There’s a ply problem — at least, Canadian filmmaker Michael Zelniker believes so.
In his latest eco-doc endeavor “The Issue With Tissue – A Boreal Love Story,” Zelniker explores the effects of toilet paper manufacturing on Canada’s boreal forest region, which is chopped down yearly to supply the disposable yet highly relied-upon product.
The feature documentary focuses on the effects Boreal deforestation has on Indigenous populations and reveals some Canadian politicians’ one-sided view of the issue, who focus more on the prospects of labor opportunities from toilet paper production rather than its consequences on the country’s ecosystem. The documentary posits these facts as inextricable, pointing to the toilet paper problem as one with multifaceted, long-lasting effects. One subject of the film helps to sum this up, saying, “These are not environmental issues, these are existential issues.”
In an interview with Variety, Zelniker explains that the inspiration behind “The Issue With Tissue” came at a unique time in history. “About a month into the pandemic, right around the time we were all hoarding toilet paper, I learned that these large intact old growth forest landscapes across the Boreal are being cut down for toilet paper,” Zelniker explains.
Native to Montreal, he spent his summers on the edge of the Boreal forests, exploring and bonding with the Canadian terrain. The Boreal forest region of Canada is considered one of the largest untapped forests on Earth. Stretching all across the country’s northern border, the coniferous-filled forest covers over one million square miles of undisturbed land.
“When I learned that these really important existentially critical forests are being cut down for toilet paper, I went, ‘Wow, is there a more obscene illustration for what’s gone wrong?’”
Zelniker then began reaching out to people. As a trained climate leader with Climate Reality Project, he had a network of like-minded activists he hoped would listen to him.
“Four months later,” he says, “I was on a plane to Vancouver quarantined for two weeks before embarking on a 42-day, 12,000-mile journey across the Boreal. Among the most important things I learned in the early days of my research is the Boreal is also home to more than 600 First Nations communities. So, it was clear to me from the outset that any story about the Boreal had to place the Indigenous peoples at the front and center.”
To put their voices at the heart of the doc, Zelniker set out with just one other camera person to find Indigenous folks like elder Dave Porter and Alan Edzerza willing to discuss deforestation of the Boreal. He explains, “The Canadian state committed many atrocities against the original peoples of what we now call Canada. And when I showed up, I think they sensed my sincerity. I think they knew I had not come with an agenda.”
“As result, we have a really special documentary,” he adds. “There is direct link drawn between colonial violence and unfettered extractive industrial exploitation, because I’ve come to learn that they are inextricably connected.”
Zelniker compares the colonization in the Boreal to that in Hawaii and other places over-developed by Western countries seeking coal, water, oil, wood or sugar. While logging industries tout replanting cut-down trees, Zelniker says this doesn’t mean much. Young trees lack the stability of old-growth trees, making them more vulnerable, less-fire resistant. And given the recent spread of wildfires throughout Canada, these can be life-saving qualities for a forest.
He also emphasizes that the Boreal forests in particular hold one of the largest stores of carbon on the planet. Known as a carbon sink, regions like the Boreal trap carbon in their soil. But as the land degraded for production of products like toilet paper, the trapped carbon is released into the Earth’s atmosphere in massive amounts.
Aside from stories about the effects of colonization, the Indigenous people of Canada taught Zelniker to practice love when looking at the forest, and consider it his family and his ancestors.
“We need to clean up our house. People often talk about Mother Earth punishing us for the way we’ve been treating her. I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking at all,” Zelniker admits. “I think what Mother Earth is trying to tell us humans, ‘You’re destroying my ability to take care of you.’ One of the elders said, ‘I have no doubt that life is going to sustain on the planet. The question is, is it going to sustain with us or without us?’”