The author is a senior journalist of more than 30 years of experience. He has worked for The Telegraph and The Sunday Indian and other news organisations. He specialises in sports and film journalism
The alarmingly swift degradation of the environment has for long been a pressing concern for filmmakers, especially those that work in the non-fiction space. A little over a decade ago, environmentalist and former US vice president Al Gore featured prominently in documentarian Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth. The film, widely regarded as a turning point for the medium’s growing and necessary engagement with environmental activism, follows Gore on the lecture circuit as he campaigns to raise public awareness of the dangers of global warming. The film put climate change firmly on the global agenda.
A year later, The 11th Hour, a film by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, had co-producer, co-writer and narrator Leonardo DiCaprio aggressively drive a campaign to understand the delicate state of the world’s environment and suggest remedial methods to restore the earth’s fraying ecosystems.
With contributions from an array of experts, scholars activists and world leaders, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, Kenyan Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai and former CIA director R James Woolsey, the film documents various facets of
the complex climate change conundrum and calls for urgent corrective action
to curb its destructive long-term
impact. The 11th Hour premiered at
the Cannes Film Festival in 2007
and, as expected, attracted worldwide
Ten years on, a new film, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which documents the progress that Al Gore has made in his concerted fight against climate change, has been unveiled at 70th Cannes Film Festival, two months and a bit ahead of its global July release in theatres.
Directed by American filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, the film focuses on the global efforts of the former presidential candidate to force world leaders to invest in renewable energy, a mission that culminated in the signing of the historic Paris Agreement last year.
In the last two years, the world has seen several more remarkable documentary films shining a light on the devastating repercussions of an overheating world. With American cinema icons throwing their weight behind these forays, the problem of climate change hasn’t been allowed to go off the global radar.
A few of these titles are absolute must-watch films for those that are exercised over the damage mankind has done to the world as well as for those that love the power of documentary films to ferret out the truth from the unlikeliest of places.
The above three, needless to say, are essential viewing, as are the seven films listed below:
Before the Flood
This 2016 documentary about climate change, directed by Fisher Stevens, was executive produced by Martin Scorsese. The film shows Leonardo DiCaprio visiting different parts of the world and exploring the deleterious effects of global warming on lives and livelihoods. Part of it also documents the making of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 2015 film The Revenant, starring DiCaprio in the physically demanding role of a man battling for survival in daunting conditions.
As passionate an anti-climate change campaigner as any in the world, DiCaprio, in Before the Flood, exposes the state of denial that corporate lobbyists and American politicians are in regarding the ruin that the world is hurtling towards owing to their greed and myopia.
The film frequently references 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, a work that, the Hollywood star reveals, hung above his crib when he was an infant. The final panel of the triptych illustrates the destruction that the world is staring at.
At the film’s European premiere in London in October last, DiCaprio said: “Before the Flood is the product of an incredible three-year journey that took place with my co-creator and director Fisher Stevens. We went to every corner of the globe to document the devastating impacts of climate change and questioned humanity’s ability to reverse what may be the most catastrophic problem mankind has ever faced. There was a lot to take on. All that we witnessed on this journey shows us that our world’s climate is incredibly interconnected and that it is at urgent breaking point.”
How to Let Go...
A personal film in which the Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning maker of Gasland, Josh Fox, travels to 12 countries on six continents to probe the ramifications of the greatest threat that the world faces. The conclusion that he arrives at is that it is too late for some of the effects of climate change to be effectively reversed and, therefore, mankind needs to look for things that global warming cannot damage.
How to Let Go of the World isn’t all doom and gloom. It also offers slivers of hope and optimism, with the focus being squarely on individual initiatives. In Fox’s own words, “We need an overhaul in our whole system; we need massive political change if we are going to overhaul our entire energy system. So don’t just buy an electric car and get solar panels and change your light bulbs, go vegetarian and pat yourself on the back and call it good. Yes that is good, but it won’t get us anywhere if we focus on the individual.”
He goes on: “Climate change is not just about climate change. Climate change is a result of inequality; it is a result of economic injustice, it is a result of energy and factory farming and institutionalised racism. So see that all of these fights are bound up in the fight against climate change. And start showing up for those movements too. Our current system is based on greed, competition, violence, institutionalised racism, materialism and fossil fuels. Those are probably our worst human qualities.”
Years of Living Dangerously
Years of Living Dangerously is an American documentary TV series on global warming that has the likes of filmmaker James Cameron and Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger on board as executive producers. Its first season of nine episodes premiered on Showtime in April 2014 while the second season of eight episodes kicked off on National Geographic Channel in October 2016.
