Sensitization Through Lens

The alarmingly swift degradation of the environment for long has been a pressing concern for filmmakers, especially for those who work in the non-fiction space

By Geeta Singh

  • ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was widely regarded as a turning point for environmental activism
  • Seaspiracy is a shocking documentary about the environmental impact of fishing
  • ‘The Tiger who crossed the line’ showcases animal-human conflict and its impact on the environment
  • Godfrey Reggio directed the masterpiece ‘Koyaanisqatsi’s formula’ which means “life out of balance”

LAST Year Nila Madhab Panda made ‘Kaleera Ateeta’, an 83-minute film, showing the effects of climate change on humans. The filmmaker elaborated that his film depicts the spirit of a victim, who used to live in a village in the past, which drowns in the sea. Usually, people overestimate the economic and physical impact of climate change, but the protagonist in his film is the victim of ignoring the most important emotional impact of climate change. ‘Kaleera Ateeta’ depicts the emotional impact of climate change on a man.

The different issues catering to Environment have proved themselves to be an increasingly hot subject in film and documentaries. With access to a wide range of environmentally-themed movies, a few of these titles are absolute must-watch for those that are exercised over the damage mankind has done to the world as well as for those that love the power of green films to ferret out the truth from the unlikeliest of places.

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. Subsequently, a new breed of filmmakers came forward and devoted much of their time to address environmental issues. An Inconvenient Truth has been regarded as a turning point for the medium’s growing and necessary engagement with environmental activism. In India environmental activism has been seen through cinematographer’s lens but once in a while.  


The All Living Things Environmental Film Festival (ALT EFF), India’s only and first cinema festival based on environment has been curated in order to increase awareness of the matter in all parts of the world and to display the effects of environmentalists actions to the common crowd. This film festival was started in 2020 with a mission to bring issues related to the environment to the fore and showcases movies revolving around conservation, climate change, sustainability and other topics, from all over the globe.

Last year, ALT-EFF showcased 44 films from 31 countries that threw light on critical issues affecting our planet Earth. Notwithstanding, this initiative is an applauding step, yet there is a lot to be done in the mainstream. In many years of Bollywood mainstream films Vidya Balan starrer ‘Sherni’ was released on Amazon Prime last year. The film is focused on the sensitivity to the forest and its people as a priority amid rural life and politics. ‘Sherni’ unfolds many layers of interrelationship between man and wildlife and greed of humans. Before that, 2017 saw a few good films on the environment in India. ‘Kadvi Hawa’ made by filmmaker Nila Madhab Panda tells the compassionate tale of an agrarian whimpering over the issue of climate change in the context of our country. 

The film shows a bleak, parched landscape with barren lands and mounting debts and tragic suicides of farmers. “More than the farmer suicide, Kadvi Hawa tells the story of wind,” says Panda, who shot to fame with ‘I Am Kalam’. “Wind is central to the ecosystem and farmers are the most important human figure that is impacted by it. It is the farmer, he says, who suffers the most from climate change.” Panda adds.

Famous filmmaker and Playwright Girish Karnad tried to understand the relationship between man and nature on a philosophical level through his Kannada film ‘Cheluvi’ released in 1992. He presented the humanization of nature through a folktale in a style familiar to him

Another lesser-known documentary ‘The Tiger who crossed the line’ showcases the animal-human conflict and its impact on the environment. The film was the winner of the National Award for Best Environment Film including Best Agricultural Film 2016. It comprehensively highlights conservation issues; steps taken to tackle them while taking the viewers across several wildlife reserves — Corbett, Ramnagar, Sunderbans, Pilibhit and Western Ghats.

Director Aparnaa Singh got National award for her directorial movie Irada released in 2017 under the category ‘Best Film on Environment Conservation/Preservation’. Naseeruddin Shah, Arshad Warsi, Divya Dutta, Sharad Kelkar and Sagarika Ghatge played pivotal roles in this lesser known feature film. Irada is an eye-opening film where the greed of human beings leads to polluting the environment including the groundwater and efforts to reverse the same. 

