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Science staff review 12 films featured at the 2016 Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital

0506_collection©CARL WIENS/I2IART.COM

In March 2016, the theaters, libraries, universities, and museums of Washington, D.C., were once again the setting for the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, an annual event (now in its 24th year) featuring more than 140 Earth-friendly films. A number of the 2016 selections sought to celebrate the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service, highlighting how parks and protected areas play a vital role in the conservation and preservation of the Earth. Other films invited viewers to examine the powerful relationship between humans and the places we call home, probed the institutions driving climate policy, and revealed the resilience of communities confronting the early effects of global warming. Read on to learn what Science staff thought of 12 of this year’s featured films.


An American Ascent

An American Ascent

George Potter, Andy Adkins
2015

In his famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low.” Flashbacks to this speech are featured in An American Ascent, which chronicles the journey of nine African-American mountaineers as they endeavor to climb Denali, North America’s highest peak, on the 100th anniversary of its first summit. Accompanied by four guides, the men and women set out to test their personal limits and challenge people of color to rethink their relationship with the great outdoors. Most of the climbers have never attempted a trek of this magnitude, and many encounter disapproval from their peers, yet they are compelled to show that the natural world is a place for everyone.

The film deftly balances commentary from the climbers with footage of their excursion. The landscape is awe-inspiring, yet it is clear that climbing Denali will be no easy feat. Aside from challenges presented by the altitude, the mountaineers grapple with other difficulties: One man suffers a dislocated shoulder but is determined to press on. Rock slides and snow squalls materialize in minutes. More than once, the team is forced to retreat to its previous camp after several hours of climbing. But the film also features lighter moments. At one point, we see the climbers relaxing at a campsite while trading stories with others from around the world. Their camaraderie is a joy to watch.

On day 19, the climbers attempt to reach the summit, but a dangerous electrical storm foils their plans. With food and supplies running low, they must turn back without making another effort. Although their disappointment is palpable, it soon gives way to an enormous sense of pride in having proven that nature’s charms are accessible to all people, regardless of race or cultural background.


Bluespace

Bluespace

Ian Cheney
https://vimeo.com/66192226
2015

Bluespace uses the possibility of terraforming Mars as a (sometimes loose) organizing principle for examining Earth’s endangered ecosystems. The film is divided into three parts. In the first, “The Imagined World,” the “canals” of Mars—long, straight lines observed by early astronomers that were once believed to be evidence of intelligent Martian life—are juxtaposed with images of snow-covered roads and the canals of Venice. Although no one currently expects to find little green men on Mars, the possibility that the remains of microbes might be discovered underneath or within rocks is still within the realm of reality.

In the second section, “A Gardened World,” the film offers tantalizing glimpses and mentions of life in extreme environments on Earth (including the specter of new species being formed in toxic waste sites). Although there are some who believe that we should not contaminate or alter Mars, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson offers a controversially different opinion in the film: “If Mars has life, we should encourage it; if not, we should share with it.”

0506_body4©WICKED DELICATE FILMS

If rising seas ultimately imperil our existence on Earth, might Mars be made hospitable to humans?

Touching briefly on people who are attempting to simulate Martian conditions here on Earth, the third section, called “A Most Liquid World,” focuses mostly on footage of destroyed structures and landscapes and distressed people left in the wake of Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. The take-home lesson is that perhaps we are not very well adjusted to our own, changing, world and that we should focus on getting things right on Earth before we consider terraforming another planet.

Bluespace, while raising some interesting ideas, needed better editing. Additionally, the affiliations of the various people who appear in the film provide some context but, unfortunately, don’t appear until the closing credits. Despite its uneven presentation, the documentary offers an interesting take on an unusual topic.


Can You Dig This

Can You Dig This

Delila Vallot
https://vimeo.com/129924807
2015

City residents living in “food deserts” lack easy access to grocery stores or other healthy food options. This situation disproportionately occurs in low-income communities, lowering overall public health and exacerbating inequality. Ron Finley of South Los Angeles, one of the primary subjects of Can You Dig This, paints an even grimmer picture. He likens the situation to a “food prison,” whereby permission is often required to simply grow food in cities.