Hosted by celebs like Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Sigourney Weaver, Don Cheadle, Gisele Bundchen, David Letterman and Jessica Alba, the series addressed issues such as rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions sparked by climate change, deforestation and water scarcity in a way that, in Cameron’s view, would resonate with the general public.
Environmental documentaries are, of course, not solely about the dry facts of global warming. Many recent ones have focused on other aspects of nature, industrial practices, and human communities working to protect the environment.
The True Cost is a path-breaking documentary made by Andrew Morgan in 2015, which lays bare the social, environmental and psychological fallout of the fast fashion industry that employs cheap labour, adopts questionable production methods, thrives on volume and low pricing, and fuels the kind of unthinking consumerism that leaves behind an unseemly trail.
After the collapse of a building housing a garment-producing sweatshop in Bangladesh in 2013, which killed more than 1,000 workers and injured over 2,500, Morgan travelled to 13 countries to conduct interviews and gather information. The True Cost, among other things, explores the role that the mass media plays in creating demand and sustaining the garment industry in a culture of indiscriminate buying and discarding of articles of clothing.
The film reveals how growing demand from the Indian textile industry has led to the cultivation of genetically modified cotton and resulted in a sharp increase in farming costs and soil toxicity in Punjab, leaving peasants in the northern border state not only trapped in debt but also confronting physical and mental disabilities and disease.
Under the Dome
A self-financed 103-minute Chinese documentary highlighting the country’s crippling problem of air pollution, Under the Dome made former China Central Television journalist Chai Ling became an overnight sensation. In a span of three days after its release in 2015, the film was viewed more than 100 million times before it was taken off by the authorities. Chai, a well-known investigative reporter, says that she was compelled to take a hard look at the environmental catastrophe unfolding in China after her unborn child was found to be carrying a benign tumour. “I’d never felt afraid of pollution before, But when you carry a life in you, what she breathes, eats and drinks are your responsibility, and then you feel the fear.” The film is also critical of China’s government, detailing how rapid development and lax regulation has jeopardized human health and safety. At first the authorities did not censor the film. In fact, China’s environment minister heaped praise on it. A week later, however, sensing the PR disaster triggered by Under the Dome, the Communist Party’s publicity department quietly pulled the plug on it.
A documentary by Canadian filmmaker Su Rynard about the world’s vanishing songbirds – a clear manifestation of ecological changes – The Messenger has drawn attention to a problem that we all seem to be aware of but deign to do little about. Says Su Rynard: “In recent years I noticed that birds I used to see – an evening grosbeak, a flycatcher, a barn swallow — were no longer around. With my busy life, I thought maybe I was just missing them. Then I discovered that this was not the case. Songbirds are disappearing, and their absence is a message to us all.”
That realisation drove the filmmaker to record the reality about birds that we no longer see. In her director’s note, Rynard says: “To understand why this is happening, and what can be done, we embarked on a journey. Over the course of a year, following the seasons and the birds, our team filmed on three different continents. Around the world, we met people who are concerned and are working for change – as this is not just about the future of birds, it’s about us too.”She says: “Humans share an ageless bond with birds, their song, and their persistent presence in our lives. In ancient times, to predict the future, humans looked to the flights and songs of birds. Today once more, the birds have something to tell us. For me, the first step was to simply stop, listen and see for myself what was going on in the skies above. The next step is this film.”The Messenger is as much as elegy as an exhortation.
This remarkable 2015 Canadian documentary explores the breathtakingly beautiful archipelago off British Columbia’s northeast coast, which is home to an indigenous community unitedly committed to protecting their land and sea for the future generation.
Hada Gwaii, recently named by National Geographic as one of the must-see places of the world, has faced many environmental challenges during the past century, but fought off its fallout. This film by the much-awarded documentarian Charles Wilkinson is eventually a sunshine story, a story about a spirited people who have stood up to decades of indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources and succeeded in reclaiming the purity of the land that they inhabit.The film’s synopsis says it all when it describes Hada Gwaii as “one of the only places in North America where natives actually outnumber and out-vote non-natives”. It says: “The film profiles a unique community comprising individuals from both groups who are all striving in different ways to undo the damage done by a century of resource extraction, to stop the fleet of oil-laden tankers targeting their sea lanes and restore balance to the islands…”
Hada Gwaii: On the Edge of the World is a “powerful and hopeful story” that is a visually stunning paean to sustainable existence.
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