closets.
It is this image that spurred Vancouver producer Roger Williams and director David McIlride to embark on a three-year investigative journey to uncover the environmental impacts of the global fashion industry.
RiverBlue, a 95 minute documentary, is the culmination of their research, after travelling to 10 different countries, touring many manufacturing plants and interviewing countless experts.
Premiering at the Vancouver International Film Festival last October, the documentary has already been nominated for several awards, and will be the feature film at the second annual Langley International Film Festival (LIFF) next weekend.
“We started looking at fashion as a whole, and we realized that the pollution side of fashion is massive, and it’s very under reported,” Williams said in an interview with the Times.
“All of the emotions you can think of, we thought and went through. There was such awful things going on, but at the same time, you would find interesting and cool things going on. Some of the places we visited were pretty horrific, and that comes out in the film.”
The documentary, narrated by Canadian actor Jason Priestley, follows the journey of activist Mark Angelo, who is the founder of World Rivers Day, as he unveils some of the most polluted rivers on Earth.
He travels to Xintang, where Greenpeace workers have found cadmium, chromium, mercury, lead and copper in numerous samples of water from the Pearl River, and then to Dhaka Bangladesh, where the average lifespan of a tannery worker is less than 50 years.
In the film, Williams and McIlride focus mainly on the jean and leather industries, which use many carcinogenic chemicals in their manufacturing processes.
“In China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, there’s a lot of what they call cancer villages. They’re the areas around a lot of the factories (and) their water is very polluted,” Williams said.
“The air was unbelievable. Dave and I both, when we got out of the car in Dhaka, it was just overwhelming. The smell of chemicals, it’s basically like turpentine. I had a headache for a week when I was there. It was just absolutely awful.”
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RiverBlue follows B.C. river activist Mark Angelo as he explores some of the most polluted rivers on Earth. Submitted photo.
To find the catalyst behind these deplorable conditions, the film team didn’t have to look far.
Right at home in North America, our society’s obsession with trendy, cheap clothing is causing major environment impacts overseas.
“Right from the start, it was kind of a challenge: Can we really be an agent for change in this massive, massive industry?” Williams said.
“The fashion industry is huge, and one of the things that we talked about in the film is ‘fast fashion.’ And fast fashion is probably one of the leading causes of what is going on.”
In fast fashion, many of the world’s top brands introduce new styles and seasons of clothing on a monthly, and sometimes a weekly basis, meaning consumers have to constantly purchase new garments to stay on trend.
Despite witnessing many toxic environments, Williams says there are some companies starting to create change.
In Italy, for example, a company has found a way to transform food waste into a product that removes 19 chemicals out of the dying process for jeans. Another European company has invented a machine that uses lasers to stencil patterns on jeans, instead of using harsh chemicals to get the same distressed look.
“We wanted to, of course, see some of the bad. But at the onset of this project, I said to David, ‘I can’t do another documentary that’s all bad, because a lot of them are. We have to find some positives, we have to find solutions,’” Williams said.
His producing partner, Lisa Mazzotta, has even started a website, yourchoice-yourvoice.com, to showcase some of the positive innovations in the industry.
ROLE OF CONSUMERS
While there are numerous big players to blame in the environmental degradation caused by the fashion industry, Williams believes that some power for change lies in the average consumer.
“The consumer has a lot of choice. They can vote with their dollars. They don’t have to buy fast fashion, they can buy better quality. T-shirts that only last five or six washes, why? And that’s a $5 T-shirt. Maybe you buy a $20 T-shirt and it lasts for two or three years,” he said.
“When organic food started coming out 20 years ago, it took a long time for that to gain a foothold, and it was very expensive. It’s probably going to be the same thing in the fashion industry. It’s going to be more expensive at first, there’s going to be a lot of early adopters, (but) once it becomes a little more mainstream, then it will just become mainstream. And that will change things.”
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A scene from the documentary, RiverBlue, shows the environmental degradation facing some third world countries involved in the manufacturing of clothing. Submitted photo.
LANGLEY FILM FESTIVAL
To help spur this change, Williams’ team wants to showcase RiverBlue to as many audiences as possible.
“The response has been tremendous so far,” Williams said.
“Every time I do a Q&A the questions are really interesting, they’re never the same. People pick up different things, and what I have heard by a number of people is that, ‘I need to see it twice. There’s so much in this movie that I need to see it twice to really get the full effect of what is going on.’”
Susan Cairns, executive director of the Langley School District Foundation, was very eager to bring the film to audiences in Langley.
She has been working with Williams since the summer to secure RiverBlue for the opening night of the Langley International Film Festival, which returns to the Chief Sepass Theatre March 3-5.
Hosted by the Langley School District Foundation in partnership with Langley Film Nights Shot in the Dark, proceeds from the event will benefit film and arts programs at Langley schools.
RiverBlue begins at 7 p.m., and will be followed by an opening night gala at Lelem Arts & Cultural Cafe at 9 p.m., where the cast and crew will participate in a Q&A.
Other films featured at the festival this year include: a student montage created by video students at Brookswood Secondary, Langley Fine Arts and R.E. Mountain Secondary schools; The Eagle Huntress; Manchester By the Sea; 20th Century Women; and Captain Fantastic.
“We wanted to have a mix of films. Manchester By the Sea would be something people would recognize, and then there’s others that are not as recognizable, and then an international choice and a documentary,” Cairns explained.
“We also have the student montage again (which) are six, three-minute videos that the students have produced. And they are really provocative and quite entertaining. They do different things, like the environment and documentaries, they even do advertising. It’s really interesting.”
Film Festival Details
Chief Sepass Theatre, 9096 Trattle St.
Friday, March 3 at 7 p.m. — RiverBlue
Friday, March 3 at 9 p.m. — Opening Night Gala
Saturday, March 4 at 1 p.m. — Student Montage
Saturday, March 4 at 3:30 p.m. — Eagle Huntress
Saturday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m. — Manchester by the Sea
Sunday, March 5 at 1 p.m. — 20th Century Women
Sunday, March 5 at 3 p.m. — Captain Fantastic
$10 per screening; $50 for a three-day pass; $30 for opening night gala