Review of four environmental documentary films I’ve written for an Environmental Communications course at the University of Hong Kong
Documentary films can educate the viewer, make him or her angry, inspire, or generate sympathy with the people they depict. The four films reviewed below did these four things, respectively. “The Light Bulb Conspiracy” educated me about a complex issue with which I was not familiar. “Food, Inc.” just made me angry. “Blue Gold” was inspirational in its message. And “Up the Yangtze” made me feel for the people whose life has been changed against their will.
The Light Bulb Conspiracy (2010)
“The Light Bulb Conspiracy”, a 2010 documentary directed by Cosima Dannoritzer, brings to light a fundamental aspect of today’s world economy: planned obsolescence.
Many, if not all, consumer products we use have been purposefully designed to wear out, break down or otherwise become obsolete. Clothes we wear, household appliances, consumer electronics or cars – just to name a few most obvious examples – have been built in a way that forces us to replace them sooner rather than later.
The idea of planned obsolescence appeared in the 1920s, partly as a way to grow manufacturing industry (in particular of light bulbs) and partly as a means to stimulate sustained economic growth in the world traumatised by the Great Depression. More than just a principle of design, planned obsolescence was at one point proposed as a legal requirement for manufacturers in the United States. In the end, legal means proved not needed: businesses incorporated the concept into virtually all manufacturing, as a way to preserve their long-term viability.
Planned obsolescence underlies the growth of the world’s economy. It’s been a widely accepted economic axiom that the economy must continue growing. Economic contraction or even stagnation spells unemployment, lower incomes, social hardships and unrest. Accelerated obsolescence of products and pursuit of novelty underly the consumerism that is the core engine of economic growth.
Obsolescence of consumer products and the need to replace them with new ones is not necessarily a problem in itself. It becomes a problem when we consider what happens to the obsolete, discarded goods. Most of them are made of materials that are not biodegradable and many of them contain hazardous chemicals that escape into the environment. The tragedy becomes obvious when we see the ever-growing mountains of e-waste exported to countries like Ghana, ostensibly for recycling.
The authors of “The Light Bulb Conspiracy” present the issue of planned obsolescence through several frames: economic, environmental, ethical, technological, societal, historical, and legal. The economic frame is the most prominent since the concept of planned obsolescence came about as an economic tool. Incorporation of ethical issues facing engineers and designers was an interesting touch, as their livelihood, the viability of their industries and the economy itself is in their hands.
The film is comprehensive in the analysis its issue. From the origins of the concept of planned obsolescence to its effects on individuals, communities, the world economy and the environment, to possible solutions, the film alarms the viewers, allows them to understand the issue in considerable depth, offers solutions and inspires to action.
Several solutions are presented, from the fundamental rethinking of the axiom of continuing economic growth, through changes in manufacturing that would allow obsolete products to be disposed of in a sustainable way, to changes in consumer attitudes. The “anti-growth” movement may appear Utopian, as it would require changes in the foundations of the world’s economy, but changes in manufacturing and consumer attitudes can have impact even in absence of changes in the macro-economic thinking.
The issue of planned obsolescence is a difficult one, not only because it’s so ingrained in our economy and arguably necessary for our prosperity, but also because it is less visible and talked about than, for example, air pollution or climate change. Even when we talk about how much waste we produce and how we dispose of it, it takes an extra cognitive step to consider why we generate so much of it. The realisation that we as humans have made a conscious decision to increase the stream of waste we produce in order to sustain the growth of our economy, at the expense of natural environment, comes as a shock. It runs contrary to common sense, forcing you to consider it from the economic point of view. You then have to reconcile your common sense with basic tenets of economics, and perhaps to question the latter.
When thinking of consumerism and planned obsolescence, a couple areas come to mind that were not mentioned in the film, in particular fashion, conspicuous consumption and societal pressures to own the newest, trendiest clothes, gadgets or cars.
The film uses the tools of the craft well. It has a good pace, provides considerable depth and a multi-dimensional view of the issue. I feel I understand the issue well and know what options there are to tackle it. I’ll give it an “A”.
Food, Inc. (2008)
The 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.”, directed by Robert Kenner is an exposé of politics and practices of the American food industry and of the way they’ve shaped the diet of an average American during the second half of the 20th century. It follows two other films with similar premises: the 2004 “Supersize Me” and the 2006 “Fast Food Nation”. The film covers many issues about which Michael Pollan writes in his 2006 book “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. The author features prominently in the film, as does Eric Schlosser, the author of the 2001 “Fast Food Nation”.