Four unlikely gardeners work to change their lives and neighborhoods, one plant at a time, in Can You Dig This.CAN YOU DIG THIS

Four unlikely gardeners work to change their lives and neighborhoods, one plant at a time, in Can You Dig This.

Through a series of intimate portraits, filmmaker Delila Vallot shines a light on not just the challenges of urban farming as they pertain to environmental justice but of overall urban life in Los Angeles. For her subjects, gardens represent more than just access to healthy food. An ex-con living in a halfway house finds refuge in his garden as he adjusts to life outside of prison. A school-age girl, bursting with enthusiasm, connects with her family and neighbors in public housing over her garden. In a community garden, an occasional drug dealer finds purpose and love with a fellow gardener, an ex-gangbanger struggling to achieve her dream of becoming a nurse.

As the film implies, urban farming should not simply focus on sustainability or solving the challenges of food deserts. We should recognize that urban gardens provide a chance to plant more than just food. One can plant ideas, plant hope, plant love, plant purpose. As Finley appeals to the audience during his 2013 TED talk: just #plantsomeshit.


Catching the Sun

Catching the Sun

Shalini Kantayya
https://vimeo.com/ondemand/catchingthesun
2015

Would a switch from fossil fuels to solar power create or destroy more jobs? Would the installation of solar panels on houses and businesses empower individuals and communities? Would it truly shift wealth from megacorporations to the less wealthy? Although not directly asked, these questions emerge from the stories told in Catching the Sun from filmmaker Shalini Kantayya. The documentary begins by detailing the health and environmental consequences of the 2012 Chevron fire and explosion in Richmond, California. The disaster became a catalyst for the environmental movement and shined a spotlight on the close relationship between Chevron and the local government, as Richmond’s mayor at the time, Gayle McLaughlin, describes in the film.

Against this backdrop, Kantayya proceeds to focus on companies, entrepreneurs, activists, and nonprofits in the United States and China who are trying to advance the solar revolution. A key theme emerges through interviews with Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy, who sees solar energy as a way to be more environmentally responsible while also creating jobs, particularly in low-income communities. We see the potential for the latter in the work of Solar Richmond, a nonprofit that offers training and green business ownership opportunities for low-income and underemployed residents. One would think that this sort of win-win situation would be politically appealing, but many barriers prevent widespread adoption, particularly in the absence of a clear national policy.

In contrast, Wally Jiang is able to grow his Chinese solar business by 50% a year through the support of the government. In the film, we see his attempts to advance his business as he pursues a range of international partnerships. Catching the Sun is thin on numbers, from how much solar technology really costs to how well it might integrate into the electricity grid on a large scale to a proper comparison of the successes of different countries in implementing renewable energy. But it does show the personal side of solar energy and is thus an important part of the broader story.


Ever the Land

Ever the Land

Sarah Grohnert
https://vimeo.com/ondemand/evertheland
2015

The Tūhoe people, or children of the mist, of the Māori tribe have suffered at the hands of the colonizing New Zealand government for more than a century. But Ever the Land is not a historical film. Rather, it is the story of a people who are ready to close the door on the troubles of the past and greet a new era of compromise, one that will allow them to preserve their culture and land for future generations.

The film takes place at the dawn of this new era, as a new treaty between the Tūhoe and the government goes into effect. The Tūhoe will receive a $170 million settlement, as well as an apology for past transgressions and renewed rights to the governance of the Te Urewera, the Tūhoe’s native land. We join them in community meetings, where they discuss the first investment of funds: a new community center, designed to seamlessly integrate with nature in accordance with the tribe’s traditions. We listen as the 83-year-old architect, who will not live to see the project completed, explains the blue-prints and as his staff checks and rechecks the extensive list of local materials. We watch the community make clay bricks, one by one, from molds. Meanwhile, everyday life continues; children go to school, festivals showcase traditional dance and song, mothers tell their children bedtime stories about the god who punishes those who pollute the river, and men gather to grill meat and share stories.

