Green Documentaries: Catalysts For Environmental Activism

As the world grapples with the realities of environmental challenges, documentary filmmakers have emerged as vital storytellers, illuminating the pressing issues of climate change, deforestation, and the loss of biodiversity. these documentaries are more than just films; they serve as both a mirror and a beacon.

By Geeta Singh
  • New Zealand’s multi-billion dollar dairy industry threatens animals, consumers, the environment, the climate, and the farmers it exploits
  • Aaron Gekoski’s film, ‘Eyes of the Orangutan,’ exposes orangutan exploitation in tourism and questioning the fate of other animals
  • The Netflix documentary ‘The Ivory Game’ exposes China’s ivory trade, warning of elephants’ extinction without urgent action
  • ‘2040’ discusses moving away from car ownership, adopting plant-based diets, and using education for human-rights-based population control

THE rapid degradation of the environment has long been a major concern for filmmakers, particularly those in the non-fiction genre. Eighteen years back, in 2006, environmentalist and former US Vice President Al Gore featured prominently in Davis Guggenheim’s documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’.  This film, widely seen as a milestone in the medium’s engagement with environmental activism, follows Gore as he raises public awareness about the dangers of global warming. It brought climate change to the forefront of the global agenda. The film features a slide show that, by Gore’s own estimate, he has presented over 1,000 times to audiences worldwide.

A year later, ‘The 11th Hour’, directed by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, featured Leonardo DiCaprio as co-producer, co-writer, and narrator, driving a campaign to highlight the fragile state of the world’s environment and propose solutions to restore Earth’s ecosystems. With insights from experts, scholars, activists, and leaders, the film explores the complex issue of climate change and calls for immediate action to mitigate its long-term effects. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, ‘The 11th Hour’ garnered worldwide attention.

A decade later, a sequel to ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, titled ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’, premiered at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, the film documents Al Gore’s ongoing efforts to combat climate change, culminating in the historic signing of the Paris Agreement. It emphasises Gore’s mission to encourage world leaders to invest in renewable energy.

Climate change, deforestation, and extinction are some of the most critical issues of our time, and many leading filmmakers are bringing these topics to life. Over the past decade, numerous impactful documentaries have highlighted the severe consequences of a warming planet. With support from prominent figures in American cinema, the issue of climate change remains in the global spotlight. These documentaries are essential viewing for those concerned about environmental damage and for those who appreciate the power of documentary filmmaking to uncover truths from unexpected places.

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.

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. 

These films not only reflect the devastating impacts of human activity on the planet but also illuminate the urgent need for change. Through compelling storytelling and vivid imagery, they tell us how mankind is flirting with disaster and why the world must pull back from the brink before it is too late. 

The above three, needless to say, are essential viewing, but along with them here are ten must-watch documentaries that highlight the precarious state of our environment and the steps we need to take to secure a sustainable future.

EATING OUR WAY TO EXTINCTION 

Narrated and executive produced by the esteemed actress Kate Winslet, this compelling documentary delves into the critical ways in which the global food industry accelerates climate change through unsustainable methods. 

‘Eating Our Way to Extinction’ is a compelling documentary that examines the profound impact of industrial animal agriculture on the environment, human health, and animal welfare. The film provides a detailed overview of how intensive animal farming contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, water pollution, and biodiversity loss.Backed by powerful visuals and insights from leading experts, the film addresses the ethical issues associated with animal agriculture, highlighting the inhumane living conditions, routine mutilation, and brutal slaughter of factory-farmed animals. Through disturbing footage from inside factory farms and slaughterhouses, it reveals the cruelty and suffering often hidden from the public.

Environmental documentaries are not solely about global warming, but also focus on other aspects of nature, industrial practices, and human communities working to protect the environment. They illuminate the urgent need for change through compelling storytelling

The film emphasises the urgent need to adopt more sustainable and ethical food choices, such as reducing meat consumption and supporting humane and environmentally friendly food production systems. It features interviews with farmers, chefs, and activists who showcase positive changes, including regenerative agriculture, which focuses on building healthy soils, restoring ecosystems, and reducing carbon emissions.

