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A Handful of Excellent Environmental Films but None with the Full Urgency of Now

On Medium.com  February 15, 2019

This was my third time attending the Sundance Film Festival and the second year there were no marquee level movies about our embattled environment, but there were some good ones.

My first “dance” was in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration and included the Women’s March in a blizzard as frosty as the pall cast over a nation that was never expecting a climate doubter to win the White House.

Marching with hundreds of women, men, and children to protest the anticipated policies of an anti-environment president was a highlight but so too was the premiere of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel in January 2017 along with Chasing Coral, the sequel to Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice.

Last year’s biggest splash in the genre of green films was Gamechangers, which despite its popularity with festival goers, is yet to be released in theatres. That movie, from Louis Psihoyos (The Cove, Racing Extinction) as well as other directors, tracked the transformation of pro-athletes from a meat-centric to a vegan diet — accompanied in all profiled cases — by better competitive results.

This time my favorite film in the environmental category was The Biggest Little Farm from John Chester. The filmmaker and his wife Molly were the protagonists in this case and the star was the 200-acre moribund farm the couple purchased with no experience tilling the land. It’s location, an hour north of Los Angeles, would become part of fire-scarred Thousand Oaks but that proves to be the least of the couple’s challenges.

The 90-minute roller-coaster ride is beautifully shot and the story of these intrepid humans — and their menagerie of animals — risking everything to live in harmony with nature is dramatically portrayed. Facing every obstacle imaginable over the course of seven years, the relentless game of whack-a-mole against pests and predators alike, our heroines are guided by a sage farm-whisperer who urges the couple to aim for maximum diversity in crops while using traditional (not current agro-tech tools) methods. Nature is depicted as she is: both harsh and healing, but in the end Apricot Lane Farms becomes the idyllic dream fully realized. But not before the couple’s patience and persistence is tested, again and again. Their plight is humanity’s plight — can we still rely on Mother Nature to sustain us given all the damage humans have wrought, from extreme weather and wildfires to nutrient killing practices. Acquired wisdom eventually saves the farm, and the farmers, but not without significant loss along the way.

My second favorite film was The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. While this one takes place on the other side of the world, in Malawi, it’s also a true story — though actors were used in this doc. Compared to the relative lushness of California’s land, the home of 13-year-old William Kamkwamba, is barren and under a brutal dictatorship under which the boy’s family and fellow villagers are left to fend for themselves. Facing famine from a prolonged drought, in-fighting breaks out and families break apart. In the eleventh-hour, William uses his rudimentary self-taught scientific understanding to rig up a windmill using a bicycle, a wing and a prayer. The whimsical contraption manages to work, allowing what’s left of the villagers to harness enough wind to pump captured water for irrigation. The boy’s ingenuity earned him a scholarship at Dartmouth, as the ending credits reveal. One can only imagine the culture shock going from a place with so very little to the land of too much.

If both these films serve as a reminder of how dependent man is upon nature, other docs in the genre depicted the damage and hubris of man using nature for humanity’s benefit, while at the same time despoiling and destroying natural resources. Anthropocene takes viewers on a birds-eye tour of a half-dozen sites where resources like marble, sand, and potash are extracted leaving gaping holes in the earth where man has tread. As its name implies, man has shaped the geography and geology of the planet, literally altering the landscape in the name of progress. There is very little in the way of commentary as the pictures of degradation, presented in an artistic manner, speak for themselves.

If Anthropocene: The Human Epoch gives us an overhead view of the spoils, the German film, Walden, is a slow-motion journey tracking a single tree from its origin in an Austrian forest to its final destination in a Brazilian rainforest for purposes unknown. Using excruciatingly slow pans of panoramic shots, the film takes 106 minutes to convey its message about the futility and seeming mindlessness of trucking, shipping, and train-ing a single tree-turned-lumber halfway across the globe. The human energy and time combined with the toll of emissions spewed for such a small load speak to the perils and pointlessness of globalization and sometimes mindless transfer of goods for no real good reason. While I applaud the message and marvel at the method used to portray the lesson — 13 long slow pan shots of industrial transfer points — I feel the point could be made more effectively with the same film being condensed to one-quarter its length. The takeaway is important and hopefully thought-provoking, but as a viewer I value my own time and energy and need to conserve!

While the remaining films in what I call the “green category” were also noteworthy: Tigerland, Honeyland, and Sea of Shadow, also had common themes on the tolls of human greed and hubris, none of this year’s entries fully captured the urgency of the moment we’re in vis a vis climate change. Given the events of 2018: extreme and deadly weather events combined with dire government reports, I suspect — and hope — we’ll see more scenes from the apocalypse that is our dawning reality and most importantly what society can do to avoid collapse.

An empowering entry in the motivational category was WeRiseUp, a welcome film created to empower people to make a difference in the world using their unique individual gifts. It would be great if WeRiseUp were to partner with environmental or social justice groups to help empower and organize people to contribute to positive change. Many movies with a cause get people riled up but leave no place to go to do anything about correcting the problem or help to address the issue. People need tools, direction, and organization and lord knows this is urgently needed on the climate front.

One can only wonder when it will dawn on the greater public — those that don’t generally go to Sundance to watch eco-themed documentaries — that we are in trouble as a species, as are other living beings we’ve endangered with our actions. If we don’t change how we live with the natural world, our collective future is threatened and that’s not science fiction, it’s scientific fact. It’s time to chew on that, along with our popcorn.

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