The documentary is unembellished; there are no soaring strings to imbue events with emotion, no interviews to provide context, no titles to identify the people shown on the screen, and no omniscient narrator. The viewer is not so much a spectator as a witness, quietly observing the Tūhoe people as they take part in the innumerable mundane moments that cumulatively bring about change.

Finally, the official government apology is broadcast, and the community center opens with great fanfare. Yet, even as members of the tribe celebrate their reclaimed rights to the land, they maintain that they are not its owners, but rather its guardians. For the Tūhoe, “there is nothing else that brings prosperity; it’s only always ever the land.”


Good Things Await

Good Things Await

Phie Ambo
https://vimeo.com/103508293
2014

This Danish film paints Niels Stokholm’s biodynamic farm Thorshøjgaard into a picture of hyperbolic beauty: sweeping shots of verdant landscape, sensitive close-ups of leaves dripping with morning dew, and sumptuous sunsets, all accompanied by goose-bump-raising vocals of an a capellachoir. First developed by philosopher Rudolf Steiner (whose thick tome on the subject Stokholm keeps readily available for curious readers), biodynamic farming is a holistic approach to agriculture that treats soil fertility, livestock care, and vegetation growth as one self-sustaining organism.

Throughout the film, the octogenarian farmer Stokholm, who with his white beard and flannel looks like a sort of agrarian Gandolf, waxes poetic about the interconnectedness of the Earth and the importance of protecting the farm’s natural rhythms. Barely alluded to is the reality that all the animals so lovingly raised on this utopian property are eventually slaughtered. The one scene that even hints at this less-than-picturesque reality—a brief shot of a bright rivulet of blood coursing through the dirt—is more painterly than PETA-provoking.

After watching Stokholm cradle baby calves and tenderly pluck carrots from his chemical-free fields, it’s tempting to declare his biodynamic system the ideal agricultural model. And yet, underlying this pastoral Arcadia is the threat of both legal and financial troubles. The Danish authorities disapprove of the freedom Stokholm grants his cattle, which they argue poses a safety risk. In a telling scene toward the end of the film, Stokholm recounts an experience in which he was gored by an ox and badly injured. Speaking nonchalantly into the camera, he defends the ox and, more shockingly, forgives it. But, then again, not doing so would only prove the authorities right.

If Good Things Await fails in convincing viewers of the superiority of biodynamic farming, it’s only because, for all its cinematographic power, it cannot undo the reality that this world is one of love and beauty, yes, but also of blood.


How to Let Go of the World

How to Let Go of the World (And Love All the Things Climate Can't Change)

Josh Fox
https://vimeo.com/147539163
2016

This unusually uplifting film about climate change starts and ends with a dance. At the start, filmmaker and narrator Josh Fox dances with joy because local protests have prevented oil and gas exploration in Delaware—only to realize that this local victory is not enough: The warming climate is allowing parasites to spread north, destroying hemlock forests in their wake.

Interviews with climate scientists and activists follow, painting a bleak picture, and Fox almost gives in to despair. As the camera zooms out on him lying on the snowy ground, he looks up into the sky at “all those greenhouse gases hanging there like a century of human regret.”

Yet at the end of the film, he is dancing with joy again, having found hope in human courage, resilience, ingenuity, and civil disobedience around the world in the face of climate change. He has seen climate scientists lost for words at the scale of the challenge; he has watched an activist reduced to tears as his ancestral land is washed away by sea-level rise. But he has also joined local activists cleaning up oil spills from rotting pipelines in the Amazon, interviewed indigenous people in Ecuador who prevented oil exploration on their lands, blocked coal tankers from leaving port with the Pacific climate warriors, and met a tribal leader who is helping to bring solar power to one of the poorest regions in Zambia.

