Environmental Documentary Films 1

Review of four environmental documentary films I’ve written for an Environmental Communications course at the University of Hong Kong

Was 2009 the golden year of environmental documentary filmmaking? More likely by coincidence than by design, the first four environmental documentary films, which were the focus of the 2013 Environmental Communications course at the University of Hong Kong, were all made in 2009. They were: “Earth 2100”, “No Impact Man”, “The Cove”, and “The End of the Line”. The four films differed in the choice of environmental issues they addressed, their framing, their journalistic approach and artistic value, but they all conveyed an urgent message that our natural environment is threatened and we need to act in order to save it. Whether by individual or collective action, through raising awareness or raising funds, by changing our habits or our way of thinking, the four films urge us to act or the world as we know it will cease to exist.

“Earth 2100” (dir. Rudy Bednar) is a television documentary providing a comprehensive overview of major environmental issues in an attractive and accessible manner. It tells the story of the 21st century as seen through the eyes of Lucy, a woman born in 2009, who recounts her life in 2100, at the age of 91. This narrative unifies all environmental issues into one coherent story. The concept also provides human dimension to the changes the Earth experiences and makes their impact more immediate.

Lucy’s story is shown in attractive, stylish animation. We see her grow up in California, moving across the continent, starting her own family and working as a paramedic on the front lines of new emerging health challenges. She experiences loss, witnesses catastrophic changes to the environment and the dissolution of the world as she knew it. Lucy’s narrative is interspersed with live shots of experts, scientists, activists and politicians talking about scientific basis of the events depicted in the film. Lucy’s story gives the message more direct impact than if it was delivered by scientists or activists alone.

The timeframe of the film allows the producers to touch on many environmental issues. There are the more immediate ones, like the end of cheap gas and gradual change of climate. Then there are more distant or unpredictable ones, like emerging new viruses or rapid release of methane from the thawing permafrost. And then there are those in the realm of speculation, like dissolution of state authority and collapse of the advanced technological civilization. In between, the film touches on extinction of species, food and water shortages, overpopulation, the problem of environmental refugees, and unintended consequences of ill-thought attempts to forestall the climate change with technology. The issues are presented as separate events affecting Lucy’s life, and their interconnectedness is not obvious.

The film adopts scientific, economical and to some extent political frame of view. It devotes substantial coverage to a 2008 exercise conducted by The Center for New American Security simulating international negotiations in the light of an environmental “wake-up” call. This is a clever way to present major political and economic issues as well as attitudes that affect decision making and present an obstacle on the path of implementing lasting solutions. Besides this, the film stays away from politics, focusing more on environmental, economic and societal issues.

Due to its ambitious, comprehensive approach to presenting the issues, none of them are covered in depth. The film does not present complex scientific research, and as such it can serve as a good introduction to the current environmental thinking for young viewers. Lucy’s story makes it more approachable and compelling.

The film successfully brings home the urgency of the environmental issues facing us today and the necessity to make concerted efforts to avoid disaster. It offers solutions. Examples of “green” environmental initiatives are highlighted throughout the film, and the message is delivered again, if perhaps a bit heavy-handedly, at the end. The disasters that Lucy lived through are contrasted with the alternative path that is still open to us, if only we can, individually and collectively, change our habits and adopt new green solutions.

“Earth 2100” is a very attractive, compelling and informative film. I liked the way Lucy’s story was told, bringing together all the disparate issues. I also liked that the producers went into more speculative territory, talking not just about environmental changes, but also about their consequences to economy, society and governance, thus showing more direct impact of environmental changes on our lives. The film had an impact on me, even though I had already been familiar with most of the issues mentioned in it. It comes across as a call to action and it is perfect for raising environmental awareness among non-specialists. It’s a very good film and I’d give it an “A”.

“No Impact Man” (dir. Laura Gabbert, Justin Schein) focuses on the blogger Colin Beavan and his family who embark on a year-long project to live an environmentally sustainable life in the heart of New York City.

The word “documentary” does not describe this film well. Its events are manufactured partly as a social experiment, partly as Colin Beavan’s personal challenge, and partly as a media event, to be documented in a blog, a film and a book. As such, the film is in the same genre as reality TV. This highly popular genre (“Survivor” or “Big Brother” to name a couple) put willing participants into a highly manufactured “reality” and their actions in that reality become entertainment.

