Blazing a trail(er)

A review of environmental documentary, ‘Voices on the Road’ (2019)

by Frances McGonigle, 15 October 2019

This is a review about a documentary filmed on both sides of a road: Voices on the Road, an inspiring collaboration in filmmaking from Bethan John and Eilidh Munro.

From a first look at the film’s website (www.voicesontheroadfilm.com), it’s been calling, beckoning me into the trees of the Peruvian Amazon, to the heart of the rainforest and the Lungs of the Earth. But as I stumble over a thousand burnt stumps on the road to Manu, there’s a voice in my head like a mantra repeating, “The cost of this road; what’s the cost of this road?”, because the lungs of our planet are black and inflamed and our voices are choking as EXTINCTION draws close.

On first sight, the film’s cover image awakened the startling memory of a vulgar slash through silk, of a cigarette ad in the Eighties, in the days when smoking ads were banned from TV to protect the UK’s lungs – over 30 years ago, when climate change first made the News, yet nothing’s changed and the world’s dirtiest habit of destroying the rainforest is still not sanctioned. The Silk Cut ad was a violation, selling sex through a subliminal manipulation ‘by mouth’ and an allusion to the female form – between the legs. In contrast, John and Munro’s choice is enlightened, promoting their sex undeliberately and differently, as evolved humans in a modern world. The slash of road through yellow fields is fresh; a speaking part in a happy face. Like a rip torn assertively through the old, it becomes a vector directing us towards a new way, and to a real world in danger far beyond our televisual realities.

The Frontier we’ve reached is clearly ethical; human… and it’s signposted on a local’s T-shirt!

In the trailer for Voices on the Road, a salvo of butterflies across the screen awakens us to the vivid and beautiful environment of Manu. These tiny winged metaphors bring the hope of change, just as a controlled explosion in another shot forebodes the same. No longer a remote problem, but of concern to us all, deforestation spells death: of species endangerment and an irreversible decrease in biodiversity. As the road slices its way polemically through the rainforest, the promise of growth for the indigenous folk needs debating. Gaining a road, but with the loss of something far richer. The people of Manu wish to emerge from the dark; to evolve socially and progress economically. But Creation or Apocalypse? For some, the road is the fire that Prometheus gave to mankind: a gift from the god-like to end their life struggles. But is the promise an oxymoron, a gift instead from Pandora’s box, just as a fire gone wild can easily destroy?

As I stumble onwards through the trees, now a shadow of their former selves, I’m saddened by the dilemma ahead. As in many good road movies, there’s a crossroads. We are up a junction with climate change, cruising stupidly towards The End. On this diverse and beautiful planet, we’ve reached Paradise, but unconscious to this truth, we annihilate all that doesn’t serve our egos. So now, like children playing in the road for too long, it’s dark outside and Mother Earth is calling us back in.

The female voice and hitherto missing feminine in (particularly documentary) filmmaking is trying to tell us something. Like two rays of sunlight through the uppermost branches of the Tree of Knowledge, John and Munro offer to show us both the good and evil of the road in equanimity. An omniscient view from the documentary storyteller imparting knowledge like a kiss of life. Of course, the knowledge seeker embarks upon a spiritual quest also, which is clear from the lessons outlined as learned on the film’s website. Like Pirsig on his motorcycle odyssey weaving landscape with thought, John and Munro’s expedition by bicycle was undoubtedly zen, introspective: a journey to the Final Frontier – to the Self – where realisations lead to intellectual freedom, and self-awareness to liberation from the shadows of fear and self-doubt.

If Prometheus were a woman, she’d be someone like John and Munro, supporting humanity while making inroads in the advancement of womankind. These are new voices in filmmaking: female, trailblazing and inspiring voices, representing a repressed historical collective. Yet Voices on the Road was a team effort also, a Crowdfunded project of male and female philanthropists showing us the way, creating a butterfly effect through rows of trees toppling endlessly like dominoes. This road we’re on will cost us our lives, and it will take working in partnership on the grandest scale to end climate disaster before humanity’s rendered speechless forever.

Voices on the Road is right up my stratosphere, where ozone and oxygen meet the light of the Sun. I hope to see it succeed in the film festival space, as the fires of REBELLION burn.