More than one talking head in “The Issue With Tissue – A Boreal Love Story” uses the phrase “flushing away our forests,” to the point that it becomes a kind of aghast mantra for Michael Zelniker’s eco-documentary — tonally encapsulating its earnest exasperation with the world, or at least its human custodians. One can forgive the repetition, since the image is so pointed: Every year, vast stretches of Canada’s richly biodiverse boreal forest region are razed for that most literally disposable of causes: the manufacture of toilet paper. “Is there a more obscene illustration for what’s gone wrong?” asks one Indigenous elder and activist for his native environment. Perhaps, but it’d be hard to find a less dignified one.
A veteran Canadian actor and indie film stalwart here making his first foray into nonfiction filmmaking, Zelniker frequently favours punchy rhetoric and sloganeering in a bid for broad audience appeal, down to the doc’s cute, catchy title: “The Issue With Tissue” effectively makes its point, albeit sometimes at the expense of more intricate analysis that might better sustain its two-hour running time. As a feature-length PSA, however, it’s both plain-speaking and plainly felt, with a welcome prioritisation of First Nations perspectives — qualities that have already served it well at multiple environmental film festivals and in Canadian theaters. A limited U.S. release begins on August 25; the film may play best and widest on streaming platforms.
Zelniker begins proceedings with a staged, satirical vox-pop in a large supermarket, as a succession of bewildered shoppers are confronted by a blustering, badly toupeed Charmin representative inviting them to choose between his product — made entirely with freshly pulped timber from the boreal forest — and an equally soft, fully recycled equivalent. To his astonishment, they all choose the latter, “nasty” option. If the choice is so obvious to all but the salesmen, asks Zelniker, why is so much deforestation still happening in the name of TP? It’s a question answered by the caveat contained within it: Unsurprisingly, representatives from multinational hygiene-goods corporation Procter & Gamble did not agree to the filmmaker’s request for an interview.
In their place, the film’s interviewees comprise an assortment of academics, activists and Indigenous community leaders, all on very much the same correct page, to talk us through the implications of deforestation for the region’s natural wildlife, its native human residents and the wider atmosphere, as climate change once more enters the discussion. The graphics-assisted explanation of how photosynthesis works is unlikely to be news to anyone who made it through grade school — but again, our collective abuse of the planet suggests such primers are still required.
Counter to the right-on talking heads, the film features a voiceless rogues’ gallery of negligent Canadian leaders complicit in the destruction. Former Quebec premier Philippe Couillard is quoted as saying, “I won’t sacrifice a single job in the forest for the caribou” — a quote that exemplifies how various politicians and policy-makers play one issue against another in order to put the environment second.
“The Issue With Tissue” would benefit from slightly meatier economic facts and figures on the industry under scrutiny and its alternatives, beyond a chart listing environmentally-approved toilet paper brands — one of a number of infographics and online memes padding out Zelniker’s argument in the film’s latter half. (One cartoon, depicting a tree complaining that it would prefer to be slain for a Pulitzer-winning novel, feels ripped from a Facebook wall.)
But the film understandably leads with more emotive material: It’s most compelling when it gives a platform to despairing First Nations voices, explaining how this environmental pillaging is merely an extension of the white colonization that they and their land have endured for centuries. On the face of it, an extended, heartbreaking reflection on the physical, emotional and sexual abuse suffered by Indigenous children in Canada’s infamous residential schools system might seem a digression; in context, it all feels part of the same tormented ecosystem. “These are not environmental issues, these are existential issues,” states one elder. Zelniker’s film is attentive to the overlap.
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