Epocalypse Now

Moviegoers are no longer content with films focused on portrayals of excessive consumption by the rich and famous. The time for eco-flicks has arrived.

WITH AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, March of the Penguins and The Day After Tomorrow grossing well over the average for a studio feature film, it seems that Hollywood may be listening. Moviegoers, adamant in their demands to mix pleasure with purpose, seem to no longer be content with films focused on portrayals of excessive consumption by the rich and famous.

WITH AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, March of the Penguins and The Day After Tomorrow grossing well over the average for a studio feature film, it seems that Hollywood may be listening. Moviegoers, adamant in their demands to mix pleasure with purpose, seem to no longer be content with films focused on portrayals of excessive consumption by the rich and famous.

In his latest book, Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States, film critic Ed Rampell suggests that progressive Hollywood is acting as a stand-in for oppositional anti-war and anti-globalization voices since political parties and corporate-run media are not meeting social and environmental needs. Leading the way is the independent film production company Participant Productions. With Jeff Skoll, a Canadian and former eBay president, at its helm, it produces four to six social change films a year, which have included such highly acclaimed theatrical releases and box office smashes as Syriana, An Inconvenient Truth, Fast Food Nation, Luna and Electric Dreams.

Environmental movies cover such genres as catastrophe films, spoofs, biopics, whistleblower pictures and documentaries that address a gamut of environmental issues. In recent years, climate change and energy have been hot. In the 1990s, there were The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear, a ridiculous spoof that nevertheless lays bare the tug of war between oil interests and alternative energy activists; The American President, a highly fictionalized romantic drama in which the president adopts the 20 per cent Toronto reduction target for greenhouse gases; and Waterworld, Kevin Costner’s big budget sci-fi action film in which melting polar icecaps turn the world into a big ocean that leaves violent Hobbesian survivors on makeshift rfts yearning for dry land.

The new millennium has produced more eco-flicks in the catastrophe genre. The most successful film, which earned more than half a billion at the box office, was The Day After Tomorrow. Without Waterworld’s excessive violence, this thriller is still action-packed. It shows how civic-minded people help each other survive a cataclysmic storm. In The Day After Tomorrow, the vice-president, who bears an uncanny resemblance to current US Vice-President Richard Cheney, angrily dismisses scientists’ dire warnings about climate change. Only after an ice sheet that covers much of the Northern hemisphere plasters the President’s motorcade does the new President (the former V-P) apologize to the nation. This rich fantasy film has the Cheney look-alike admit that “these past few weeks have left us all with a profound sense of humility in the face of nature’s destructive power. For years, we operated under the belief that we could continue consuming our planet’s natural resources without consequence. We were wrong. I was wrong.”

Nowhere is the quest for truth stronger, nor has a more cohesive case ever been made about the environmental crisis than in Al Gore’s documentary on climate change. An Inconvenient Truth is the big screen equivalent of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic book. Despite the film’s dire warnings of the consequences looming ahead if action is not taken immediately, Gore’s doc is surprisingly upbeat. It creates possibility by clearly showing what the future can look like. Beth Savan, who works in the environmental studies program at the University of Toronto, found the film “visually strong, with very vivid shots of current climate change outcomes, as well as clear data on temperature and other parameters.” Nonetheless, Savan would like to have seen more on “the impacts experienced in the developing world, where early and serious consequences are already being felt.”

Michael Moore’s engaging and mobilizing documentary form, as witnessed in Fahrenheit 9/11, opened the door to socially conscious documentaries. This helps explain An Inconvenient Truth’s commercial success. (As of October 2006, it had worldwide box office earnings of $62-million).

Biopics are an important genre for activist films because they involve character development, thereby encouraging audiences to empathize with and imitate these eco-protagonists. Biopics are often whistleblower films that highlight the importance of sounding the tocsin against gross corporate violations of workers’ and community rights and the exploitation of the environment.

