One of the best ways to protect a natural space that you love is to show off its beauty to those around you. Get others to experience it. Share it with your family and your friends – especially those who have never experienced it before.
That’s exactly what filmmaker Dan Berman set out to do with his new film, Accidental Parkland.
Capturing gorgeous footage from the ground and above Toronto’s river systems, Accidental Parkland shows how Toronto’s landscape and day to day life is defined by its ravines.
When we asked Dan what inspired him to create Accidental Parkland, Dan said he wanted to do something local. “I thought about how little people know about the ravines and appreciate what they are. And all of that led me down this path to making a doc about the ravine system and how it relates to the city.”
As a local to Toronto’s Riverdale area, Dan was already familiar with parts of the Don River’s ravine system. “I’ve always loved my access to it from here. It makes for a quick trip down to the lakeshore or up to places like Seton Park or Taylor Creek – interesting places like that.”
Accidental Parkland is a call out to Toronto’s citizens to explore and cherish its ravines.
“We really didn’t go about making it with an eye to reaching people who are informed about the ravines, the city’s waterways, and water issues. We tried to making it accessible to a broad audience. And university and high school educators told me they want to show it right away for various levels. So that’s great. That’s the best we can hope for.”
But the film’s creator admits the city’s waterways, like the Don, aren’t the visual spectacle that characterizes other rivers.
“The Don isn’t a big roaring river. It’s not some kind of impressive, majestic, wild waterway. I used to live in New Orleans, right near the Mississippi and it’s unbelievably huge. The Don doesn’t have any of those great features.”
“But what it does have is this proximity to the city and this dramatic topography that allows it to cut through. And there’s just something about it that’s always drawn me in. It deserves a little more recognition. It’s certainly not the easiest place to go and play. It’s not water you should hang out in most of the time. Obviously fixing that is getting people to appreciate the place itself. I think Toronto is actually very fortunate because as water issues become more prominent global issues, Canadians here who are so deeply blessed by freshwater, may start to realize how lucky we are to have it.”
With a strong affection for the Don, it’s no surprise that Dan placed a great deal of attention to one of the city’s largest problems: stormwater runoff and sewage.
“Sewage isn’t something most people want to think about. There’s the water and there’s the drain. The average person is disconnected.”
“The City is moving on this issue, but it’s not happening very quickly and the public remains largely unaware of what’s going on. And maybe it should be that way – because maybe nobody really wants to hear about it. Or perhaps it’s just something that people need to know about to have a greater appreciation. And if they had more of an appreciation of it or awareness, they may be able to push for faster mitigation of the problems because Toronto really is the biggest polluter of Lake Ontario.”
Infrastructure and sewage may not always make for pleasant conversation. But the filmmaker said he was shocked at how fascinating he found the subject while working on the film.
“We’re really talking about a sewer system. The combination of freshwater and the sewage is relatively a recent technological development. It’s such a huge improvement to the quality of life.”
It helped to frame Toronto’s sewage treatment through a bigger, historical lens.
“(Water infrastructure) is not really something that’s deep in the past. R.C. Harris opened in 1941. Two decades of work went into that system. But prior to that, it was really a shady enterprise. (The City gave a monopoly to a guy from Montreal in the 1840s. He ran it mostly for fire hydrants in the downtown area – Toronto was a wooden city at that point.) But the quality of the water was terrible because they drew it right from the harbour near shore, the sheltered harbour of Toronto. So people drank it and got sick a lot. Toronto has this history of typhoid and typhus. Unpacking that history and discovering that the city only began doing large-scale municipal waterworks for freshwater was in the 1880s to 1890s. That really wasn’t that long ago.”
And uncovering the city’s past relationship with its waterways wasn’t the only thing that enthralled the filmmaker. The crowdfunded project had its perks.
“The highlight for me was just getting to explore the city. It gave me an excuse to plan these trips and explore these really amazing parks, and to see that Toronto hasn’t buried all of their waterways. Even where we’ve compromised them by building them into concrete channels and wedging them through pipes for long stretches, the truth is there are these insanely beautiful parks that are interesting to explore in four seasons. And that was the great pleasure. To explore Toronto, to explore the parks, and to see what all of these waterways look like, and how they fit into the city.”
If you’ve never seen Toronto the way Dan describes – as a city with beautiful natural landscapes – you’re sure to enjoy the film. With none other than Toronto writer and flaneur, Shawn Micallef guiding you and city experts sharing their knowledge, including Waterkeeper Mark Mattson, you’re sure to not only be surprised by what you see, but what you learn.
After working on the project for 2 years, we asked Dan what his hopes for the city’s rivers are. “I would really like to see the city tackle its stormwater issues, and for the Don to be a clean place. The kind of place that my kids could play in, not just beside or around. As much as I love going down there, there are days you know things are not right and it smells terrible. It has that ominous aura at times. I would love for us to get on top of that because the freshwater we have around us is unbelievably precious.”