Unlike most reality shows whose purpose is pure entertainment, often at the expense of its participants, “No Impact Man” has a serious environmental message and tracks an interesting societal experiment. The question it asks and attempts to answer is how we can limit our impact to the natural environment while living in the heart of modern civilization and participating in modern urban society.

The answers the film offers are multi-layered. On the one hand, it offers clear workable ideas for reducing one’s impact on the environment: by reducing consumption, by changing its patterns so that what we consume comes with less environmental impact, by using less energy – mostly from sustainable sources – and by generating less trash. On the other hand, it shows physical, psychological and societal challenges that anyone undertaking such path will face.

Unlike the previous film (“Earth 2100”) which provided a sweeping overview of all major environmental threats, “No Impact Man” focuses on two closely related issues: overconsumption and trash generation in the wealthy modern society. This approach allows it to delve deeper into the issues and examine them from many sides.

The film doesn’t explore the science underlying the issues. It targets an educated viewer who accepts that overconsumption and trash generation are bad for the environment as obvious. This allows the author to move on to explore logistical, psychological and societal aspects of his decision to live a more sustainable life.

Again in contrast to “Earth 2100”, which advocated mostly large collective solutions to environmental problems, “No Impact Man” focuses on actions and changes that an individual can make. It espouses the notion that we do not have to wait for governmental regulations imposing solutions on us, but we can start making a difference now, by changing our lives. As with any grassroots initiative, one person’s contribution is negligible, but if that one person inspires others, real change will happen.

One may take an issue with the format of the film. Due to its premise, it necessarily focuses on Colin Beavan and his family, making him the centre of attention. One could see it as a work of self-promotion, but I will forgive this. Yes, Beavan became well known, published a book, became a media star, but it wasn’t gratuitous. He and his family spent a year in self-imposed deprivation – a notion completely unthinkable to most New Yorkers – as part of an interesting, valuable and educative experiment. We get to experience their discomfort, frustrations, doubts, but also the joys of discovering a different way of living. We can put ourselves in their skin and imagine how far on that path we could travel. Perhaps we can also get inspired to make a step or two on the same path.

The film is very effective in raising environmental awareness in its own narrow scope. Negative reactions of the readers of Beavan’s blog testify to it hitting on a sensitive issue, perhaps on our deeply hidden feeling of guilt. The film doesn’t shine from the artistic or esthetic point of view, but the message comes across clear. A highly elaborate artistic approach might have distracted from it. The “reality TV” treatment of the subjects, including shots of them speaking directly to the camera made them closer and more real. I give this film an “A”, with a caveat that it isn’t a documentary. Compared to other works of “reality TV” it is a thoughtful and inspiring masterpiece.

Colin Beavan still maintains his blog, which is now a part of a larger network of similar websites and blogs. His is not the only one, nor did he start the movement. For many, however, myself included, he is the face of sustainable urban living and an authority on the subject.

“The Cove” (dir. Louie Psihoyos) is a brilliant documentary about an annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. It’s a classic example of advocacy journalism, carrying a clear, poignant message, expressed with sincerity and passion.

It is a one-issue film. The issue in question is preservation of dolphins and whales. The film provides a broader context of fisheries collapse and environmental pollution (with mercury in particular), but only as they directly relate to dolphins and their preservation.

The film focuses on two issues: use of captive dolphins for entertainment in oceanaria around the world and a practice of routine slaughter of dolphins in the small Japanese town of Taiji.

There’s no question of fairness and balance in the film. Louie Psihoyos, the filmmaker, Jim Clarke, a former dolphin trainer turned activist, and other people who helped make the film and appear in it, feel passionately that the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji is immoral and it needs to stop.

The issue of the fishermen’s livelihood is given a very cursory treatment. Their reasons for killing dolphins are not presented but whatever they would be, they are undermined by evidence that dolphin meat is toxic, unsuitable for human consumption and the only way of selling it is by fraudulently labeling it as whale meat. The scale of the slaughter is mentioned throughout the film, but the filmmakers tell us that dolphins are intelligent, conscious, self-aware, sensitive beings, so killing even one of them for meat is immoral.

The reasons why we need to care and to stop the practice is the emotional connection humans have with dolphins, and perhaps, as the filmmakers postulate, an intellectual one we may one day develop. They appeal to our sense of morality and rely on our judgment that killing these beautiful creatures is wrong.