Another notable Marathi film ‘Paani’ released in 2019 set in the backdrop of Nagdarwadi, a drought-affected village in Latur district of Maharashtra. ‘Paani’ tries to showcase the challenges which come with  modernising water farming. The film won the National Award for Best Film in the Environmental Protection category and was screened at the New York Film Festival. ‘Paani’ was produced by Priyanka Chopra.

Filmmaker Girish Malik’s film ‘Jal’  in 2014 brought up the water challenges of the Rann of Kutch. The story begins with two villages of Kutch where there is no water far and wide. There are disputes over water. ‘Jal’ closely examines the gravity of water crisis and ecological imbalance and the lives of people and their social interrelationships. ‘Jal’ got a special mention in the Indian Panorama section of Busan International Film Festival.      

Still the question naturally arises as to why the environment does not appear as a central theme or concern for mainstream Indian cinema irrespective of language. Maybe,  such stories do not have a dramatic and commercial effect and demand more research and location credibility.


But it was not the case in the 70s and 80s. There were filmmakers, like MS Sathyu, who explored ecology in cinema. His film ‘Sukha’ released in 1983 narrates the story of drought-prone areas from a political perspective. The film was the Hindi version of Sathyu’s Kannada movie ‘Bara’ (1982). ‘Vasundhara’ was another film directed by Ashok Ahuja in 1988 which brought the issue of environmental degradation due to illegal mining. The director got the idea for the film from a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). 

In 1980, the Supreme Court of India heard a PIL and ordered the closure of the mines in view of environmental degradation caused by massive mining. The entire film was shot on the actual location. Now it is a forgotten film which tells us about our rights and duties to preserve ecological balance.

New Zealand is the biggest exporter of dairy in the world, but what was once a source of national pride is now their biggest threat. In this new documentary, Chris Huriwa travels around his home country of New Zealand to expose the truth about its multi-billion dollar dairy industry

Famous filmmaker and Playwright Girish Karnad tried to understand the relationship between man and nature on a philosophical level through his Kannada film ‘Cheluvi’ released in 1992. He presented the humanization of nature through a folktale in a style familiar to him, like his mythological and folklore-based theatrical works. The film’s heroine Cheluvi can transform herself into a tree. 

When India was witnessing the development with the construction of major dam projects this achievement had brought its side effects, through affecting local communities. The issue was raised in the Kannada film ‘Bhoomi Geetha’ in 1997. The film shows how people get uprooted from their own land when a dam is built. Directed by Kesari Harvu, ‘Bhoomi Geeta’ won the National Award for Best Film in the Environment Protection category.


In the past two decades, the world has seen several remarkable feature films and documentaries 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 genius filmmaker Godfrey Reggio directed the masterpiece ‘Koyaanisqatsi’s formula’.

The film was an epic, wordless exploration of the Hopi phrase Koyaanisqatsi, which means “life out of balance.” Koyaanisqatsi’s formula is simple with remarkable cinematography of Ron Fricke and  Philip Glass’s celebrated original score. Reggio made the film in six years on a small budget as he travelled with Ron Fricke across the US in the mid-to-late 1970s, filming its natural and urban wonders with such originality.

‘Vasundhara’  is a forgotten film directed by Ashok Ahuja in 1988 which brought the issue of environmental degradation due to illegal mining. The director got the idea for the film from a Public Interest Litigation

Sixteen years ago, when ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was released, the effects of climate change were still, for most of us, the stuff of animations and projections. The film was widely regarded as a turning point for the medium’s growing and necessary engagement with environmental activism.  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.

The awareness to sensitise through cinema increased manifolds in filmmakers in the past 10 years. However, environmental concerns gradually took their toll through these early films and attracted the attention of the media and intellectuals on a small scale. In later years the concern for the environment took off directly from academic seminars and on the pages of newspapers. Ecological imbalance added to the concerns of those who were directly affected by it. At the same time, under a well-thought-out strategy like the mainstream media, it started appearing silent on many such subjects. 