By exposing the devastating impact of industrial animal agriculture and offering hope for a better future, ‘Eating Our Way to Extinction’ is essential viewing for anyone concerned about the planet’s future and the well-being of both animals and humans. The documentary makes a strong case for rethinking our relationship with animals and our food production methods, providing insights into potential solutions to mitigate the harmful effects of animal agriculture.

BEFORE THE FLOOD

The 2016 documentary ‘Before the Flood’, directed by Fisher Stevens and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, features Leonardo DiCaprio as he travels the world to explore the severe impacts of global warming on communities and ecosystems. The film includes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2015 film ‘The Revenant’, in which DiCaprio plays a man struggling to survive in harsh conditions.

As an actor and co-founder of Earth Alliance, DiCaprio collaborates with National Geographic to raise awareness about climate change. ‘Before the Flood’ presents powerful accounts of rising sea levels, deforestation, and other human-caused environmental damage. The documentary critiques the denialism of corporate lobbyists and American politicians, who prioritise greed over the planet’s future.

The film frequently references Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th-century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, which DiCaprio recalls having above his crib as a child. The final panel of this artwork depicts the catastrophic destruction that humanity faces. ‘Before the Flood’ not only highlights these urgent issues but also provides viewers with actionable solutions, such as reducing meat consumption and voting for leaders committed to environmental sustainability.

MILKED

New Zealand is the world’s largest dairy exporter, but what was once a source of national pride has become its greatest threat. In the documentary ‘Milked’, Chris Huriwa travels across New Zealand to expose the harsh realities of the country’s multi-billion dollar dairy industry. Through meticulous research, investigation, and interviews with prominent environmental figures such as Jane Goodall and ‘Cowspiracy’ co-director Keegan Kuhn, Huriwa reveals how the industry has exploited animals, consumers, the natural environment, the climate, and the farmers caught in its grip.

‘Milked’ is a powerful and tragic documentary that sheds light on the grim fate of two million unwanted newborn bobby calves, taken from their mothers and sent to slaughter each year. The film also delves into the human and animal toll of diseases like mastitis and mycoplasma bovis, which have necessitated the culling of over 171,000 cows to prevent the spread of infection. The documentary is rich with irony, depicting agribusiness representatives who either deny or are oblivious to the devastating impacts of irrigation on river flows, the use of PKE from Indonesian rainforests, and the brutal treatment of cows and calves. ‘Milked’ also highlights the psychological and financial stress placed on farmers by this industrialised agriculture system, which promises a natural lifestyle but delivers financial pressure and diminishing social acceptance. Farmers find themselves trapped in a system they did not create, feeling alienated and overburdened.

‘Seaspiracy’ is a startling documentary that unveils the environmental toll of fishing and the extent of humanity’s exploitation of the oceans. It advocates for an end to fish consumption and spotlights plant-based seafood alternatives

In New Zealand, 98% of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is supplied by two companies, Ravensdown and Ballance Agri-nutrients. These companies push fertilisers on farmers but take no responsibility for the resulting climate impacts, river pollution, and health issues.

Beyond the clear environmental and animal welfare concerns, Milked underscores the significant contribution of industrial dairy farming to climate change. Agriculture is New Zealand’s largest climate polluter, with emissions from cows, fueled by massive amounts of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, and direct emissions from fertiliser application. This industrial dairy system, driven by synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, poses a triple threat to the environment by polluting rivers, contaminating drinking water, and destabilising the climate.

SEASPIRACY

“Seaspiracy” is a startling documentary that unveils the environmental toll of fishing and the extent of humanity’s exploitation of the oceans. The film brings to light the critical state of fish populations, pushed to the brink by commercial fishing practices. It presents powerful scenes from disease-ridden fish farms, shares harrowing accounts of human rights abuses within the industry, and captures the tragic whaling practices in the Faroe Islands. Advocating for an end to fish consumption, “Seaspiracy” also spotlights the rise of plant-based seafood alternatives as sustainable protein sources.

This documentary is a sequel to “Cowspiracy,” offering a deeper look into the lesser-known, yet profound, environmental damage inflicted on our oceans by human actions. Filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, who initially set out to document the beauty of the ocean, instead finds himself confronting the destructive impact of human activities on marine ecosystems. “Seaspiracy” is a compelling call to action, urging viewers to reconsider their impact on the oceans and the planet.

