The making of ‘Sacred India’: a personal pilgrimage & investigation of plastic waste

Local filmmaker Jennifer Pickford found more than the spiritual paradise of her expectations, when she first visited India in 2008. She subsequently embarked upon the personal pilgrimage, 2,500 kilometres down the Ganges River, chronicled in the documentary ‘Sacred India: Plastic Revolution,’ which comes to Mansons Hall on Monday, April 22nd, 2024.  

This podcast opens and closes with clips from the trailer of ‘Sacred India: Plastic Revolution.’ All photos courtesy Jennifer Pickford

Jennifer Pickford: “I was involved in yoga studies and meditation, and I really had a longing in my heart to go there. It’s not quite the spiritual paradise that my idealistic mind imagined it to be. I was particularly troubled to see a group of people who were burning plastic in a bonfire and actually standing around it to keep warm. I just felt they could have no real clear awareness of what plastic is,  neither its toxic composition nor the fact that plastic is not biodegradable. I found myself wondering how this country, which for centuries sustained itself with its grassroots cottage industry style commerce, became such a mass consumer of commercial plastic? What, if any, recycling programs were in place? Particularly, as a Westerner, I started wondering what is my involvement in this?  How did the colonization of India contribute to this plastic nightmare?” 

Cortes Currents: We’ll come back to that point, but first let’s take a peak at Jennifer’s background. 

Cortes Currents: When was that?  

Jennifer Pickford: “I was  born in Hamilton, Ontario, and I was schooled in Toronto, the Lester B. Pearson Collegiate Institute and University of Toronto, before I moved out here.”  

Jennifer Pickford: “That would have been about 1989.”

“I moved to Vancouver. I was volunteering at the radio station CJiV (now CJSF Simon Fraser, 90.1 FM). and  had a show called ‘Pandora’s Cycle Groovathon.’ That was back in the early 90s. I received my degree for film and video through what’s now Emily Carr University.  From there  I went on to work  for some other senior producers in Victoria. I did  an internship with them and  they did create my first broadcast documentary film through a company in Victoria. It was a film about  medical marijuana, called Crimes of Compassion and was broadcast on Global television and Prime as well. The medical marijuana issue was pretty big at the time because people were just beginning to be allowed to grow it and purchase it for medicinal use.” 

“I decided that I wanted to retain creative control of my own projects. So I went on from there to start up Pickford Productions in the Comox Valley in 2003. It started off as a  small scale production company. I was doing corporate videos,  commercials, film to video transfers and music videos. Pretty much everything that came my way  to stay afloat and to  have the wherewithal to pursue  more passion projects, such as my first documentary, ‘Eco Warriors,’ which  I  finished in 2013  and then to continue on with ‘Sacred India.’”

Cortes Currents: How did you end up on Cortes?  

Jennifer Pickford: “I had been living in Victoria. COVID hit  and I realized where I was living was not where I would like to be during a pandemic. So I was  putting the word out there that I was looking for a place to live.”  

“My now partner Paul had told me that he had a place to share on Cortes and he asked me if I garden. I said, ‘no, I don’t garden,’ but we got talking and  ended up becoming a pretty strong couple.  Paul and I now live on Cortes.  He’s a  drumming teacher, African drum and I’m working at Mansons Hall as the booking manager, presently, as well as running some summer youth programs in film and video. I’m enjoying very much being in a beautiful small community.”  

Cortes Currents: How do you find the transition from living in cities like Vancouver and Victoria and to living on a little island with hardly any traffic and, most of the time, hardly any people. 

Jennifer Pickford: “Nature is a really big force on Cortes. Coming from the city I noticed that the city is louder than nature, but on Cortes, nature is the loudest force.”

“It’s like apples and oranges really, there’s no comparison. You really have to be there  to experience  the difference, but it’s quiet, it’s peaceful, it’s a nice community. Most people know each other, and  for the most part, I think people do care quite a bit about the environment on Cortes Island.”

In Sacred India, Pickford follows the trail of plastics over 2,500 kilometres, from the headwaters of the holy River Ganges to where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. This is her journey into a land that ‘opens her heart and mind,’ but whose problems trouble her soul. She and her assistant travel by automobile, train and boat through ever changing scenes that range from hillside villages to religious celebrations and life along the river. We also visit the streets of Glasgow, where Pickford was a postgraduate student. She collects a variety of perspectives from experts working in this field, religious seekers, teachers and villagers. She takes us to an ashram in Rishikesh, visits the Taj Mahal and drinks chai in the home of a family living beside the Ganges. The depictions of Indian life are stunning and the mounds of plastic disturbing. Along the way the discussion switches from problems to solutions. While chronicling the sources of India’s plastic pollution, close to half of which originates with three well known corporate giants, she also offers us a glimpse into the soul of a nation. 

Cortes Currents: What were the challenges in making this film and the successes? 