From old to new, here are 20 must-watch environmental films and documentaries covering a variety of topics including climate change, water ecosystems, waste management, the animal industry and sustainability

Milked (2022): New Zealand is the biggest exporter of dairy in the world, but what was once a source of national pride is now their biggest threat. In this new documentary, Chris Huriwa travels around his home country of New Zealand to expose the truth about its multi-billion dollar dairy industry. Through research, investigation, and interviews with big names in the environmental movement like Jane Goodall and Cowspiracy co-director Keegan Kuhn, Huriwa reveals how the industry has “milked” animals along with consumers, the natural environment, our climate, and the farmers caught in this exploitive system. 

Seaspiracy (2021): Seaspiracy is a documentary film about the environmental impact of fishing. From the co-creator who brought you the groundbreaking documentary Cowspiracy comes Seaspiracy, a follow up that illuminates alarming — and not widely known — truths about the widespread environmental destruction to our oceans caused by human behaviour. Filmmaker Ali Tabrizi initially set out to celebrate his beloved ocean, but instead found himself examining the harm that humans inflict upon the vulnerable seas. Seaspiracy is a shocking documentary about the environmental impact of fishing. 

Eyes of the Orangutan (2021): A debut feature by internationally acclaimed environmental photojournalist Aaron Gekoski, Eyes of the Orangutan details the abuse of primates in the tourism industry. The film documents how orangutans and other wildlife animals are forcibly removed from their natural habitats and are made to perform for humans in degrading displays, as well as shed light on how orangutan-smuggling syndicates work. While there are no shortage of shocking and upsetting scenes, it’s an incredibly important film highlighting wildlife exploitation and tourism, and the discussion whether tourists are just as responsible and complicit in animal abuse as the poachers.

A Life on Our Planet (2020): This documentary serves as the “witness statement” of 94-year-old naturalist David Attenborough, who traces his career as a natural historian and outlines how the biodiversity of our planet has degenerated over his lifetime. The narrative starts in Pripyat, the ghost city home to the former Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, and traverses across various locations including the African Serengeti. He laments over a drastic decline in wildlife, caused by humans. Attenborough ultimately articulates hopes for the future and brings to the forefront solutions that may restore biodiversity.

Extinction: The Facts (2020): In the age of Covid-19, David Attenborough  examines the mass extinction taking place right now. It is one of the biggest extinction events threatening biodiversity and possibly releasing other pandemics upon the world. This looks at some of the possible consequences and solutions.The world is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction caused by human activity such as deforestation, poaching and overfishing, not to mention, climate change. But it’s not all doom and gloom, the renowned naturalist explores the different solutions in which we can slow down and prevent this rapid biodiversity loss, including putting environmental labels on food products, slashing the demand of agricultural land by reducing food waste, curbing our use of pesticides, and regulating fishing.

My Octopus Teacher (2020): A moving documentary released by Netflix, My Octopus Teacher captures filmmaker and diver Craig Foster forging a peculiar friendship with a wild common octopus. Filmed in an underwater kelp forest in False Bay near Cape Town, South Africa, his once-in-a-lifetime experience includes tracking the octopus’s movements every day, witnessing how the octopus defends herself against pyjama sharks and eventually dies after mating. Foster describes the effect of this unusual encounter on his life and further reflects on his relationship with his son, who has now become interested in the wonders of marine life.

The Human Element (2019): Centred around climate change, The Human Element chronicles the quest of environmental photographer James Balog to highlight how the four elements — air, earth, water and fire — are being altered by the fifth element of human activity. Pioneering in its videography, the documentary reveals how global warming has drastically contributed to wildfires and hurricanes that disrupt human-nature balance. To examine the impact, Balog visits Americans at the forefront of climate change, including inhabitants of Tangier Island, a fishing community facing rising sea levels. The documentary encourages audiences to reconsider their relationship with the natural world.

2040 (2019): 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.

Artifishal (2019): Produced by Patagonia, Artifishal exposes the impacts of overfishing, with a specific focus on wild salmon, which are now on the verge of extinction in North America. The documentary sheds light on the implications of wild salmon farming in aquaculture farms and fish hatcheries which is one of our many attempts to exploit nature for profit. Artifishal opens a rarely honest window on how our obsessive taste for seafood is eroding the diversity of ecological systems.

