RECIPES FOR DISASTER (John Webster). 85 minutes. Some subtitles. Screens Wednesday (January 14), 6:30 and 9:15 pm, at the Bloor (506 Bloor West).
This month's doc soup entry, Recipes For Disaster, chronicles a year in the life of Anglo-Finnish filmmaker John Webster. During that time, he tried to put his family on what he calls "an oil diet," embargoing plastic products and ultimately trying to get them off fossil fuels entirely.
He's on the line from Finland now, telling me about it, and as we talk I can't help noticing that my office phone is made almost entirely of plastic. So is the casing of the digital recorder I'm using to capture the conversation. And the keyboard on which I'm now transcribing it. And so on.
That's kind of the point, Webster tells me. Plastics are absolutely everywhere, and we would find it awfully hard to eliminate them from daily usage.
"We're completely addicted to fossil fuels," he says. "Addicted even to the smallest, most ridiculous thing, like a tube of toothpaste. One of the starting points for the film was the question ‘If we know where this [lifestyle] is leading us, how come it's so difficult to change?' And during my research, I began to get the feeling that it had to do with the way we behave as humans - just the small day-to-day things that make it so very hard to change."
What's most intriguing about Webster's film, which began as a light-hearted exploration of the practicality of his experiment, is its almost accidental revelation of the human cost of doing without such modern conveniences as blister packaging and gasoline. Most of that is experienced by his wife, Anu, whose initial enthusiasm for the oil diet gradually turns to exasperation as Webster's asceticism leads him to sell their car and open a biodiesel resale business.
"Well, certainly my behaviour serves as a cautionary tale," he laughs. "That was totally unexpected, that I was such a dickhead - I am such a dickhead - which is really something that was revealed to me at the editing stage. I had a really good editor on this who was gentle and frank and very good at finding the inner tension of the scene quickly and efficiently. He used to be doubled up laughing at all the things I did; our favourite is when I tell Anu about my brilliant biodiesel company. Just the look on her face...."
The slow-burning tension between Webster and Anu gives Recipes For Disaster its dramatic heart.
"It was a surprise to me, as the film began to take shape, that so much of the film was about a relationship," Webster says. "It so often happens, in the editing process, that a film starts to want to go its own way. It wasn't what I planned at all, that it should be like that - though, actually, I planned very little. But it was a very good thing for the film."
It's not exactly a spoiler that the marriage survives the experiment. Webster says he's currently striving to reduce his family's carbon footprint without going entirely overboard.
"I hope I'm more reasonable," he says. "We're following the big three, which is home, food and travel. I don't fly any more, except for between Helsinki and Stockholm, because the emissions are lower than taking a ship. We're building a house at the moment, and thanks to many of the things we learned during the year, we're able to build it on ecological principles. Hopefully, it'll be a house that uses a lot less energy than our old flat. We live by the train tracks, go to local shops. We're not so dependent on the car as we once were, but change like that takes time."
I have to ask about his biodiesel resale business, which even the film seems to know won't pan out.
"I did sell for a while, to just friends of mine. I set up the company, and then I spent the longest time trying to find a storage space to keep it, and it actually sort of petered out after a while. I kind of came to my senses: maybe first and foremost I was a filmmaker, and then only perhaps secondarily I was a fuel salesman."
He laughs at the memory.
"You know, it was part of the darkest hour for me. During that process, the more I found out about climate change, the bleaker it looked. But I was able to do something concrete, even more than what we were doing as a family. That's also about the difficulties of change - you get an idea, and you get so caught up in it that it becomes persistence in error. You go down the wrong path and can't see that there might be an alternative."