Supported with solid research and grounded in the established authority of those experts, the film is very persuasive in its message, which is that most food Americans eat is unhealthy, unsustainable, unsafe, uneconomical, and in some cases not actually food. Most food has become a product which has to be manufactured at the lowest possible cost and sold at the highest possible profit. Considerations of nutrition, health effects or environment fall by the wayside.
The film shows how food production in the U.S. has been concentrated in the hands of a few large companies which employ industrial methods and economics of scale to, essentially, manufacture food products. It also shows how the same few companies have, over the decades, influenced the political, regulatory and legal environment to suit their needs while setting aside the needs of consumers or the concerns for the natural environment.
“Food, Inc.” isn’t, strictly speaking, an environmental documentary. Yes, the industrial methods of food production wreak havoc with natural environment, but they do even more damage to the health of the American nation and to the economic wellbeing of the food producers themselves. The environmental frame is only one of many the film explores and not the most prominent. The film puts more stress on the economic, political, legal and public health frames. It examines them from the historical perspective, showing how the industrial approach has taken over food production.
The issue of food production is extremely important. Paraphrasing Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “you are what you eat”. The perverted economics of food production cause the unhealthiest food to be the least expensive. It has been shown that the consumption patterns of Americans have caused the health of the nation to deteriorate over the last few decades, through increase in obesity, heart disease and diabetes. The economics of mass food production are compelling and if they are adopted in other countries, for example China, the effects on the health of the whole humanity may be significant. Not to mention the environmental effects or the economic wellbeing of farmers.
The film offers systemic as well as individual solutions. The problem is largely economic and the proposed solutions stay firmly within the capitalist economic framework. (Changing the consumption habits through socialist-style collectivisation and central planning isn’t even contemplated.) As supply and demand both play a role in food consumption, both need to be addressed at the same time in order to have a sustained effect. Sustainable and healthy food production will be viable only if we as consumers create demand for it. In the light of the overwhelming power, wealth and political influence that the food manufacturers command, efforts to change the way American food is produced seem downright quixotic. The film is not pessimistic, but the obstacles it presents are daunting.
“Food, Inc.” is a disturbing film. It makes you aware of issues with food production, and you feel that it only scratches the surface. It makes you angry. Anger is a good motivator. In this sense, the film is successful in inspiring people to make difference in their lives, but as with every call for action, changes we can actually implement are limited to what is available, what we can afford and how much of our comforts we are willing to sacrifice.
I would give this film an “A”, as it touches a very important issue, presents it with thoroughness and effectively motivates the viewers to action, even though the possible actions may be limited.
Blue Gold (2008)
“Blue Gold” is a 2008 documentary directed by Sam Bozzo. Its subtitle “World Water Wars” is perhaps overly dramatic, but the filmmakers make a persuasive argument that fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce, and that access to water may trigger major international conflicts, as it has triggered many local ones.
Water scarcity shares with many other environmental issues the aspect of not being very obvious in developed countries. We take access to fresh water for granted and don’t even think twice about buying bottled water. But in many developing countries, fresh water is a luxury. And not always due to geography, but quite often due to economic exploitation of a country’s natural resources by large multi-national corporations.
The film presents many factors that play a role in humanity’s access to fresh water. Starting with our overuse of underground aquifers and practices that inhibit their replenishment, through poor water conservation, to economic, political and legal factors controlling individuals’ or nations’ access to it. The web of conflicting interests, stakeholders and priorities is very complicated and, to many, quite murky or even invisible.
The filmmakers focus much of their attention on the politics of water. They show how privatisation of water, which shifts the role of water providers from providing public service to generating profit, results in deterioration of service, higher prices of water and ultimately, its unaffordability for many in poorer countries. The film makes an argument for establishing the right to fresh water in international law and national constitutions. It cheers successful efforts to reverse privatisation of water resources, for example in Bolivia.
Although the film talks about conflicts over water rights, the examples it provides are small scale, local conflicts. The film doesn’t address potential international conflicts over it, which could be triggered by large hydro-engineering projects, like those that China is currently considering.
“Blue Gold” tackles the issue of water scarcity in significant depth and with authority lent to it by world-class experts. The documentary is clearly structured into four parts: the Crisis, the Politics, the Water Wars and the Way Forward. This structure helps the clarity and the persuasiveness of the message.