Chasing Coral (2017): A Netflix original documentary, Chasing Coral, captures an assembled team of divers, photographers and scientists striving to document the alarming disappearance of coral reefs in warming oceans. They set out on an ocean voyage, discovering numerous bleached coral reefs around the world.  By unraveling the underwater mystery in a time-lapse framework, film producers illustrate that the looming death of aquatic life is an environmental tragedy of our own making and can only be prevented through active intervention.

Before the Flood (2016): This 2016 documentary about climate change, directed by Fisher Stevens, was 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 Ivory Game (2016): The poaching of elephants for ivory is inarguably a paradigmatic example of unsustainable trade in wildlife commodities, which is exactly what The Ivory Game delves into. This Netflix documentary features two undercover filmmakers investigating the multi-million-dollar ivory trade in China and Hong Kong, as well as its complexities and repercussions. The documentary also delves into the deep-rooted corruption fuelling the trade. Meant to incite a worldwide call to stop the trade, the film warns us of the impending extinction of elephants within the next 15 years if no action is taken.

Years of Living Dangerously (2016): 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.

Under the Dome (2015): A self-financed 103-minute Chinese documentary highlighting the country’s crippling problem of air pollution. 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. Within the first week, it was seen a further 150 million times, making it a phenomenon like no other.  Chai, a well-known investigative reporter, says that she was compelled to take a long, hard look at the environmental catastrophe unfolding in China after her unborn child was found to be carrying a benign tumour in her womb. Likened to An Inconvenient Truth in terms of style and substance, Chai’s film pulls no punches as she shows charts, on-the-scene videos, and interviews with government officials and experts on the health and environmental consequences of air pollution, all the while pacing up and down a dark stage. The film is also critical of China’s government, detailing how rapid development and lax regulation has jeopardised human health and safety. 

HadaGwaii: On the Edge of the World (2015): 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. HadaGwaii, also named by National Geographic as one of the must-see places of the world, has faced many man-made and 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.

Racing Extinction (2015): The illegal animal trade is one of the most pressing threats to wildlife. In Racing Extinction, a team of eco-activists go on a mission to explore the man-made causes of the ongoing Anthropogenic mass extinction, fingering animal poaching and trafficking as the most prominent cause. Horrors of the black-market animal trade are disclosed, including the shark fin and manta ray gill plate trade in Hong Kong and mainland China for traditional medicines. The film also identifies the Amphibian extinction crisis and that of the Florida grasshopper sparrow, among others, as causes for concern.

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014): Centred on the animal industry, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret dissects the catastrophic impacts of animal agriculture such as deforestation, water pollution and topsoil erosion. Identified as the most destructive industry facing the planet (and ironically the most unchallenged one), animal agriculture is further revealed to be responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the combined exhaust from all transportation. Implicit at the heart of the documentary also suggests a certain reluctance for leading environmental organisations to openly discuss this issue, and filmmaker Kip Andersen further probes their policies.

Virunga (2014): This Oscar-nominated film chronicles the story of four rangers who have risked their lives to save Africa’s most precious national park and its endangered gorillas, which are some of the world’s last mountain gorillas. Helmed by filmmaker Orlando Von Einsiedel and executively produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, the documentary follows events that occurred in Congo’s Virunga National Park during the rise of the violent M23 Rebellion in 2012 and investigates British oil company Soco International’s oil drilling activities and exploration within the World Heritage Site. Soon after the film’s release, Soco officially ended all oil exploration in Virunga in April 2014 following significant criticism, demonstrating the true power of documentaries and making it one of the best environmental films.

The E-waste Tragedy (2014): Every year, developed countries throw away up to 50 million metric tons of electrical and electronic waste.  Computers, TVs, mobile phones and appliances and much more.  Can this tide of toxic waste be stopped? How much longer are we going to ignore the problem?  The illegal recycling of electronics is a downright toxic business, as nearly three-quarters of the waste keeps mysteriously disappearing from the recycling system.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006): An Inconvenient Truth is a concert film recounting former US Vice President Al Gore’s campaign in 2000 to educate people about global warming, making the documentary stand out in its experimental narration. This presentation on climate change, Gore claims, has been delivered to worldwide audiences more than 1 000 times. Apart from detailed graphs, flow charts and visuals, the Keynote slide show also collates personal anecdotes of Gore such as his college education with an early climate expert.

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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