Polluting Paradise: Cannes Review

Polluting Paradise Film Still H
Campaigning documentary on a mismanaged Turkish waste-disposal site will quickly seep into eco-minded festivals.

Environmental doc is explicitly much more a campaigning tool than any kind of objective reportage.

Prolific Turkish-German auteur Fatih Akin aims to raise a stink with Polluting Paradise, a heartfelt documentary chronicling the environmental mismanagement blighting his grandparents' home village. 

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Co-produced by a German TV channel, this is informative, ire-stoking but formally conventional small-screen fare whose only theatrical prospects are domestic, where Akin's ensemble comedy Soul Kitchen was 2009's second-biggest home-grown hit. Exposure abroad via eco-themed festivals and networks will nevertheless flow from an Out of Competition premiere at Cannes, where Akin's 2007 The Edge of Heaven took Best Screenplay.

Akin is quite unusual among major European film-makers in that he's harvested such major awards -- including Berlinale's Golden Bear for Head-On -- and critical praise as well as significant box-office success. An occasional documentarian, whose non-fiction movies tend to spring from his features, he now uses his status as a bully-pulpit to help raise awareness of a specific issue unfolding over the last half-decade on the Black Sea coast.

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Polluting Paradise (Müll im Garten Eden), filmed over the last five years since Akin came to the area to shoot parts of Edge of Heaven, is thus explicitly much more a campaigning tool than any kind of objective reportage. It's evident that Akin is firmly on the side of the villagers in Çamburnu, a picturesque settlement located beneath lush tea-growing slopes. In 2007 a former copper-mine a couple of miles uphill was turned into an enormous landfill for the entire Trabzon province's trash - amid much local protest. The opposition has remained vociferous over the years -- thanks partly to the powerful stench emitted by the supposedly "odorless" garbage and, even more economically damaging, the deleterious effect on streams and the water-table.

Often working in collaboration with local-historian Bünyamin Seyrekbasan, whose photographs and video-recordings comprise an exhaustive and invaluable archive of the case, Akin sympathetically catalogues the complaints of numerous residents. Crucially, Akin and his collaborators obtain great access to the site and its surroundings, frequently happening to be in the right place at exactly the right time. They can thus capture the often-fraught encounters between the locals and the hapless functionaries tasked with operating and maintaining this deeply unpopular facility -- images of which are often given a sinister cast by the thriller-type stylizations of Alexander Hacke's over-used score.

The village's mayor is also a frequent on-camera presence, having pluckily spearheaded resistance to a scheme devised and implemented by the seldom-seen officials of the regional and national government. Mouthpiece for the latter is the plant's blandly reassuring manager ("the earth will sort it out") - but Polluting Paradise never quite manages to point a steady finger of blame at any one individual or department, and there's no indication that Akin tried to contact higher-up decision-makers.

Then again, a confrontational, attention-hogging Michael Moore approach clearly isn't his style -- as well as an amplification of grievances, Polluting Paradise is often a lyrical tribute to places and people with whom the Hamburg-raised director evidently feels a strong affinity. Akin's own family left Çamburnu long ago, of course -- and the village's population has been quickly dwindling as young people seek better opportunities and less smelly surroundings. Their relocation to Turkey's major cities -- whose own infrastructure is thus placed under extra stress - is symptomatic of a planet-wide flight from the rural to the urban. And it's sobering to reflect that there are probably hundreds of Çamburnus all around the world, small-scale eco-disasters proceeding far the purviews of world cinema's beady eyes.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition - Special Screenings), May. 18, 2012.
Production company: Corazón International, in coproduction with NDR and Dorje Film
Director / Screenwriter: Fatih Akin
Producers: Fatih Akin, Klaus Maeck, Alberto Fanni, Flaminio Zadra, Paolo Colombo
Directors of photography: Bünyamin Seyrekbasan, Hervé Dieu
Music: Alexander Hacke
Editor: Andrew Bird
Sales Agent: The Match Factory, Cologne
No rating, 97 minutes.