Jennifer Pickford: “It was my first feature documentary film. Making this film as a labor of love. I was investing my own money into it and I really didn’t have any big studios connected to it.”

“So, fundraising  and just finding the wherewithal to produce it would have been my biggest challenge, but when you’re making a film that is a labor of love, you somehow find the means to make it happen. In my case, that was certainly the case.”

“I was supported every step of the way by my subjects in the film. I had a couple of mentors step in to oversee the production, which was fantastic.  I was really inspired every step of the way. That’s  what kept me engaged,  although it took about six years to finish the film. I was interested in learning every part of the process.”

Cortes Currents: Earlier on, you suggested the British colonization of India was at least partially responsible for India’s plastic problem.The British ruled for almost 200 years, but India has been an independent country since 1947. Didn’t the plastic revolution become a global phenomenon after that? How can you blame India’s garbage problem on the British Raj?  

Jennifer Pickford: “It was in the 1960s that really plastic became a global, you could say, phenomenon. I don’t like to use that word in connection with plastic, but we could say that it definitely started to infiltrate in the 1960s.”

“India was no longer under the governance of Britain,  however they are still trying to model themselves after the West. I’ve heard Indian nationals  use the terminology ‘the West is best.’”

“If the West says that plastic is great, then India is going to follow suit, in the same way that the West says that wearing jeans is great. India is going to start wearing jeans, it follows suit. This is  still due in part to the colonization of India   We can look at that and go, ‘okay, possibly there’s an accountability on our behalf and particularly accountability for Western industry,  which is indirectly responsible for India’s plastic pollution problem.’”

Cortes Currents: Where are these plastics coming from? 

Jennifer Pickford: “Plastic to a large extent is being imported to India, but it’s also being manufactured there now. There is a combination. We have, for instance, the potato chip company Lays. They’re one of the world’s worst plastic polluters and  Lays packaging is being manufactured in India now.  It originated in the West. However, it’s also being manufactured there.” 

“There’s a combination of plastic products that are  ending up on the streets in India, and in the rivers, and the oceans.  Looking at  the Ganges River in particular, which is the focus of this film, the Ganges River is actually the second worst plastic polluter to the ocean in the world, next to  China’s Yangtze River.  The Ganges River actually spews over 120,000 tons of plastic into the ocean each year.  We have this enormous river that’s considered India’s holiest river and yet it is contributing to this terrible ocean pollution problem.” 

“Plastic in itself may not be causing that much problem in countries like Canada, because we don’t see the ramifications of plastic here in the same way as we do in a country which has an abundance  of population and nowhere to hide the plastics, no where to send it. I believe that our actions in the West have affected this problem in India.” 

“In the film, I aim to move beyond my own cultural conditioning into a place of seeing through the eyes of one person who is part of a human family as a whole.  One could say it’s like a spiritual perspective making a film that is non dualistic, which is looking at this problem in India as also being our problem as well.  I’m experiencing India, but also becoming at one with them and seeing how we are also connected as part of the human family, which has this enormous plastic pollution issue that is rearing its ugliest head in these places where we have an overabundance of population.”  

“It’s such a massive problem, it’s very difficult to come up with tangible solutions because  at this point it’s just a matter of cleanup. There’s  garbage mountains everywhere. There’s  3,159  huge waste mountains, which store about  800 million tons of trash. So, where are we going to start?  Obviously,  we’re going to start to  somehow eliminate these huge piles of waste.” 

“India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi  has released a sweeping cleanliness plan that includes a promise that garbage mountains and cities will be processed and eliminated completely. That is a goal which is beyond complex for many people. Many, many experts are quite skeptical about this.  It’s an important statement. It does say that there is a political will to create some change, but also scoffs at the thought that decades of waste could be wiped out so easily.” 

“It is a mammoth problem and not a single Indian city has so far been successful  in eliminating their solid waste or implementing a solid waste management plan. There is a lot of talk about it.  I believe that we need to look at sort of the source.”

“We need to start looking at stopping this manufacturer of plastic. Back in the day when India didn’t have plastic, they were using things like banana leaves to eat on. They were wrapping things in newspapers. They were using jute as a material. All of these are materials that can be broken down. In my opinion, India needs to go back to some of these traditional packaging methods that they had  before plastic was introduced. India needs to  forgo plastic entirely.”

Cortes Currents: Did you have any final thoughts?  

Jennifer Pickford: “I’d just like to invite people to come out to see my film, which is going to be screening on Earth Day,  Monday, April 22nd, 7 PM at Manson’s Hall. Everybody is welcome to come out to that. It’s admission by donation and after the screening, we’re going to have a discussion and a Q&A  with myself. I look forward to seeing you there.”

Photo credits: All photos taken from the film Sacred India: Plastic Revolution – courtesy Jennifer Pickford

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