What unites these people is that they imagine a different world; that they believe they have a choice and are taking responsibility. Told in a highly personal and idiosyncratic style, How to Let Go of the World does that rare thing: inspires hope in the face of climate change.


Ice and the Sky

Ice and the Sky

Luc Jacquet
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpZYkNkkiTg
2015

Claude Lorius arrived in Antarctica for the first time in 1956 on a trip that lasted 16 months but hooked him into a life dedicated to returning to the bitter cold. Ice and the Sky is a film that traces the French glaciologist’s life and discoveries. Director Luc Jacquet combines Lorius’s commentary with archival footage of his scientific expeditions that range from the bare-bones three-man operation in 1956 to the much larger international deep-ice-drilling collaboration at the Vostok research base decades later. Interspersed are more recent scenes depicting the bright and brilliant landscapes of Antarctica as Lorius, now in his 80s, makes what may be his final return to the continent.

In Ice and the Sky, glaciologist Claude Lorius reflects on the history of climate research and the future of the warming planet.WILD-TOUCH

In Ice and the Sky, glaciologist Claude Lorius reflects on the history of climate research and the future of the warming planet.

Lorius’s discoveries had a profound impact on our understanding of climate change. He was the first to recognize that tiny gas bubbles trapped in ancient ice tell a story of our planet’s temperature in the deep past. The film succeeds in demonstrating the strong tie between greenhouse gases like CO2 and temperature, making the connection between humans and global warming obvious. Surprisingly, it was the discovery of radioisotopes from an atmospheric nuclear test, not the results of his own research, that eventually shocked Lorius into the realization that no place on Earth has escaped the imprint of humanity.

Despite having recognized and raised the alarm about human-induced climate change decades earlier than most, Lorius strikes an optimistic tone about the potential for humanity to avert disaster. “Man is never so sublimely in his element than when faced with adversity,” he maintains near the end of the film. Perhaps we should expect nothing less from a man who knows the power of teamwork to overcome what seem to be insurmountable obstacles.


Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt

Robert Kenner
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8ii9zGFDtc
2014

“I’m not a scientist, although I do play one on TV occasionally,” says Marc Morano, founder of the climate-change-denying website ClimateDepot.com. This statement summarizes the premise of Merchants of Doubt, a film that exposes the public relations tactics that are employed to cast doubt on science. Based on Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s 2010 book of the same name (reviewed in Science, 4 June 2010, p. 1230), the film explores the early groundwork laid by the tobacco companies to sell “doubt [as] our product” and examines how tactics to deny science have been, and continue to be, applied to flame retardants and, most prominently, climate change.

The film features interviews with players on both sides of these contentious issues. With some notable exceptions, most of those on the “science side” of the debate are scientists, whereas their counterparts appear to be people with no scientific expertise who are hired to seed uncertainty among nonexperts by those with interests contrary to scientific results. Interestingly, these individuals often function as publicists across a slew of topics, writing letters to Congress discouraging stricter cigarette laws one day and op-ed pieces questioning global warming the next.

Despite the fact that there is almost no debate in the scientific community regarding human-caused climate change, a small but well-funded group of individuals is succeeding in spreading misinformation and creating skepticism in the American public. If we as a scientific community choose to ignore this reality, we’re only making their jobs easier.


Poached

Poached

Timothy Wheeler
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2to0e8UJVEQ
2015

Poached is a film about the obsession that drives some Englishmen to extremes to collect wild bird eggs. These men will climb trees and cliffs—several have fallen to their deaths—in pursuit of eggs. Those of rare birds of prey, including ospreys, peregrine falcons, and hen and marsh harriers, are esteemed, but most prized of all are golden and white-tailed eagles. It seems that the more inaccessible the nest and the more vigilant the protection officers, the stronger the drive to collect becomes.

