At the Produced By Conference five years ago, Marshall Herskovitz issued a call to action. Bemoaning the lack of films about, in his view, the most perilous environmental issue of our time — climate change — he challenged producers and writers in the audience to develop scripts on that subject. “Get them on my desk,” he urged, banging the table, calling on his colleagues to help turn the tide.
Several years have passed, and while a few recent movies picked up on the theme — Snowpiercer and Noah come to mind — that call to action has been largely left unanswered. While the major Hollywood studios are otherwise occupied with action films for teenage audiences, documentary makers have stepped up their game.
I’m writing from this year’s Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C., where there are an astonishing 40 documentary films, TV shows and panels to engage festival goers in conversations about climate change. There’s James Cameron’s Years of Living Dangerously, Louis Psihoyos’ Racing
Extinction, Ice & Sky by Luc Jacquet (of March of the Penguins fame), and Extreme Realities narrated by Matt Damon. There are also a wide range of inter-national film offerings — Black Ice, Bikes vs Cars, Monsoon and more.
Ten years ago, March of the Penguins topped the charts of highest-grossing documentaries ever, but director Luc Jacquet was also criticized for making a movie in climate-challenged Antarctica while failing to mention climate change and its brutal impact on his own cast members. With Ice & Sky, he more than corrects for that omission. Jacquet filmed in the same location, and the stark contrast with March demonstrates how the landscape and the penguins have been battered by fluctuating climate conditions.
Jacquet is motivated by a strong hope that the new movie will raise awareness and provoke action. He knows it’s a long, uphill road — producing always is — but he’s deter-mined to see this through.
There’s a shared sense of urgency this year among a wide variety of film-makers, and generating impact has become an essential part of most films’ release strategy. They might write an “impact strategy,” even hire an “impact producer.” Certainly, a film occasionally will leave its mark with legislative or market impacts. But I think it’s fair to say that the number of offerings on the subject of climate change is still not commensurate with the size of the problem.
“Anyone dropping into America from another country or another planet would get the distinct impression that few people who matter are terribly worried about climate change,” observed Joe Romm, a science advisor to Years of Living Dangerously, and founding editor of Climate Progress. “Climate change has mostly been an invisible issue for several years and the mes-sage of conspicuous consumption and business-as-usual reigns supreme.”
Documentary directors gathered at a panel to discuss how to grow their audience and maximize impact. Ken Berlin of Climate Reality reminded them that “in the climate change arena, everything we
say is quickly contradicted, so we must improve how clearly we communicate about this issue.”
His boss Al Gore chimed in from a video feed: “Stories matter — we have an obligation to future generations to tell great stories on film that can resonate with wide audiences and inspire lasting action.”
In terms of reaching the huge international audience, it’s still hard to beat a bonafide Hollywood blockbuster. Although studio tent-pole movies about climate change are still in short supply, every now and then one can surprise us. A single scene in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar may take less than a minute of screen time, but in that moment, it sent a powerful message about the importance of climate change to millions around the world.
The characters are standing in a field of dead and dying crops. Matthew McConaughey observes that when the atmosphere “changed,” the resulting chemistry was a new mix of nitrogen and oxygen more popular with blight than with people. The food supply crashed, while asthma went epidemic.
Later we hear: “We didn’t run out of planes and television sets. We ran out of food.” There are plenty of ways to read that line, but here’s what I take away: while we still have televisions — and movie theaters, websites, iPads, film festivals — let’s make them useful, get them working, inspiring people to get together and take action, while we still can.
“This problem is big,” declares Luc Jacquet, arms outstretched. “We have to use the universal language of film to touch people — touch them so deeply so that change is the only possible result.
“I don’t know if the little drop I add to the glass of water will make a difference,” he muses, smiling. “Maybe I can add two or three. But I do know one thing: if I never add any drop at all, the impact I will have will be zero.”
The panel moderator, Ashlan Cousteau, asked the filmmakers what advice would they give to the next generation trying to tackle this issue on film. The answers came back as we’ve come to expect — better characters, stronger stories, more music. The one I like the best goes like this:
Young filmmakers, don’t do what we did! Don’t relax in the knowledge that your box-office numbers and ratings at least didn’t suck, and move on. Stay with it, do more, do it better, hit it harder, adjust your approach and do it again, and then again, say no to the limo and the big lights and get back out there and don’t give up until, well, change is the only possible result.
To view the entire Produced by Magazine for Mar/Apr 2015 please click here.