2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital (EFFNC), an annual cultural event in Washington, D.C., that features dozens of films with Earth-friendly messages. The longest-running festival of its kind in the United States, the 2017 EFFNC could not have felt more urgent, shining a spotlight on the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, the water crisis in California, and the geopolitical instability that has been exacerbated by climate change in areas such as Syria and Somalia, among other timely topics. Read on to see what the Science staff thought of 10 of this year’s featured films.
When filmmaker Michelle Latimer arrived last spring at the Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota to document opposition to the nearby construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, she was underwhelmed. Surveying the small group of Native American activists assembled in support of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, she thought, “I don’t know if I can make a film with this,” as she recalled to the audience during a postscreening panel of Sacred Water on 24 March at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.
So Latimer and reporter Sarain Fox set out to make a “small, quiet story” of protest, the first in an eight-part series from cable channel VICELAND on indigenous activism. They made supply runs with Ladonna Brave Bull Allard, who hosted the camp on her land in the hope of protecting local water supplies and sacred sites; they rode around the reservation with Bobbi Jean Three Legs, a young organizer who led youth relay runs in protest of the pipeline; and they interspersed these candid interviews with historical flashbacks that lend context to the struggle—from the Battle of the Little Bighorn to the legacy of abuse in government-funded Native American boarding schools.
The resulting film is highly stylized, peppered with slow-motion footage, and set to a dramatic soundtrack that fuses moving chants and hip-hop rhythms. But the most impactful moments are less engineered. The film ends as the organizers’ desperate social media calls for support are answered and new protesters pour into the camp.
It’s hard not to view the activists’ initial victory under the shadow of more recent events, including President Donald Trump’s January executive order that called for the review and speedy approval of the pipeline’s permits. But Sacred Water remains an impassioned look at a protest movement on the eve of its explosion into national awareness.
Francis Nanzin is a Ugandan subsistence farmer whose crops are among the half of Uganda’s banana trees that have been wiped out by a bacterial disease known as banana wilt. In Food Evolution, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Francis’s face lights up as local scientists show her the disease-resistant banana trees they have created through genetic modification. A moment later, she is crestfallen as she realizes that her family will continue to struggle until the Ugandan government declares genetically modified organisms (GMOs) legal to grow.
In Food Evolution, scientists, journalists, and farmers describe GMO success stories: the virus-resistant rainbow papaya that has revitalized Hawaii’s papaya industry and Roundup-Ready seeds that have improved crop production and decreased the use of toxic fertilizer from Missouri to South Africa. Interspersed with these interviews is footage of passionate anti-GMO activists (each pointedly identified by their nonscientific job title and credentials).
As the scientists diligently refute anti-GMO claims with data, the film explores the motivations of the parents, community leaders, and supposed environmentalists who are determined to disregard scientific consensus. Information overload, confirmation bias, the need for certainty, and fear emerge as the driving forces behind the anti-GMO movement, but the film acknowledges that most people who are wary of genetic modification likely have good intentions and goals similar to scientists: ensuring access to a safe, sustainable food supply.
The film ends with a few positive updates: Some bans such as the one in Uganda are close to being lifted, and a debate in New York City has persuaded many undecided members of the audience to support GM technology. However, the challenge of convincing people of the safety and value of GMOs remains daunting. Progress will require understanding skeptics and knowing the facts. On both counts, Food Evolution is a good place to start.
Admirals, generals, and veterans are an unlikely bunch to interview for a documentary about global warming. However, in director Jared Scott’s brilliant new work, the focus isn’t on how human activity contributes to climate change but rather how climate change contributes to human activity, rendering these individuals—who have witnessed, analyzed, or offered strategic advice on the geopolitical destabilization that results from climactic changes—well qualified to weigh in.
According to the film, certain geopolitical calamities of the past few decades have been exacerbated or influenced by drought and flooding brought on by a warming world. How a 3-year famine led to the civil war in Syria, or the drying of Lake Chad led to the Somali crisis of the early 1990s, is not immediately obvious. But in careful interviews with experts, telling geographic aerial shots, and detailed graphics of the landscape and climate, Scott shows just how frighteningly interconnected politics is with the environment.
At times, the film comes off as melodramatic; a cello-heavy musical score and the decision to shoot each interview in large, empty rooms remind us that this is, after all, a movie and not a political report. But mostly, the film feels urgent.
