Image credit::Tumbling Green Popcorn, Flickr, a2thegeezus
By George Grattan
Earlier this week I joined a number of Earthwatch colleagues and other interested filmgoers at a screening of the documentary Flow, an emotionally powerful (but narratively flawed) examination and indictment of the privatization of fresh water supplies throughout the world. When the lights came up, I was struck by two main ideas: 1) Never, ever drink two mugs of tea before going into a movie about water; 2) water privatization and the collapse of worldwide freshwater supplies are parallel, heretofore invisible crises that have already happened, not things that will or might happen if left unchecked.
As I made my way back from the Gents (no, I didn't need to flush, so I didn't), I realized that this is one of the battles the worldwide environmental movement has to put up—for now—in the Loss column. As we try to figure out how to reverse this defeat, films like Flow will help inform public consciousness of the need to do so.But as is the case after seeing many (perhaps too many, of late) environmental documentaries, I also wished that the film had had fewer talking heads (especially white male radically professorial ones—and I say that as a white male radical former professor), less of an impulse to be comprehensive (when you try for the universal all the time, you often lose the specific), and more of a narrative focus on particular responses (successful or not) to particular challenges. The best parts of such films follow an individual, a family, a community, or some other specific identifiable group for an extended period of time. For better or worse, I like my "eco-stories"—even my non-fiction ones—to be organized around a sense of "characters" acting in the world. That may make me an unsophisticated viewer, but at least it's consistent with how I approach my work in the environmental field in general: individuals—working alone and together—make the most lasting changes, even when taking what seem like small steps along epic journeys. Their individual stories are worth paying more attention to than the broad complexities of the issues they confront. This isn't, of course, saying that those wider realities shouldn't be included at all, merely that the most effective eco-communications—in any media—strike a balance that favors the smaller scale.
A recent eco-doc that provided this kind of narrative focus exceptionally well is The Garden, which I strongly recommend as not only one of the best documentaries I've ever seen but also one of the best films of any genre. Though not shying away from the larger issues of environmental racism, class warfare, assimilation, and government corruption woven throughout the events it chronicles—the creation, controversy, and ultimate fate of an urban farm in Los Angeles—the director Scott Hamilton Kennedy wisely keeps the focus on the lives and stories of the people involved. It's a technique I used to admonish my composition students to use whenever possible: work from the specific outward and upward to the universal--and sometimes get there only by implication.
Similarly, 2007's Sharkwater — though it justly catches a lot of flak from eco-film aesthetes for its narcissism and naÃ¯vetÃ©—has an effective, individualized narrative arc about the filmmaker's journey of discovery. The larger issues of the threats to sharks come to us through the filter of his individual experience. There are many things to dislike about this movie—he's a classic "unreliable narrator," for one-- but the way it connects with non-greenie audiences precisely because of that point of view isn't—or shouldn't—be one of them.
The three films I've just mentioned are among many that some colleagues and I have been watching as we prepare for Earthwatch's Annual Film Award, given each year as part of the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital. Each year we screen the winning film and co-host a discussion at the National Geographic Society's Washington, DC headquarters in partnership with National Geographic Live! Last year's winner was http://11thhouraction.com/seethefilm">The 11th Hour. Check it out on our YouTube site. This year's film will be chosen by the end of this month and screened on March 19, 2009. Earthwatch's film award program has honored environmental filmmaking for more than 20 years, recognizing the power and potential of visual media to reach mass audiences and inspire individuals to take action on behalf of our shared environment.
This year, we're particularly interested in finding and honoring films (we'll only give one award, but may give "shout-outs" of some kind to other worthies) that inspire and empower everyday individuals, especially people not traditionally thought of as part of the environmental movement, as well as those that eschew the clichÃ©s of the genre: talking heads, doom-'n-gloom, and what I call the "Care Bear Ending": if we all just felt right about environmental problem X, and joined hands, and were kind to each other, and recited inspirational quotes, and signed petitions, green justice and mercy would surely follow.
(Okay, okay. I admitted up front that I've been watching too many of these lately.)
With these criteria in mind, some other films that are cued up in our DVD players are March Point (which'll be on PBS in November), Kilowatt Ours, and (a wicked hometown contendah) The Greening of Southie. I'm looking forward to seeing these for a variety of reasons, and what I'll be looking for in each of them in addition to the criteria outlined above is a sense of creativity, a willingness to admit that there can be shades of grey in stories of environmental conflict, and an ability to suspend the rush to provide all the answers. I prefer movies that push me to ask more and better questions—including of the movie itself. (That, too, is a kind of empowerment, and it's not something you get from all eco-docs.)
What I really wish, though, is that there were more non-documentary films coming out for us to consider for some version of this award, as well. Far too many years go by, in general, between the appearance of films like12 Monkeys and the Children of Men, to name but two examples. When environmental filmmaking stops being the mostly-exclusive property of documentaries with a camcorder and a cause (not that there's anything wrong with that, as the saying goes), we'll know that "The Movement" has arrived at a new level of engagement with the culture at large, and that'll be a great day for filmgoers and environmentalists alike. As with all such cultural developments, we'll have to accept that a lot of bad work is going to get produced alongside some truly remarkable accomplishments. This past summer, for example, there's a (sixth?) sense in which M. Night Shyamalan's wretchedly uneven The Happening was the necessary antipode to Disney-Pixar's sublime—and subtly provocative—Wall-E. And as Wall-E himself shows us, one person's trash is another's treasure—or at least great fertilizer for the imagination.
For the next few weeks, then, I'll be heating up the organic popcorn. If you've got some other suggestions for environmentally themed feature films (docs or not) that we should consider for our 2009 award, I'd love to hear about them—along with what makes such movies work for you in general—in the comments below. Happy Earthwatching!
Image credit::Tumbling Green Popcorn, Flickr, a2thegeezus