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Dir. Kathleen Mullen (2010, Canada, 43 mins.)

On the surface, Breathtaking is an uncomfortable question: if asbestos is not used in Canada, why does Canada still export asbestos? At root, however, it is a memoir and cautionary tale featuring the director’s father, Richard Mullen, now deceased from disease as a result of asbestos exposure. As a result of this duality, director Kathleen Mullen alternates between tones of sadness at her father’s passing, and betrayal that the Canadian government is willing to pass this suffering on to others around the world.

A substantial amount of the footage used in this documentary is home video – Mullen is capturing a tragedy after the fact. These portions of Breathtaking are the best part. Richard Mullen’s slow death is at once bitter, compelling, and personal. Of course, death is rarely pleasant, but Mullen’s feels particularly unfair – to be slowly dying of an unforeseen work-related hazard after the age of retirement feels less like a tragedy and more like a crime.

Portions of the film devoted to asbestos use around the world and policy relating to asbestos in Canada are a bit of a mixed bag, Footage in India, for instance, of workers dying ignored will undoubtedly infuriate Canadians at our own governments culpability. However, the film’s exploration of its main issue, why Canada chooses to export asbestos, is terribly slight. “Because Quebec wants to, and we can’t oppose Quebec,” is a feeble answer that could use more explanation.

That said, this film is more memoir than policy exploration and any explanation for Canada’s continual exportation of asbestos surely cannot be more convincing than Richard Mullen’s own deposition, video taped before his death. In the face of this suffering, how much more incentive to ban asbestos is needed?

–       Dave Robson

(Breathtaking will have a hometown premier on February 24th at the ROM theatre. The event will include a panel of guests, including MP Pat Martin, who is an anti-asbestos advocate and appears in the film. The event is pay-what-you-can.)

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