TORONTO – When David Suzuki’s kids first got a look at a new documentary about their father’s life, they immediately gave him a hard time.
“My kids were so embarrassed,” says Suzuki, 74.
“‘Oh Dad, you’re slobbering and crying all the time.’ … I was surprised (at my emotions in the film). I was embarrassed.'”
Indeed, “Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie,” screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, shows an intensely personal side of the famed pop scientist.
Suzuki is shown welling up while visiting the site of an internment camp where his family was sent during the Second World War. He also shares memories of his late father, speaks frankly about the challenges of growing up in a predominantly white Ontario town, and about his divorce from his first wife.
“I’ve always been open to talking about my life,” says Suzuki, longtime host of CBC-TV’s “The Nature of Things.”
“If you’re on camera, it seems to me that you have to do that.”
Directed by acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson, “Force of Nature” is anchored by snippets of a so-called “legacy lecture” that Suzuki gave in Vancouver last December.
The premise of the event was simple: what would the scientist say if he had just one more lecture to give?
As Suzuki himself acknowledges in the documentary, he’s always had a knack for making science accessible to the masses. Clad in a brilliant red silk shirt, with an image of a burning fire projected behind him, he’s shown as a powerful orator, arguing passionately that society’s obsession with economic growth has taken a devastating toll on the environment.
Interspersed with segments of the speech, Gunnarsson pieces together Suzuki’s life, including a visit to Leamington, Ont., where the scientist spent his teen years, and a trip to Hiroshima to pay tribute to the victims of the atomic bomb.
Born in Iceland and raised in Vancouver, Gunnarsson is no stranger to the Toronto festival, where he showcased 2001’s “Rare Birds” and 2005’s “Beowulf and Grendel.” More recently, he made headlines with his 2008 documentary “Air India 182.”
When Gunnarsson was an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, Suzuki was a professor there, but the two men did not know each other.
They finally met through a mutual friend and Gunnarrson says they forged a bond. Suzuki, says Gunnarsson, was at an interesting juncture in his life: he was taking stock and had a grandchild on the way. The idea for the documentary was born.
For his part, Suzuki says he admires the way Gunnarsson used his life as a jumping off point to explore wider issues.
“It just seemed like a tremendous conceit for me to be the central figure in a feature film. What I loved about (‘Force of Nature’) was that Sturla was able to use events that were very important in my life to expand it out and see the significance of the bigger picture,” he said.
“So the incarceration of Japanese Canadians during the war was a very important event in my life, but looked at in a bigger sense, it asked Canada to raise issue about democracy and what it means to be a citizen. So I liked the way he used my life to leap off into other areas.”
And what of the chiding he took from his children? In the end, Suzuki says, his family was happy with the film.
“You’re worried about the cringe factor. My main concern was my family and whether they would watch it and go: ‘Oh god, why did he say (that)? … There really wasn’t a cringe moment where they said ‘Dad, that was terrible, get that out of there.’ So I’m happy with that.”
“Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie” opens in theatres next month. The Toronto International Film Festival runs until Sept. 19.