On Medium February 11, 2020
Unlike Hollywood reporters on a deadline, I have the luxury of waiting a week or two before writing about films I’ve been fortunate to screen at Sundance. As an independent creator of media focused on environmental issues and climate content, I love attending what I call the “Altitude without Attitude” festival. The mood at Sundance is always light, with a party atmosphere, in sharp contrast to many of the docs, which tend to be about darker subjects.
The access to A-list actors, big-name producers, and media company executives is relatively barrier-free in the relaxed settings where they appear as speakers, panelists, or just hanging out in the VIP lounges that line Main St. in Park City during the fest. CNN’s venue was of particular interest to me as you’ll read below, and is depicted above.
Okay, but what about the films you ask? First, the bad news — there were not as many docs overtly about climate change as I’d hoped given the world is finally waking up to “smell the carbon,” and the theme of this year’s SFF was “Imagining the Future.” But the good news is the ones that were about our changing climate — even if not directly mentioned — -were excellent.
There were two films of note in the environmental category; one was based on events from nearly three decades ago, the other from a bit more than a year ago. Both revealed a cautionary tale about what’s to come.
The most impactful film in what I’d call the ecological category was Spaceship Earth. This was my favorite, a fascinating close-up examination of a quirky and talented group of Biospherians who enclosed themselves in an artificial environment ambitiously created to replicate the natural world.
Using archival footage dating back to 1991, when the Biosphere’s two-year experiment began, and earlier, director Matt Wolf uses film and photos to document the formation of this unlikely group of eco-explorers and its charismatic leader, John Allen. What began in 1967 as a commune-like experiment in the free-wielding Bay Area, lead 20 years later to the building of an air-tight geodesic dome based on some of Buckminster Fuller’s principles. That journey is at the heart of this fascinating documentary.
The mostly self-trained band of Biosphere participants were actually a brilliant lot of non-conformists who managed to build a seaworthy ship from scratch and create the giant nature-mimicking bubble — complete with mini ocean-like environments complete with coral reefs, and animal-filled rainforests — that sustained the eight men and women with food, water, and air for two years. Although there were challenges, and times the crew nearly gave up, the triumph of what was accomplished was fully realized in this film in a way that was impossible to glean from the often critical news accounts during the human experiment.
The twists and turns that unfolded are best left to seeing the film. But for me the overarching theme was how amazing this feat was some 30 years ago, and at the same time how visionary their view was of planet earth (Biosphere 1) under increasing strain from the weight of population growth and human activity.
While my vague recollection of news coverage at the time was that it was a small group of oddballs who struggled in their quest to be totally self -sufficient for two years, in reality, they were ahead of their time visionaries who had a few unforeseen challenges but that was to be expected in this first of its kind endeavor. Their victory was hard-earned as they did manage to remain in the enclosed microcosm of “real life” for the full two years.
But perhaps even more remarkable is the film’s ending which showed that this tribe of hippies-turned-scientists-turned- pioneers managed, against the odds, to remain together as a group well into their 70’s and 80’s. Most of them are still sharing land and life with each other this many decades later. That alone is a remarkable achievement! Usually, people turn out to be more human, and fallible, often succumbing to personality conflicts and differing views.
But not this crew. They were real deal pioneers in an experiment that has more meaning and lessons than ever in today’s compromised climate and ecosystems. Their inspiring ending is marred only — though jarringly — by a cameo appearance from Steve Bannon of all people. In a scene that’s all too stark a reminder of today’s political climate, Bannon threatens to be the spoiler and destroyer of all that has triumphed and prevailed, against long odds.
The other film with a backdrop of ecological disaster and human survival was a doc from Ron Howard called Rebuilding Paradise. As the name implies, it’s the story about the town of Paradise, in Northern California, which burned in a wind-whipped inferno ignited on Nov. 8, 2018. The film crew returns to the area nearly a year later to tell stories of the struggle to survive when so much has been destroyed or damaged in property — schools as well as homes — and tight-knit community.
Howard uses harrowing footage of survivors escaping flames from the Camp Fire, the worst in California history. Revisiting a disaster area to see what followed after news crews were long gone is a premise I’ve long envisioned. Especially in places where climate-fueled catastrophes have hit.
But any questions I would have asked were not depicted in the film if they were asked at all. They would be about the perceived role climate change played in worsening the fires. While some may feel it’s irrelevant, or even insensitive to ask victims of these “un-natural disasters” for their opinions, I strongly disagree. I believe that by failing to connect these dots, too much of the public remains in the dark about how our warming world is making weather events more extreme. In the case of the hellacious fires in California, and more recently, Australia, prolonged drought conditions and higher than usual winds fueled these blazes, making them spread faster and much harder to control.
While the stories that Howard’s crew followed were well told, personal, and plenty poignant, I see an opportunity missed in not asking survivors about their views — past and current — about the growing threat of climate change.
The news media’s failure to connect dots for too long during and after the hurricanes, floods and fires that have been first and worst of their kind, is a big part of the reason we still have climate denial in this country and in the White House, and may yet again.
By missing a chance to show the personal toll from our worsening climate crisis, it remains largely an issue in the political sphere. Though the film ends with one of the adult survivor’s death from a heart attack-–possibly triggered by post-fire stress — I don’t recall even one direct reference to climate change in the film. Perhaps that was intentional on the part of Howard and his crew but, in my view, it was a mistake.
A friend of mine who lost his family’s dream home in the 2017 Santa Rosa fire was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer last year, and while he can’t prove it, he is convinced that trauma from the fire and its stressful aftermath; dealing with insurance companies, a thousand decisions to make about whether to rebuild or not, and eventually buying and moving to a new house, took a toll on his health.
I’ll close with a confession and explanation of the photo above.
For three years I have been pitching, or trying to pitch, television news network executives on content focused on our planetary pickle and solutions that could be game-changing. Despite the clear need for such programming — still missing from the mix on ALL news channels — the reluctance and resistance on the part of so-called news leaders, has been frustrating, perplexing, and revealing. What are they so afraid of?
In my continuing quest to find signs of intelligent life in network news management, I spend some of my time at Sundance hanging out in the CNN VIP lounge which, my press pass gets me into.
Though I missed seeing my primary target — CNN head Jeff Zucker by a half hour — I did manage to speak briefly to a few execs who astonishingly still seem lukewarm about the prospect of adding ANY climate commentators or environmental correspondents, despite having hundredsof political contributors!
So imagine my delight to see a climate action demonstrator parked outside CNN’s lounge as I walked up! Though no connection of mine, this man helped make my point that climate change IS the biggest story not getting adequately told.
Whether or not the CNN execs bothered to notice is not clear. I’ve found that TV news managers tend to be arrogant and even a bit ignorant about what they don’t know that they don’t know. Or maybe they do know that they’re guilty of the sin of omission in not fully reporting on the dangers of our rising emissions.