Illusions of Control

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Wall Scholar Shannon Walsh is a filmmaker, interdisciplinary theorist, and an Assistant Professor with the Department of Theatre & Film at the University of British Columbia.

By Katie Stannard

In the documentary H2Oil, Stephen Harper’s voice echoes over images of Alberta’s tar sands as he states that digging bitumen out of the ground, squeezing the oil and converting it into synthetic crude is “akin to building the pyramids or China’s Great Wall, only bigger.” He is followed by a cabinet minister saying, “there is nowhere else on Earth where we are destroying an area the size of Florida or toxic ponds that are so big that you can now see them from space.”

In 2009 Wall Scholar Shannon Walsh released H2Oil, her first feature documentary, which was one of the first feature films about the tar sands in northern Alberta. The documentary looks at the impact of the tar sands on First Nations people, on water quality in the province and other threats that are an unwanted side effect to human health and the ecosystem.

During the project, Shannon was fascinated by the optimism of scientists, engineers, and government officials who believed that humanity would find solutions to big looming problems such as environmental impacts caused by the tar sands. Yet each individual she met couldn’t provide specifics on how those solutions could be achieved.

“This struck me as almost scientific fundamentalism, where we put our faith in science, hoping that it will figure out how to deal with a tailings pond or an oil spill after the fact,” Shannon said. “Humanity isn’t always capable of predicting or controlling what will happen with the natural world yet we continue to test the limits of the planet. I started to play with the idea that we have an illusion of control. The modern idea that we can change and conquer the world around us to positive ends has proven to be a fraud as our generation has seen the results of this mindset through human induced environmental damage.”

Shannon’s new documentary, Illusions of Control, picks up where H2Oil left off. During her residency as a Wall Scholar, Shannon is working on Illusions of Control. Building upon the exploration of irreversible environmental damage, Shannon travelled to five communities to trace the stories of resilient people living among the ruins of modernity. Illusions of Control examines their coping strategies as they create new relationships with landscapes that have been disrupted by clear-cuts, decommissioned mines, manmade deserts and nuclear contamination zones. The film builds upon an idea of universal human experience by exposing how communities are facing disturbed landscapes. It engages the imagination by encouraging the viewer to question what opportunities ecological instability offers for imagining new ways of relating to each other, to the places we inhabit, and to our collective future.

NingXia Desert

The film includes people fighting desertification in China and Japanese citizens finding new ways to live among the nuclear wastelands of Fukushima. Families in Mexico search for their missing children, who are cartel drug war victims, at a burial ground in a newly formed desert that is a result of over exhaustion of water reserves by factories. Logging in northern British Columbia forms a new cash economy for a community as second-generation forests create a new environment where pine mushrooms, a highly valued commodity, can grow. The Dene people in the North West Territories are creating new oral stories to protect future generations from arsenic residue from decommissioned mines.


A still image of Illusions of Control.

Clear cuts threaten pine mushroom patches.

In all five stories there is a continuous theme of marginalized groups being most at risk of environmental disturbances, yet who also have achieved innovative solutions to their disrupted landscape. Shannon reflects on her own scholarly work to explain how environmental justice is at play in these far-flung places.

“The most destructive projects often happen on land inhabited by people with the least political capital, the most marginalized, who are often racialized,” Shannon says. “Land, the environment and those who are most affected are intertwined.”

Social justice is not a new topic for Shannon. Through her PhD in anthropology and education she has focused on social movements and social justice issues, particularly in South Africa. One of her ongoing projects includes a longitudinal study of a group of teenaged activists and documenting how serving as HIV prevention ambassadors has impacted their lives.

Shannon started making films in high school but pursued her passion for photography by studying darkroom and 4x5 large format photography at Concordia in Montreal. During her studies she continued to immerse herself in filmmaking, never able to resist the way documentaries can reveal the world.

Shannon hasn’t restricted herself to using photos and film to stoke our intellects. She recently released a book, edited with Jon Soske, called Ties That Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa. The diverse collection of essays, poems, and cultural stories provides an empirical and theoretical analysis of friendship and race relations in South Africa. The book explores how dimensions of power are manifested within friendships and play a large role in constructing racial differences.

As she illustrates with Illusions of Control, Shannon is passionate about telling stories that reflect a universal human experience. Her portfolio includes documentaries that highlight human struggles including Jeppe on a Friday, which explores the hidden stories of a decayed city neighbourhood in Johannesburg, and St-Henri, the 26th of August, that documents gentrification in a former working-class Montreal neighbourhood.

Shannon tells hidden stories by finding strong individuals who are challenging the boundaries of society. Shannon says, “there is no greater privilege that being able to quietly turn our eyes and attention to the ever fascinating world around us.”