Films to change the climate

Social movements of all kinds use films as tools to advance their campaigns and in some instances films can be encourage campaigns to start up; such as Bag It (about plastic bags) and the Bag It Town campaign.

As the movement voicing concern about the climate crisis grows so does the body of films in this space.

An Inconvenient Truth was a breakthrough documentary for the climate change issue, released in 2006 it went on to win 2 Academy Awards, reach an audience of over 4.9M people, launch the Climate Reality Project and train over 1000 activists to deliver the climate science presentation featured in the film. In 2007 Al Gore was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change.

In the USA, An Inconvenient Truth took just over $24 million at the box office and became the 6th best selling documentary of all time. Brit Doc published this great impact evaluation of the film.

An Inconvenient Truth demonstrates the power of celebrity, good backing (funded by Jeff Skoll former ebay president, founder of Skoll Foundation and Participant Media) and good timing on the success of a film. Personally I didn’t really feel deeply engaged by An Inconvenient Truth – I felt like I should watch it, even though I already knew the story and message; but then I probably wasn’t the target audience. There is no argument that this was an extremely high impact film which lead to a range of actions outside cinemas and lounge rooms.

Participant Media who produced An Inconvenient Truth make “entertainment that inspires and compels social change” and have gone on to make features and docs, launch a tv network and an online engagement portal Take Part. They recently produced Promised Land a feature film directed by Gus Van Sant with Matt Damon about fracking, which unfortunately is not a fantastic film (it rates 51% on Rotten Tomatoes, a renowned film review site). This is a good example of the need for a story to well told to make impact on an issue – I don’t think Promised Land is making waves in the climate change debate in part due to the fact it is not winning audiences.

Gasland was made for only $32,000USD and has gone on to have huge success in festivals, theatres and through movement and community based distribution. Whilst Gasland doesn’t boast high end production values it is a good story, well told and had fantastic timing; launching just as the issue of fracking was gaining traction and arguably contributing in part to the issue gaining traction.

The campaign around the film has cost at least $204,000USD to date – over 6 times the cost of making the film – and is ongoing. Gasland 2 is currently being launched in a grass roots tour before premiering on US television in July.

According to the Brit Doc impact evaluation Gasland hoped to;

  • Put fracking as an issue on the map
  • Enable viewers to connect with activist/grassroots organisations via social media
  • Lobby elected officials and institutions at the highest levels in order to curtail frackin

I’d say it has done a remarkable job of doing that; with over 250 screenings across the United States alone, 100,000+ petition signatures, celebrities enlisted, media appearances, etcetera.

Due in part to the massive movement that grew around the film, hydrofracking bans were enacted in Pittsburgh, PA; Tompkins County, NY; Cooperstown, NY; Licking Township, PA; Baldwin, PA;. France, Quebec and extended hydrofracking moratoriums were placed in NY State and South Africa. – Gasland website

Age of Stupid is a remarkable example of a well executed crowd funding and crowd distribution and a film which launched additional campaigns including 10:10. I am meeting with Lizzie Gillet (producer) this week, so will write more about this remarkable project in another post.

Additional films in this space worth checking out:
Chasing Ice is a visually stunning film (wish I had seen it on the big screen). It’s a good character driven doco which follows National Geographic photographer James Bolag on his ambitious and obsessive mission – the Extreme Ice Survey – to capture the melting and ‘calfing’ of glaciers on film.
The Island President is a great portrait of the charismatic former President of the Maldives Mohammed Nasheed with a particular focus on his role in the negotiations at the UN climate change meeting in Denmark in 2009.
Carbon Nation is a documentary about carbon change solutions with unusual suspects such as former CIA staff and the US military which demonstrates ways we can respond to the issue. I found this film a relief when I watched it as it was framed in a very positive light, but I don’t think it has been very well received and not sure about its impact.
Bidder 70 is an inspiring film which follows the non violent action and subsequent legal battle of climate activist Tim DeChristopher. The filmmakers are building an outreach & impact campaign around the film which includes a speaking tour alongside it’s theatrical release. The film is very much geared towards encouraging civil disobedience and community organising as a response to climate change and is very connected to grassroots movements, however I think the way that it tells this story will reach beyond ‘the choir’.
End of Suburbia ‘Oil depletion and the collapse of the American dream’. End of Surburbia was a significant film in bringing the discussion around peak oil to a wider audience. Launched in 2004, I think this film had a considerable impact and was distributed widely by grass roots activists.
Do the Math is a bit different from the other films as it was commissioned by an NGO within the climate change movement, Two independent filmmakers made the film which has now become a major campaign tool for 350.

I haven’t seen these, but also worth looking at; How Cuba Beat Peak Oil (a break through movement film, 2006). Hungry Tide (Tom Zubrycki’s film about the impact of climate change on pacific island Kiribati) and Everything’s Cool (which looks at messaging around climate change) .

Coming soon is Cooked (by Judith Helfand who made Everything’s Cool and works with Chicken and Egg and Working Films);

Cooked is a feature documentary investigation into extreme heat, the politics of disaster and survival by zip code. This story is framed by two heat waves, one that Chicago was ready for and the other that took the City by surprise – when 739 residents, most of them old, poor, and African American died over the course of one very hot week. – Cooked facebook page

And lastly I am really looking forward to the release of Naomi Klein’s book and Avi Lewis’s film The Message in 2014. My understanding is that this film and book will frame the climate crisis as an opportunity to respond to the interconnected issues we face and radically change our systems to create more justice for all.

Climate change is more than an issue. It’s a message telling us that our ideas about our place in the world are no longer viable. By threatening our very survival, climate change can serve as the catalyst for us to finally rise to the challenge.” – Naomi Klein’s website

All of these films seek to raise awareness, share the science and potentially shock or inspire audiences to action. Many of them have associated campaigns which filmmaker teams have built and coordinate themselves and/or are connected to climate change movements, grassroots organisations and NGOs. Some try and engage audiences in petitions or link in with local campaigns who often host community screenings. Many climate change activist groups will screen these films at campaign fundraising screenings and use them as tools to inspire and engage more people in their campaigns.

There is a long tradition of environmental campaigns and activists using films, books and art – from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to An Inconvenient Truth  – as tools to get their message out to and activate the broader the community. It’s is a great demonstration of the power of story – especially when coupled with strong grassroots movements, face to face meetings and actions in day to day life.

I think that these films have to have a connection to hope, either in the film itself or through the connection to an inspiring movement or campaign, for them to really gain traction with audiences. There is a saturation and compassion fatigue at play and very few audiences want to be hit with devastating facts without an avenue for responding or a sense of possibility.

Films and media are great tools. The hard work is in harnessing the inspiration that people feel as they leave the cinema and building community to respond to these issues.

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