The film aesthetic of biopics tends to focus on the role played by individual heroes in saving the day. Fortunately, many eco-biopics overcome this tradition. For example, director Steven Soderbergh made Erin Brockovich in the realist tradition by illuminating the actual importance of the bottom-up, grassroots road to justice. Rather then sitting behind an office desk, Erin, played by Julia Roberts, is shown arranging house meetings with ill residents, sifting through county water board documents, taking samples of toxic seepage from the huge Pacific Gas and Electric Company plant, and knocking on doors for signatures and support.

Silkwood, a 1983 biopic starring Meryl Streep, employed the rarely observed Hollywood linkage between environmental justice and workers’ rights. The film is based on the true story of Karen Silkwood. As an active union member, she highlighted plant safety concerns at Kerr-McGee Corporation’s plutonium processing plant and may have been murdered in a fatal car crash the week after she started gathering evidence of safety negligence.

Ben Dickenson, author of Hollywood’s New Radicalism, argues that progressive films focus on the role of collective action in social change in the post-Seattle, anti-globalization protest era. One of the best examples is director and screenwriter John Sayle’s Sunshine State. This environmental justice film puts people of colour in affirming positions of equality. An older black gentleman is a local leader who mobilizes the community to challenge city council and stop developers in Florida.

Environmental films at their best reframe the priorities of our existence and set the stage for a new basis for modern life. In her new book, Two Aspirins and a Comedy, Metta Spencer demonstrates how entertainment can promote social justice, peace and ecology. Films inform us as to how we live from day to day, what we eat, how we get around and the kind of paid and volunteer work we do. The arts can help make activism relevant to people and rekindle their motivation to become involved. Animal rights films have been especially successful in this regard. A typical viewer of Richard Linklater’s film Fast Food Nation may wonder: if this doesn’t make you a vegetarian, what will?

According to Spencer, films that “show it and tell it,” when characters elaborate on and specifically discuss how organizing is done, are particularly effective. In other words, informing is not enough. Films can encourage critical thinking, and empower and mobilize audiences towards action.

Beyond the theatre’s red carpet, many independent film companies have achieved breakthroughs in the involvement and activism of their audiences. The non-profit Tribe of Heart production company promotes social change. Volunteers from its list server share ideas about how to organize effective screenings in living rooms and church basements. A handbook on activism, for example, will accompany Tribe of Heart’s re-release of an updated version of the animal rights DVD Peaceable Kingdom.

The importance of voting is a theme that is beginning to permeate eco-films. Michael Moore makes this point in Fahrenheit 9/11, as do John Sayles in Silver City and Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. Promisingly, Skoll’s Participant Productions hosts a website at participate.net that directs people to activist campaigns, including those that encourage people to vote.

Planet in Focus, Canada’s largest annual environmental film festival, screened over 80 films this November in Toronto, some to sold out audiences. Many of them are unforgettable activist documentaries that have an immediacy and real life relevance beyond most feature films. Filmmaker Tanvir Bush is effectively using her documentary On The Frontline to lobby the Zambian government to build more hospices as well as to enlighten the international community about the need to address poverty alongside the provision of anti-viral drugs. “Taking these drugs on empty stomachs is lethal,” states Bush.

In The Curse of Copper, British filmmaker Jenny Sharman tells the dramatic story of local groups in Ecuador struggling to stop Ascendant Copper, a Canadian company, from building an open pit mine that could destroy precious rainforest habitat, an alternative sustainable economy and the community’s water sources. At the screening, Sharman passionately urged viewers to go to MiningWatch Canada, Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International websites to take action.

Planet in Focus director Candida Paltiel is using the budding festival to take environmental films “out of the margins and into the mainstream.” She says, “the evidence is there that environmental stories have drama and content that is of interest to the broad public.”

Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now website has a one-hour news program each day from an activist perspective. www.democracynow.org

Tribe of Heart provides a bottom-up, grassroots means of distributing animal rights and social justice films. www.tribeofheart.org

Anita Krajnc writes about protest art, and social movement strategies and tactics. Larry Wartel is an urban planner and prison abolitionist campaigning to free unjustly imprisoned activists. Kellee Jacobs has a political studies degree from Queen’s University.