‘From trees to toilet paper to treaties’: Documentary roots it all to the boreal

‘The Issue with Tissue’ weaves together knowledge from more than 50 Indigenous Elders, environmentalists and scientists to tell the complex story of the world’s largest intact forest.
Filmmaker Michael Zelnicker speaks with author and professor Suzanne Simard, they both extend hands on a tree trunk in the forest.
Filmmaker Michael Zelniker speaks with author and professor Suzanne Simard, who is featured in his documentary film about Canada’s boreal forest. Photo submitted by Michael Zelniker

“I spent my life working in the entertainment industry, and 14 years teaching film school, and I will tell you it feels like my whole life was a rehearsal for this moment,” says award-winning actor and filmmaker Michael Zelniker at the West Coast premiere of his documentary The Issue With Tissue: A Boreal Love Story on Friday at Vancouver Island University as part of their Global Citizens’ Week events.

The title is a nod to what Zelniker says was a realization in April 2020, while witnessing the toilet paper-hoarding days of early COVID-19 lockdown: large swaths of the Canadian boreal forest he grew up exploring and loving as a child were being cut down to manufacture toilet paper and packaging.

Determined to find out more, Zelniker set off on a cross-Canada expedition that took 42 days and spanned more than 19,000 kilometres, filming what he calls his “love letter to the boreal forest and the Indigenous people who call it home.”

Zelniker ended up with 125 hours of footage of the forest landscape and the billions (yes, billions) of birds and other animals who call it home, as well as interviews with an impressive slate of more than 50 Indigenous Elders, environmentalists, scientists and experts.

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“What began as a story about trees and toilet paper evolved and emerged into a much deeper story that takes us from trees to toilet paper to treaties, from carbon to climate change to caribou to colonization, from water to birds to Indigenous knowledge/stewardship to the way forward. The boreal is an epic landscape that demands a very large canvas,” Zelniker writes in his director’s notes.

A short-haired man makes an expressive face seated in a white button up shirt with a woman in the background wearing a scarf.
Michael Zelniker, who wrote, directed and produced the film, answers questions from the audience with ethnobotanist Dr. Nancy Turner, who is also a featured expert in the film. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

The film is ambitious, covering a large territory of topics with a deeply emotional lens that doesn’t shy away from asking hard questions about the modern human psyche and how a state of disconnection from one another and the natural world has caused us to be desensitized to the destruction of the ecosystem we depend on for survival.   

It starts by immersing the viewer in how crucial the 270 million-hectare boreal forest is, especially to the more than 600 Indigenous communities and nations that call it home. 

The film’s narrative drifts somewhat in a lengthy middle section that explores Canada’s legacy of residential “schools.”

Though clearly a crucially important subject that was skilfully and respectfully explored (and featured moving interviews with survivors), it felt as though Zelniker was trying to shoehorn a lot of material into one film.

However such a focus may have been necessary. With a central argument of “what we do to the land, we do to ourselves,”’ powerful interviews throughout the film such as those with Nêhiyawak Elder A.J. Felix of Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, Michèle Audette of Innu Nation and the late Anishinaabe Elder Dave Courchene  strongly argue that it’s not possible to untangle the threads of Canada’s colonial legacy with Indigenous people from how the land continues to be exploited by industry — they are one and the same.

Two people stand side by side in winter coats with a grey stormy background and shrubs.
Valérie Courtois, right, a member of the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, was one of many participants featured in Zelniker’s film that elevated it to the next level. Photo submitted by Michael Zelniker

It is in these interviews, and the space that Zelniker gives to them, that the film truly shines.

The panel of Elders and experts he features and the trust with which they permitted him to represent and share their stories — some of which are deeply personal and intimate — is truly remarkable, and elevates the film to a level beyond what many other similar documentaries have attempted.

None of this is lost on Zelniker, who brings a youthful enthusiasm and deep sincerity to his work. He describes how when he brought the finished film to those who participated in it, at many times they “just sat and cried together” afterwards.

“I didn’t come with an agenda. I came with a camera, willing to listen with respect for what they needed to talk about,” he says. 

This passion for the boreal and telling its story also carries through to the audience, many of whom were also moved to tears during the screening. Despite the film’s two-plus-hour run time, many stayed afterwards for a lively Q&A session with Zelniker and University of Victoria professor emeritus and ethnobotanist Nancy Turner, who was also featured in the documentary.

“Integrating the relationships with the First Nations with the relationships with the forest — the focus on relationships was profound,” said one audience member, who added that she was moved by how “comprehensive” the film was.

A road travels toward a large peak with forest on either side and clouds in a blue sky.
One of many scenes of boreal beauty captured during Zelniker’s journey. Photo submitted by Michael Zelniker

Perhaps the most surprising part of Zelniker’s film is contained in shorter sections at the beginning and end, which explore the baffling practice of effectively grinding up the boreal and turning it into consumer products like toilet paper, which he argues could just as easily and effectively be made from recycled materials.

From the lawsuits filed against Greenpeace for speaking out about Resolute Forest Products’ practices in the boreal, to multinational corporation Procter & Gamble’s position as the largest purchaser of virgin forest products for its toilet paper and paper towel brands (Charmin and Bounty), to the criticism levelled at Procter & Gamble from sixth generation heirs of James Gamble, one of the company’s founders — it’s a fascinating ride.

So what’s next for Zelniker? In addition to touring the film, in April the Smithsonian will begin a four-year long multimedia exhibit on the boreal throughout North America, which features a 15-minute cut from Zelniker’s film called Voices of the Boreal. 

Zelniker has also created a full three-episode, five hour docu-series on the boreal that he plans to release on television.

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