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The inside story of David Suzuki

David Suzuki: The Legacy Lecture, December 10, 2009

The Province

by Glen Schaefer

At a funky art gallery amid the boarded-up storefronts of Hastings Street scientist and TV personality David Suzuki is running through a lecture as movie director Sturla Gunnarsson and a half-dozen others watch.

On Thursday, he’ll be delivering that same talk to an audience of hundreds at the Chan Centre, in a lavish multimedia produc­tion for Gunnarsson’s cameras, billed as Suzuki’s legacy lecture. It will be woven into a feature documentary alongside Suzuki’s filmed travels to the places that shaped his life, from the Second World War internment camps of the Slocan Valley, to the rebuilt Japanese city of Hiroshima and the forests of Haida Gwaii.

For two generations of Cana­dians, there hasn’t been a time when Suzuki wasn’t famous, from his mid-1960s start as CBC-TV’s hippy-ish, friendly face of science, to his latter-day role as one of the world’s most forceful advocates in the effort to miti­gate climate change.

Which was a problem for the Vancouver-raised, Toronto­based Gunnarsson when he was approached to make the documentary.

“I thought what can you do with David Suzuki that hasn’t been done?” Gunnarsson says. “He’s so familiar, he’s such a franchise. His thoughts that used to be radical have become em­braced. He’s part of the ortho­doxy now.”

Gunnarsson was a student at the University of B.C. in the 1970s when Suzuki was a professor of genetics there.

“My first memory of Suzuki is seeing him hitchhiking to UBC in the rain. He was a star on campus, he had this group of grad students around him who loved him, and they were really pushing back the frontiers in the genetics lab, doing experiments on fruit flies. He was known as the ford of the flies.”

The director met Suzuki six months ago, and envisioned a movie where Suzuki’s talk on the interconnectedness of humanity and the environment would be complemented by Suzuki’s own look back at how those ideas were shaped. The director want­ed Suzuki to dig into his own past by revisiting those places.

So Suzuki isn’t getting quite the documentary he first envisioned.

“I did not think of myself at the centre of it,” says Suzuki, amazingly youthful at 73. “I had for­mulated a whole kind of science description from the Big Bang up to the present.”

During filming that started last spring, the director kept the camera running as Suzuki remembered his Canadian-born family being shipped to a camp away from the B.C. coast during the Second World War.

“He has pulled stuff out of me that I had forgotten I even had, and some of it has been not pleasant,” Suzuki says with a half-laugh, half-sigh.

When the Second World War ended, Suzuki remembers run­ning out as a boy to where other kids were celebrating with fireworks. “I ran up to this kid and said ‘Can I have a firecracker?’ He kicked my ass and said ‘Get lost, Jap, we just beat you.’ I hadn’t remembered that until Sturla asked me. I broke down at that point. I’d forgotten the pain of that moment.”

But Suzuki also remembers the internment camp as the place where he first discovered nature.

“Despair or anger, in the end it doesn’t get you anywhere, it destroys you,” says Suzuki, adding that he applies that thinking to the discussion on climate change as well.

His family moved from B.C. to Ontario after the war, when B.C.’s government made it clear to the Japanese that they were no longer welcome. Decades later, after studies in the U.S. and an assistant professorship in Alberta, Suzuki was offered a post at UBC in 1963.

“I call my Dad, said ‘I’ve just accepted a job at UBC,” Suzuki says. “The first thing he said was, ‘Why are you going back there, they kicked us out.’ He’d been born and raised in Canada and been treated like that, wiped out after the war. Bitterness just ate at him.”

Suzuki notes that his father also urged him as a kid to enter school oratory competitions, unwittingly nurturing the talents and confidence that would spawn the son’s TV career.

Gunnarsson says Suzuki’s personal discoveries have given immediacy to their work together.

Suzuki’s 7 p.m. lecture at the Chan, a benefit for the David Suzuki Foundation, is already a sellout. Gunnarsson will also film a 1 p.m. rehearsal there, and tickets for that are still available at $20 each. As well, a $1,500-a­ticket after party is planned for UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, to feature performances by Sarah McLachlan, Randy Bachman and k-os.

“What an amazing thing, that this funny-looking old man would become a highly respected guy in Canada,” Suzuki says.

“To me, it feels very happy that I’ve been able to overcome what happened during the war and become a figure of respect.”

The documentary is set for a fall theatrical release next year.

Wed Dec 9, 2009