Born and raised in Etobicoke, Ben Sprenger is currently pursuing a degree in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Toronto. In third year with a penchant for automotive engineering, Ben consistently goes above and beyond to bridge his learning with action: whether it was recently competing as a finalist for Infiniti Engineering Academy or leading the design team for UofT Formula Racing. As an avid advocate for interdisciplinary approaches, Ben avidly pursues his passions of film-making. As an award winning filmmaker, his stop motion short film was featured in the Vancouver International Film Festival last year. Road to Colombo is his most recent documentary.
*This is the first out of a two part series covering Ben’s filmmaking work, Part Two can be read here. This was quite a privilege as I had the opportunity to ask Ben about his documentary and his inspiration behind it. I cannot wait to share it with you!
C: I watched your documentary and though I am no film studies student or an expert, I thought it was beautifully put together. Artistically, it was super cool to watch and all the effects made it quite engaging. I learned a bit more about climate migration and hope that the documentary will reach a wider audience. Can you walk me through the process of what drew you to focus on climate migration in particular? What inspired you and why specifically Sri Lanka?
B: I had wanted to do a project related to climate change for a very long time. I was wary about approaching such a large topic like that because I really wanted to do it justice but didn’t know if I had the ability to. I was also worried because I wanted to make sure that I was contributing something new to the topic rather than just reiterating things that have been said a million times before. With something as talked-about as climate change, it is very easy to recycle the same few points that are constantly being made and not take any major creative risks. I knew it would be a very tough project but I still felt compelled to try, with those things in mind. The idea to focus on climate migration in Sri Lanka initially came from my sister Jillian. She sent me an article about how Sri Lankans have one of the highest relative risks of being internally displaced by a climate disaster in the entire world (meaning displaced within the country and not forced across borders). For a relatively small country, they are disproportionally exposed to risks because of the drastically different climate zones across the country. Even before the recent climate risks, Sri Lanka has had a troubled history of migration due to the prolonged civil war that took place there, during which holding land was of high importance. Not only that but the government there has deliberately pursued a policy to keep farmers where they are because the idea of being an agricultural society is important to their national identity. Yet despite this, people have no choice but to move to urban areas when their homeland is destroyed by flooding, droughts, landslides, and tsunamis. It’s such a complicated issue because of the compounding cultural and political factors. Jillian and I both thought that this was an area in which we could contribute something valuable to discussion through a film, since most people in the western world have no idea that anything of the sort is happening in Sri Lanka. We thought that this would be an area in which we could help spread awareness among our social circles in Canada.
C: When you were filming, what were some particular challenges for you? Furthermore seeing the impacts of climate change first hand, can you speak more to the first hand impacts those in developing countries constantly have to face on a day to day basis. What was that experience like for you?(*could also be the documentary process as whole)
B: The most difficult thing with this film was sorting through the enormous amount of footage we collected and condensing it all into the best 10-15 minutes we could. Less than 2% of the footage we shot actually ended up in the film, and deciding which clips to include was painful. You get so attached to the footage when you shoot it yourself and it hurts to cut anything! It was also hard to come up with a clear narrative to tell, since it is such a complex and multifaceted issue. There is no well-defined starting point and we had to make the difficult choice of how to tell the story. There was a constant fear of not doing it justice, and having met people directly affected by climate migration we felt the importance of getting it right. Meeting climate migrants and their families was an overwhelming experience. Their stories were heartbreaking, and we felt like we were only scratching the surface of what their lives were like in the wake of the disasters. In the drought-affected regions we visited, the men of the family typically migrated to Colombo (which is Sri Lanka’s capital) to work and send money home to the rest of the family. The men who migrated work in extremely hazardous and low-paying labour jobs, often with no place to sleep, and are even forced to beg for food to survive. The families who stay behind aren’t much better off, as now the women have to manage the household by themselves and are far more vulnerable to gender-based violence or discrimination. One woman we spoke to described how her and her son suffer depression due to the pressures and stress of trying to survive alone in the drought zone. To try and capture the experience on film was impossible, but we did the best we could to tell the unique aspects of their stories and I hope that they would approve of the end product.
C: Moving forward what do you hope your documentary to accomplish?
B: I hope that the documentary can put a human face to the issue of climate change. It can be hard at times to truly grasp the impacts of what we are doing to the world just by reading statistics and articles. People in Canada need to understand how our actions affect the rest of the world, and hopefully by putting a face to the issues it will be harder for us to sweep it under the rug. The saddest part is that the people who are most affected by climate change (like the poor and rural people of Sri Lanka) are those who LEAST contribute to it. The carbon footprint of those people is often two to three orders of magnitude smaller than those of us in rich countries like Canada. So, we should be the ones to take responsibility for an issue that we have caused. I don’t expect people to rally around the documentary and start a crusade to end climate change, but perhaps the people who see it will eventually be in positions of influence and will understand the issue better so they can make a change.
C: Do you have any tips for other youth that are passionate about climate change and sustainability?
B: For such a large issue, I would highly recommend doing ANYTHING that you think of that can be useful, whether it be a film, illustration, article, or initiative in your local community. Even if you think that it is hopeless or won’t be useful, it gets the ball rolling and more opportunities to contribute often come out in the process. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity to reveal itself, work on anything that you possibly can now to lead to something. In my case, if I had waited to learn about filmmaking until I got the opportunity to go to Sri Lanka, then this documentary would never have happened. I worked on dozens of failed films before opportunities began to fall into place. It rarely happens that you can see your path to future opportunities from beginning to end, so work on what you can while you can!
to be continued… with a more in depth look into how Ben combines his love for filmmaking and STEM
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