EYES OF THE ORANGUTAN 

Aaron Gekoski’s debut film, ‘Eyes of the Orangutan,’ is a profound exploration by the renowned environmental photojournalist into the dark world of primate exploitation in the tourism sector. The documentary reveals the heartbreaking reality of orangutans, our sentient relatives, being ripped from their natural habitats and trafficked for entertainment. Produced by Terra Mater Factual Studios, the film poses a poignant question: if we can do this to one of our closest relatives, what hope is there for any other animal?

The film provides a disturbing account of the illegal orangutan trade and the inhumane conditions wildlife animals endure in tourist attractions. The film sheds light on how orangutan-smuggling syndicates work. Despite its unsettling content, ‘Eyes of the Orangutan’ serves as a crucial narrative highlighting wildlife exploitation and tourism, and the discussion whether tourists are just as responsible and complicit in animal abuse as the poachers.

THE IVORY GAME 

The poaching of elephants for ivory epitomises the unsustainable trade in wildlife commodities, a critical issue explored in ‘The Ivory Game’. Directed by Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, the film investigates the global ivory trade, highlighting the conflict between governments and environmental preservationists on one side and poachers and Chinese ivory merchants on the other.

‘The Ivory Game’ focuses on elephant poaching in Africa and its connection to the ivory trade in China and Hong Kong. It emphasises the dire consequences if poaching continues unchecked. Over 16 months, the filmmakers and their crew went undercover to document the slaughter of elephants for their tusks and the smuggling of ivory to China, the world’s biggest market for ivory, where it is cove

The documentary begins in Tanzania with Elisifa Ngowi, the head of intelligence for the Task Force, conducting a nighttime sting operation to arrest Shetani, a notorious poacher responsible for killing 10,000 elephants. In China, Andrea Crosta, head of investigation for Wildleaks, and investigative journalist Hongxiang Huang go undercover to expose the illegal ivory trade. China, the world’s largest market for ivory, complicates the situation by releasing 5 tons of ivory annually to licensed dealers, blurring the lines between legal and illegal ivory.

‘Before the Flood’ presents powerful accounts of rising sea levels, deforestation, and other human-caused environmental damage, and provides viewers with actionable solutions, such as reducing meat consumption and voting for leaders committed to environmental sustainability

This Netflix documentary captures the multi-million-dollar ivory trade in China and Hong Kong, revealing its complexities and the deep-rooted corruption that sustains it. ‘The Ivory Game’ underscores the devastating impact of the ivory trade on the global elephant population, predicting their extinction within the next 15 years if urgent action is not taken. 

The film’s powerful message contributed to significant legislative change, with Hong Kong lawmakers voting in 2018 to ban the ivory trade, a ban that was fully enforced by 2021.

‘The Ivory Game’ serves as a global call to action, warning of the impending extinction of elephants and urging immediate efforts to halt the ivory trade.

VIRUNGA 

‘Virunga’ is an Oscar-nominated documentary that chronicles the courageous efforts of four rangers dedicated to saving Africa’s most precious national park and its endangered mountain gorillas. Directed by Orlando Von Einsiedel and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, the film captures the tumultuous events in Congo’s Virunga National Park during the violent M23 Rebellion in 2012 and investigates the controversial oil drilling activities of British company Soco International within this World Heritage Site.

The documentary highlights the life-threatening challenges faced by the rangers as they strive to protect Virunga, one of the world’s most biodiverse regions and home to the planet’s remaining mountain gorillas. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is perpetually under threat from poachers, armed militias, and corporations seeking to exploit its natural resources. The situation escalates when the M23 rebel group seizes control of much of the park.

‘Virunga’ underscores the immense danger involved in conservation efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite these challenges, the documentary brought significant attention to the plight of Virunga. Following the film’s release and subsequent public outcry, Soco International ceased all oil exploration in the park in April 2014, showcasing the impactful power of documentaries.

Since 2014, there has been positive news regarding the park. Gorilla populations have increased, and conservationists have been collaborating with local villagers to develop new industries and alternatives to conflict. ‘Virunga’ remains a powerful and moving film, illustrating the extraordinary efforts required to protect endangered wildlife and the critical role of conservation in fostering sustainable development.