Heartbreaking shots of migrants leaving their homelands, fleeing war or hunger, stress that the consequences of global warming–induced chaos bleed across borders. Although the effects have been most damaging to a small number of regions, the human crisis this damage instigates makes it a problem for all nations. Indeed, the film seems to warn that, if not adequately addressed, global warming will destroy this planet in the long term. But should the human crisis of the present further intensify, we may well destroy this planet ourselves first.
From natural sunlight to bulbs that glow and lasers that produce narrow beams, we use light to explore our world, to communicate, for security, and even as a weapon. But turn down the brightness and you can find a range of creatures that create their own light for similar purposes. Aided by advances in the sensitivity of color cameras, in Light on Earth, the venerable Sir David Attenborough takes viewers on an international exploration of bioluminescence in some of the darkest places on the planet.
We are shown how flashes from fireflies are used to attract mates and how they also serve to seduce prey or to steal it from spiders. A species of millipede found in the mountains of California, whose daytime coloration warns predators to stay away from its cyanide-containing body, uses bioluminescence to give the same warning at night. For some small or immobile underwater animals, bioluminescence is triggered by the attack of a predator; the intense glow turns the predator into potential prey as it is suddenly illuminated in the murky dark.
We see the motion of dolphins evoke a blue glow caused by bioluminescent dinoflagellates in the surrounding water, and gnat larvae turn the roof of a cave into a starlit sky to trick their prey. These observations hint at just how much more might be seen in the dark by animals that produce their own light. For scientists, however, seeing the light is only the first step. The biggest challenge may come from trying to understand why many of these creatures produce light in the first place.
In 1945, the USSR built “City 40” along Lake Irtyash for workers and families linked to its Mayak plutonium production plant. It was a “closed city,” fenced in by barbed wire, heavily guarded, and left off of all maps to protect its nuclear secrets. (Russia had 28 such closed cities during the Cold War; the U.S. had five.)
During the first 8 years of City 40’s existence, residents were forbidden to leave or contact outside family members. The city’s denizens felt lucky, however: They had good schools, tree-lined streets, stocked grocery shelves. But the community was no paradise, notes the chilling documentary City 40. Nowadays, locals call placid Lake Irtyash the “Lake of Death.” Mayak has dumped tens of millions of cubic meters of radioactive wastewater into the lake and the Techa River, the region’s primary drinking source.
In 1994, City 40 received an official name—Ozersk—and appeared on maps for the first time. But the city is still shrouded in secrecy. No one talks about the chronic and often deadly illnesses that afflict many residents; nonresidents are still prohibited from entering without permission from the Russian secret police. Filming in the area is forbidden (residents helped smuggle the documentary crew and cameras inside).
Enter human rights activist Nadezhda Kutepova, born and raised in City 40. Her organization, “The Planet of Hope,” educates Ozersk’s residents on the health effects of radiation and on their rights to seek recompense from the federal government. But her position feels precarious and increasingly desperate, as Russian authorities escalate from harassing her with tax audits to coercing her landlord to threaten eviction to ominously visiting her children’s schools. In a postscript, the film reveals that in 2015, shortly after filming ended, Kutepova was accused of industrial espionage and fled Russia with her family. The fate of others who were filmed and are still in the city is unknown.
The picturesque dairy farms of New England are an industry in transition. From over 10,000 dairy farms some years ago, only about 2000 are still in production. Forgotten Farms considers what has put these small dairy farms at risk and what further change might mean for the region.
Small-production dairy farms bring benefits beyond milk production: Land reserved for growing feed preserves scenic views that otherwise fall to tract-housing development. Each cow generates $14,000 per year of economic activity. Ecosystem services of water management and nutrient recycling are difficult to measure but easy to bemoan once the farmland is paved over with driveways.
The farmers multitask to an impressive extent: part veterinarian, mechanic, meteorologist, athlete, and business manager. These experts, though, are starting to look like a new class of subsistence farmers. As increasing urbanization puts more distance—and ignorance—between most consumers and their food-production systems, misunderstandings can arise between farmers and those who live nearby. Some aspects of dairy farming are messy and smelly, attributes residential neighbors often don’t appreciate, but also often don’t equate with local availability of fresh milk and artisan cheeses.
The balance between milk prices and operating expenses produced a secure living when driven by local markets in generations past. Now, lean years outnumber good years as milk markets become more global and small dairy farms in New England find themselves competing with large-scale industrial operations in the Midwest and elsewhere. At the same time, increasing emphasis on local food production is shifting the public’s perception of what small farms can be, which may yet open new doors for these regional dairy producers.