The films offers many solutions to the water crisis: in terms of politics, legal means, conservation policies, water use, green technologies, sustainable agricultural practices and individual habits. It makes a very strong argument against ownership of water by multi-national corporations and against exploiting water as a source of profits.
The film is tightly structured, fast paced and effective in delivering its environmental message. The filmmakers fairly attempted to obtain opinions of the other side – the corporations holding water rights and profiting from selling bottled water – but the message of the evils of water privatisation is clear.
“Blue Gold” is a strong film with a persuasive message, delivered without beating around the bush. It doesn’t shirk from dramatisation, in particular making the point of the necessity of water by graphic description of what death of starvation is like. This approach contributes to the film’s impact. The film should be understandable for non-experts and as such it would be a good vehicle for rising environmental consciousness of audiences. I give it an A.
Up the Yangtze (2007)
“Up the Yangtze” is a 2007 Canadian documentary directed by Yung Chang. It’s filmed on the Yangtze river at the time when the building of the Three Gorges Dam neared completion. It paints a picture of a society in upheaval, of displaced people who struggle to find themselves in a new reality.
The Three Gorges Dam is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. It has been a controversial project from the start, as the reservoir it created has flooded cities, villages and archeological sites, caused environmental and ecological changes, and displaced more than 1 million people.
“Up the Yangtze” focuses on the human aspect of industrial development. Although environmentalists argue that the dam has caused untold ecological damage, the film doesn’t actually touch this subject directly. We do see villages and whole cities disappear, and it’s the human aspect of that change that drives the film.
Farmers and villagers must leave their old homes and relocate to newly built housing. Many aren’t fairly compensated for it and are subject to abusive and often violent treatment by the local authorities. Moreover, in the new environment, many can no longer farm. They become city-dwellers often against their will. If they had led a life of food self-sufficiency, they can no longer do it.
On the other hand, China’d modernisation means growth of private enterprise and tourism. This creates opportunities for young people, who become breadwinners in the family, especially if their parents aren’t rich or educated and cannot adapt easily to the new reality.
“Up the Yangtze” does not provide deep analysis of any issues involved. It is a documentary film based on a narrative, eschewing eschewing experts’ analyses or activists’ opinions. It shows individuals, their physical displacement and their helplessness in the face of decisions made in the capital, but it doesn’t delve into politics, economics, legal or environmental issues.
The film stands out through its cinematography. It perfectly shows the melancholy of a disappearing way of life and people’s struggle in the haze (or is it smog?) of the new reality.
The film is not explicitly didactic, but the viewer learns much about the societal effects of the dam’s construction, if not much about environmental or political issues. The film’s purpose is to show us the human costs of China’s modernisation, rather than to explain the factors contributing to it. The filmmakers show their characters’ humanity and their efforts to cope with their world changing around them.
The film makes us care, but in a small way. We end up caring about individual people, sympathising with their fate, angry at injustices done to them and wishing them well. The filmmaker does not, however, even touch on the enormous environmental and ecological issues that building of the Three Gorges Dam has created, or, for example, the destruction of many archeological sites.
“Up the Yangtze” doesn’t have an agenda and advocates no solutions. In this, it is different from the environmental documentaries we’ve discussed before. One cannot deny the film’s high artistic value and serving as a recording of an important moment in the evolution of Chinese society, but it cannot be called an environmental documentary. It would be useless from the point of view of strictly environmental education.
It is still a very good documentary. It is slowly paced and contemplative but it allows us a good glimpse into this small slice of Chinese society. It also gives us a glimpse into the tourism industry that flourishes on the Yangtze, but definitely not as a tourist brochure would. We see the foreign tourists coming from a different world and staying in the manufactured reality of the cruise boat and well-choreographed guided tours – tourists who don’t really get to see the real China.
It’s difficult to compare this documentary with advocacy filmmaking of the environmental documentaries we’ve discussed earlier, but I would give it an A for the artistic value.
Watching documentary films is one of those intellectual pleasures that often comes with frustration, exasperation, anger, bewilderment, grief and a range of other emotions. It makes you think, it inspires to action, it makes you want to change the world. We watch too few documentaries, while often finding time for less intellectually demanding entertainment instead. Documentary filmmaking is an art often unnoticed and underappreciated. I cherish having had the opportunity to see many great documentaries, to be able to reflect on them, discuss them with peers and to develop an appreciation for the filmmakers’ craft.