HAIDA GWAII

‘Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World’ is a captivating Canadian feature documentary directed by Charles Wilkinson. 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. The film delves into the lives of inhabitants living in Haida Gwaii, a remote archipelago off the Northwest coast of Canada. Recently named one of the “Must See Places in the World” by National Geographic, Haida Gwaii is widely regarded as one of the last and most pristine natural places on Earth. It’s a region where the ancient forests, diverse wildlife, and unique geological formations coexist with the rich cultural heritage of the Haida people.

The documentary explores how the Haida people have survived wildly fluctuating sea levels, climate change, and natural disasters for over 10,000 years. Despite these challenges, they continue to strive for balance, economic sustainability, and the preservation of their culture for future generations. The film profiles a unique community of individuals from both indigenous and non-indigenous backgrounds, all working together to protect the islands and build a sustainable future. 

The film compels viewers to consider their own contributions to nature, emphasising the decisions ordinary people make daily and the interconnectedness of environmental actions. It’s a powerful reminder that our choices matter, both individually and collectively, in safeguarding our planet.

A LIFE ON OUR PLANET 

‘David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet’ is a compelling documentary that offers a stark yet hopeful narrative on the state of our natural world. Narrated by the esteemed David Attenborough, the film serves as a profound testament to his life’s work and the alarming decline in Earth’s biodiversity he has observed over the decades.

Released on Netflix in 2020, the 85-minute film confronts viewers with dire forecasts for our planet’s future if current trends persist, including the onset of a sixth mass extinction and a catastrophic global temperature increase of 4°C. Departing from his traditional nature documentaries, Attenborough adopts a critical stance, denouncing humanity’s detrimental impact on nature. Yet, his message culminates in a powerful vision of hope, outlining potential solutions to the climate crisis.

The journey of the documentary takes us from the eerie desolation of Pripyat, shadowed by the Chernobyl disaster, to the rich biodiversity of the African Serengeti. Attenborough expresses his sorrow over the dramatic loss of wildlife, attributing it to human actions. However, he also presents a blueprint for recovery, suggesting measures to revive biodiversity and ensure a resilient future.

As Attenborough revisits his past, the documentary interlaces historical footage from his early work with contemporary scenes that capture the grandeur of the natural world. While celebrating Earth’s wonders, the film also confronts viewers with unsettling images of wildlife perishing, underscoring the urgency of its message.

‘David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet’ transcends the genre of documentaries. It is an urgent plea for awareness and action, challenging us to acknowledge our role in shaping the fate of our planet and its diverse life forms. It is a documentary that not only informs but also inspires a commitment to stewardship and change

2040 

 ‘2040’ is a refreshingly optimistic pick if you want something less grim. Rather than focusing on the urgency of problems, the solution-oriented documentary seeks out creative alternatives to tackle challenges of climate change. In particular, it imagines technological breakthroughs which, supported by academics and ecological experts, have the potential to reverse the situation by the year 2040. Cases in point include renewable energy like rooftop solar, shifts towards regenerative agricultural practices, and the versatile use of seaweeds as a facilitator of food security.

 ‘2040’ is an Australian documentary film directed by and starring Damon Gameau. Released in 2019, the film takes a forward-looking approach, envisioning a future where climate change has been effectively addressed by the year 2040.

Structured as a heartfelt letter to his four-year-old daughter, Velvet, Gameau embarks on a global journey to investigate solutions that can significantly contribute to reversing climate change. He focuses on technologies and practices that are either already available or have the potential to make a substantial impact by 2040. The film weaves interviews with experts, ecological insights, and inspiring stories to create a vision of hope for the planet.

Gameau highlights how rooftop solar and micro-grids in places like Bangladesh empower communities to produce, own, and trade their own energy‘2040’ discusses the shift away from car ownership through self-driving cars and ride-sharing, which can lead to more sustainable urban design.

Gameau explores practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, enhance carbon sequestration, and improve resilience. The climate benefits of adopting plant-based diets are emphasised.

The film looks at the potential of seaweeds for food security and carbon sequestration. Gameau considers how education and empowerment can lead to non-coercive, human-rights-based population control.

Geeta Singh

Geeta Singh has spent 20 years covering cinema, music, and society giving new dimensions to feature writing. She has to her credit the editorship of a film magazine. She is also engaged in exploring the socio-economic diversity of Indian politics. She is the co-founder of Parliamentarian.

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