The film shows the economics of the dolphin slaughter business, its politics, as well as legal and cultural aspects. The convoluted politics of the issue is a major obstacle to putting a stop to the practice. On the local level the town police force and local councillors support the practice. On the national level there’s a widespread cover-up effort aimed at hiding the practice away from the eyes of the more conscientious Japanese. On the international level, Japan’s efforts to undermine global initiatives aimed at protecting dolphins and reducing their killing are shown in a very bright and negative light. The International Whaling Commission is shown as ineffectual and impotent to effect any change.

“The Cove” was a dangerous film to make. The film implies that other environmental activists working for dolphin protection, notably Jane Tipson, have been murdered in retaliation for their actions. The filmmakers successfully create the atmosphere of tension and suspense, through the use of infrared night-time videography, skillful cutting, sound editing and music. They took risks to make the film, but were rewarded by being able to deliver an important message and by the critical acclaim that the film received.

The solutions that the film advocates are not very obvious. Its goal is to raise awareness of the practice of dolphin slaughter and its call for action consists of raising even more awareness. The filmmakers believe that public opinion will turn against the practice and that it will pressure the government of Japan into putting a stop to it.

Although the filmmakers’ heart is in the right place and they feel passionate about their cause, the way the film was made leaves it open to the accusations of bias and cultural insensitivity. Japanese fishermen are not given a voice, except as grotesque villains, and their reasons for continuing the practice of killing dolphins are not explored. The film is made by a predominantly American crew, with a dose of typically American bravado, which leaves little room for subtlety and differing points of view.

From the artistic and technical point of view “The Cove” is excellent. The techniques used in the film suited the topic and fit the way the story was told and the argument was made. The quality of the film was recognized with numerous awards, including an Oscar for best documentary in 2010. I will not contradict the Academy and also give it an “A”.

The film’s message continues to be spread on the author’s website hosted by Take Part. The filmmakers continue pursuing their efforts to stop the practice of killing dolphins. They also address other issues related to preservation of cetaceans. The website focuses on further raising awareness of the issues and on soliciting donations to support activists’ direct actions.

“The End of the Line” (dir. Rupert Murray) addresses the issue of declining populations of fish in the Earth’s oceans, assigning the blame squarely to overfishing. The filmmakers provide examples of areas where fish populations have collapsed. They present predictions of further decline of fish catches for the next few decades. They also offer solutions, on the systemic and individual level, that could preserve the abundance of marine life for future generations.

“The End of the Line” tackles a single environmental issue – overfishing – in significant depth. It provides a substantial dose of scientific research supporting the film’s thesis, but it also shows the impact of declining fish populations on people whose livelihood depends on the sea.

The film examines overfishing through several frames: scientific, political, cultural, national and legal. The science behind the decline of fish population is solid and presented in abundance. The naysayers get their say as well, however the message is clear: humans’ exploitation of the sees is to blame for the decline.

The filmmakers devote significant time to the presentation of the complex and factious political aspects of the issue. We see how national interests, often short-sighted, trump the long-term vision and the environmentalists’ concerns about the future of the seas as a source of food.

The importance of the issue is obvious. The Earth’s oceans provide a significant share of our food. Certain areas, predominantly on the coasts, depend on the ocean for a large part of their nutrition. Decline in the amount of fish caught will affect the health and nutrition of a substantial proportion of the Earth’s population.

The decline of fish populations is a fact, as is the trend which will likely see a total collapse of fishery by the middle of the 21st century. We aren’t left hopeless and in despair, however. The filmmakers present solutions that could reverse the problem, both on the institutional/national level and on the individual level.

National quota for fisheries are an obvious large-scale solution to overfishing, but they need political will and scrutiny to be effective. We could pressure governments and politicians to enact the quota and to better police them.

On the individual scale, the choices we make in supermarkets and in restaurants can also make a difference. We need to avoid eating fish on the endangered species list. We also need to understand consequences of fish farming, and the environmental implications of consuming farmed fish. This will require changing of our habits and perhaps giving up certain indulgences, but thanks to our sacrifices, the bounty of fish would be preserved for us in the future, and our children.

“The End of the Line” is a very well made documentary. It follows a common documentary form: presentation of science, often in graphs, interviews with experts and interviews with people whose lives are directly affected. All this is interspersed with stunning imagery of marine life, scenes of fishing fleets and shots of fish markets. This allows us to appreciate the whole journey of fish from the net to our plate.