Commercial-scale food production and environmental conservation are often viewed as fundamentally at odds with one another. This documentary, based on the book of the same title by Miriam Horn, challenges that idea by bringing viewers face to face with people who produce our food and whose livelihoods depend on the land and sea. Following a downstream transect through the Mississippi River basin, we meet Montana ranchers working to protect the landscapes of the Rocky Mountain Front, farmers in Kansas who have eschewed tilling and insecticides, and fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico trying to restore and sustain the red snapper population. In each case, the motivation is to preserve an income source and a way of life—which means working with, not against, the natural environments in which these livelihoods and traditions are rooted.
Through narration by Tom Brokaw, the film directly (and maybe with more repetition than necessary) connects food production in the heartland with American exceptionalism and the core American identity. Less explicit but just as clear is the premise that conservation and conservatism can be ideologically compatible. Property rights, traditionalism, and self-sufficiency are among the values that impel the film’s subjects as they forge sometimes unexpected connections with government administrators, scientists, and conservation groups to protect the environments where they work from threats such as development, erosion, and overexploitation. “Hold on to what you got,” “leave it like it is,” and similar statements convey their shared sense of stewardship and legacy.
The film stops short of exploring how choices in one part of the basin might affect outcomes downstream. But it does highlight how decisions informed by science can have both economic and environmental payoffs.
California produces a number of water-thirsty crops. Agriculture, which contributes to 2% of California’s economic activity, uses 80% of its water. Focusing on how water allocation was determined in the 1990s in what is now referred to as the “Monterrey Agreement,” Water and Power emphasizes the potential money to be made from the commoditization of water in central California.
In Kern County, which is home to numerous large industrial farms but no consistent water supply (aside from groundwater), 5 years of drought have precipitated conflicts between large-scale agribusiness and smaller farms and residents. Concluding that water is money, to be traded like any other commodity, the film maintains that water transitioned from a public resource to one controlled by private industries as a result of the Monterrey Agreement. As the cost of tapping limited groundwater supplies rises, the majority of residents in affected regions will no longer be able to obtain or afford water. Similar issues are poised to play out on a global scale.
Toward the end of the film, we see calls for, and recently proposed, legislation that should help mitigate water conflict in times of drought and that may eventually return water rights to the public (albeit on a very long time scale), ending on a somewhat hopeful note.
The next time you buy clothes, do not just spare a thought for the workers who sewed your garment. Also consider the international crew who spent lonely months without Internet or phone on the container ship that brought it to you. Consider the invasive species that the container ship brought with it, the pollution that is caused through use of the cheapest fuels available, and the dangers to sea life from engine noise, shipwrecks, and containers lost at sea. The picture that emerges from Freightened is one of environmental havoc wrought in the name of cheap production.
As the film makes clear through interviews with experts interwoven with personal stories, labels such as “Made in Bangladesh” only tell a very small part of a product’s story. Today’s global economy depends on low-cost shipping that allows components to be shipped around the world in ever-larger container ships. But the shipping industry lacks transparency; dominated by a handful of privately owned corporations, it avoids the spotlight.
Through mechanisms such as the “flag of convenience,” ships avoid the higher taxes, environmental standards, and minimum wage payments of developed countries, lowering costs by up to 65%. As ships age, their environmental impacts become more severe: Most shipwrecks involve vessels—often oil tankers—that are more than 25 years old and are poorly maintained.
Yet the size of the shipping industry is projected to triple in the next 20 years, with new shipping lanes opening up through sea ice loss in the Arctic. Although ships can be retrofitted to avoid the worst effects and reduce energy consumption, change is slow and regulations are difficult to enforce. Given the urgency of the problem, which the film conveys brilliantly, the suggested solutions seem timid: Rating schemes for ships and better labeling of products feel like sticking plasters rather than actual solutions.
Gathering, grinding, and selling salt from the Uyuni salt flat has always been a tough job for the Bolivian “saleros” who have worked the flat for generations. The focus of this film is on Moises, a salero who lives with his wife and children in the nearby town of Colchani.
Salero presents vivid images from this desolate environment as Bolivia prepares to reshape the flats to extract reserves of lithium buried below. Many in the regions believe that the country’s economic future hinges on becoming the “Saudia Arabia” of lithium, but such a future has the potential to dramatically transform the lives of those who live and work near Uyuni.
As the lithium extraction project rolls forward, it becomes evident that Moises’s trade is no longer a viable way to support his family. While Moises laments the loss of a way of life, others in Colchani embrace the transition and take advantage of the influx of workers and visitors.
Salero presents a unique snapshot of a region right before massive investment and resource extraction, revealing how the loss of a traditional trade and the quiet of the salt flat will be exchanged for economic improvement for both the local community and the country.