The anomie and secretiveness that surround this illicit pastime are shocking. One man, encased in a rubber bird skull, is full of threats of revenge against law enforcement. He clearly fears being imprisoned, yet still boasts that he will never be caught. Many “eggers” identify as bird lovers, yet seem unable to confront the consequences of their behavior. Despite some beautiful footage of birds, ultimately, the film is unsatisfactory, and too many questions are left unanswered. What about the effect of bird collecting on bird populations? Could not the obsessives be converted into equally ardent conservationists? Although the environmentalist message might be lacking, this is nevertheless a powerful film exploring personalities gripped by obsession.


The Babushkas of Chernobyl

The Babushkas of Chernobyl

Holly Morris, Anne Bogart
https://vimeo.com/128836341
2015

For the past 30 years, the Ukrainian town of Pripyat has had just one official identity: a forbidden wasteland permeated with radioactive dust. The catastrophic explosion of a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 prompted the permanent evacuation of the entire city and all other areas within a 30-kilometer radius. But within months, hundreds of residents, undeterred by the risk of carcinogenic particles, had snuck back into the so-called exclusion zone to resume their lives. Now, an aging population of roughly 100 residents, nearly all of them women, subsists by planting, foraging, and fishing in a landscape that is slowly being reclaimed by nature.

Filmmaker Holly Morris and her team spent 16 days inside the exclusion zone to document their lives, many of which were marked by the immediate threats of poverty and war long before any vague risk of radiation. Her nuanced depiction in The Babushkas of Chernobyl defines the dangers of the exclusion zone through many eyes: the geophysicists and government employees who are its stewards, the defiant groups of young Ukrainians who periodically sneak in for a glimpse at their generation-defining disaster, and three exuberant “babushkas,” who tromp through their contaminated kingdom with wry humor and mind-boggling grit.

The women featured in the story don’t show obvious health effects from the exposure, and, in fact, the returned residents have tended to survive longer on average than those who were displaced—at great emotional cost. At one point in the film, a government scientist explains that the residents choose to stay out of “ignorance and a simple lack of knowledge.” But these women’s fierce attachment to their land makes it hard to dismiss their choice so easily. Theirs is an extraordinary case study for a more commonplace issue: our effort to weigh the risks of an increasingly inhospitable environment against the necessity of calling it home.


Women and Water

Women and Water

Nocem Collado
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXs1z-ZazM4
2014

A young Indian woman, heavy with child, carries a bright yellow plastic urn to the village well. Eight times a day, she hauls water from the well and carries it home to prepare food; wash children, floors, and pots; and tend to crops. She visits an obstetrician, who tells her she must not lift heavy things. The woman nods, expressionless.

There are few words in the film Women and Water; only occasional quiet narration from its subjects and the ambient sounds of their work punctuate the often stunning visuals. But Spanish filmmaker Nocem Collado still tells a powerful story of modern India’s water woes: rivers choked with trash, sewage, and chemical waste; mosquito-borne diseases; and women traveling long distances to fetch water.

Access to clean, safe water sources remains out of reach for many women in India.WOMEN AND WATER

Access to clean, safe water sources remains out of reach for many women in India.

Four “stories,” each loosely centered on a different woman, anchor the film: the expectant mother; a village woman who travels 5 hours a day to fetch water from a distant well; a rubbish collector in the slums of Mumbai; and a member of the “untouchable” caste. The film watches them unflinchingly as they go about their often-grueling daily chores and worry about their children’s health and futures. It makes a strong case that the country’s water-related hardships disproportionately affect women, who must find ways to channel the water to their families.

The film ends quietly; it offers no suggestions for management, little sense of the historical context in which these problems arose, and, consequently, little hope for the future. One expert interviewed in the film cites Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote, “Sanitation is more important than political independence,” made nearly a century ago. In recent decades, the country has launched several campaigns—the latest in 2014—to bring clean toilets to every one of its people and end open defecation. Sanitation is only one of the many environmental challenges India faces. It will be, to say the least, an uphill climb.