The film’s high artistic value lies in the captivating images of sea life and in vignettes showing the threat to fishermen’s livelihood. The viewer can identify with the African fisherman or his counterpart in Newfoundland whose livelihoods are disappearing. The film stays away from formal and stylistic gimmicks, but thanks to its cinematography, solid research, and clarity of presentation it leaves clear impact on its viewers. It is a great tool for raising environmental consciousness, in particular the awareness of issues of overfishing and of the decline of fish populations.

I’ve given other films we’ve reviewed straight As, but in the hindsight I feel I may have been too generous. This film fully deserves its “A” for its artistic value, and the clarify of presentation of the multi-faceted issue.

“The End of the Line” was a part of a campaign in the United Kingdom aiming to change people’s attitudes and behaviours regarding fish consumption. The film was used to raise awareness of over-fishing and the need to consume fish from sustainable sources. The campaign aimed for influencing consumers, producers, distributors and retailers of seafood, as well as industry regulators and policy makers.

The campaign brought together many stakeholders: non-governmental organizations (World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace), food retailer Waitrose, Channel 4 and the filmmaking team. Other actors were engaged at various stages of the project: a public relations firm handled the publicity around the film release, celebrities were encouraged to spread the message of the film, other food retailers and restaurants were lobbied to show support and to implement changes in their policies.

As part of the awareness campaign, the film was broadcast on TV and shown in cinemas. Target audiences included students and national policy makers. The campaign used also other channels, like a website and social media to promote the film and its message.

The impact of the campaign, and of the film in particular, was measured using marketing techniques. Such measurement is an inherent part of any marketing campaign where the stakeholders need to know the return for their investment. It is not usually done, however, for documentary films, even those that aim to change attitudes and behaviours. “The End of the Line” is the first film for which such analysis has been done.

The fact that “The End of the Line” was a part of a larger awareness campaign poses an interesting question about the nature of documentary filmmaking. Many documentary films carry a clear agenda and promote changes in attitudes, but without formal engagement of a powerful marketing engine, the filmmakers can maintain certain detachment from the effects of the film. It remains purely a message of the filmmaker, put out there in the open, for the world to do what it will with it. The filmmaker’s goals, whether stated or implicit, remain unmeasured and the results unaccounted for.

When a documentary is a part of a well-structured campaign, one can argue that it is no longer a work of art of documentary filmmaking. Instead, it becomes a very long public service advertisement. In a way, it loses its soul. Its agenda becomes explicit. Its success is measured and stated. The filmmaker will have succeeded or failed. In a way, the art of documentary filmmaking yields to the business of return on investment.

A distinction becomes apparent between documentary as a work of art and documentary as a tool for effecting change. It parallels the distinction between visual art and advertising. Can images used in advertising be considered art? Does the fact that they have measurable material goals, beyond pleasing our eyes and touching our soul, diminish their worth as a work of art? Do they become less “pure”? Is it the same with documentary films?

As the “The End of the Line” campaign shows, the effect of the film is clear and measurable. Although the campaign fell short of meeting all its goals, in particular in the policy area, positive changes in awareness of the issue, in consumer behaviour and in corporate attitudes have taken place. The campaign showed that documentary filmmaking is a powerful tool that can effect change. The effect is amplified if other channels are used in conjunction with it.

Does this rob documentary filmmaking of its soul? Does this make it less of an art, more the business of advertising? And if so, is it a bad thing? Or is it even relevant? Change needs to happen. If documentary films prove to be a good tool to effect that change, they need to be used this way, even if they feel more like public service advertisements than works of art. From a more pragmatic point of view, an explicit proof of effectiveness of documentaries as agents of change will be beneficial to the documentary film industry as more organizations will be willing to fund them.

Considering that documentary filmmakers need sponsors to make their films, one faces the question wether documentarians are masters of their souls today anyway. I believe the answer lies in the alignment of the filmmaker’s and the sponsor’s agendas and goals, as well as in the artistic and journalistic freedom the sponsor allows the filmmaker. You can see in the utilization of corporate tools (advertising, public relations, impact measurement) an extension of the film itself as a carrier of its core message. The filmmaker and the sponsor can use them to the greater good, thus saving their souls.


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