Inspiring change from Canada to India

Posted on Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Visual Arts professor Jennifer Macklem in India.

By Marcelle-Anne Fletcher

Knowledge about environmental issues is, thus far, offered mainly by members of the scientific community. While scientists offer hard facts and important insights into how to address ecological issues, artists too can make striking contributions. Jennifer Macklem, a visual arts professor at uOttawa, is one of them.

Recently, Professor Macklem directed a short film called Sacred River, which takes place in Varanasi, India, and sheds light on pollution in the Ganges River.

The 17-minute film begins with a boy going to the river for his usual morning prayer. This day, however, he is troubled by the pollution and investigates further.

Sacred River explores a new way of looking at environmental issues and nature—a more spiritual way, often silenced or marginalized in Western societies.

Professor Macklem was moved by the way Indians relate to nature and natural elements, particularly the Ganges River. While visiting India, she witnessed people using the river for practical reasons such as personal hygiene and drinking and also for religious rituals. “The way the people of India imbue a lot of natural and environmental features of the world with a sacred meaning is an interesting contrast with the way we relate to our environment. Faith and several divine energies are a part of their everyday life, and no one finds it weird or embarrassing. I think that kind of relationship with something considered divine gives people hope that they might not otherwise have. It’s part of their day-to-day life.”

As an artist whose father was a scientist, Macklem believes using creative imagery that evokes emotional responses to deliver messages of science does not create less of an impact. She remarks, “I’m interested in art and science and feel that science has a great deal to offer. I cannot throw away the insight science has given us, but the messages can be delivered in a much more humane way, one that considers the conditions science often wants to strip away.”

Art tends to move people in ways that scientific deductions cannot. Scientific studies can be discouraging or inaccessible to a non-specialist audience. The beauty of this film, as Macklem mentions, is “it’s not exclusively academic. Watching the film, you can see it is accessible to several audiences.”

Macklem is currently working to get Sacred River shown at a number of film festivals. “I’m hoping it will speak to different kinds of people who are interested in nature, in the environment and in redefining what might be considered sacred,” she says. Using the film to express messages of science can inspire North Americans as well as Indians to re-examine their environment and acquire the skills and knowledge needed to live more sustainable lives.

Creating the docufiction allowed for an exchange among academics from the University of Ottawa and Banaras Hindu University as they explored the issue of environmental degradation while responding in creative and sensitive ways to cultural and spiritual tradition. Hopefully artists and environmental professionals will continue to collaborate to address ecological issues.

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