According to the Web site Box Office Mojo, An Inconvenient Truth is the nation’s fourth highest-grossing documentary, after Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins, and Sicko. Yet at the height of its popularity, a Pew study showed that the public ranked global warming sixteenth on a list of twenty important issues. Seven months later, in January 2007, after the lessons of An Inconvenient Truth had time to percolate, the importance of global warming declined to around twentieth.
Similarly, the authors of the essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, point out that according to a Gallup poll, in 1989 63 percent of Americans believed that global warming was on the rise and that the government should do something about it. Yet in March of 2007, eighteen years later, that number was only up two points, to 65 percent. (What they neglect to mention is that the 2007 figure was up eleven points from the low 2004 reading of 51 percent.) Though these figures are not associated with the movie, they do prove that we’ve been aware of global warming for some time. While An Inconvenient Truth didn’t have a big impact on public opinion, it had influence where it counted, on the opinion of elites—policymakers, media makers, newspaper editors, investment bankers—people who have power to set a national agenda.
I dreaded watching this movie for the very reason I ended up enjoying it: it’s one big lecture. If you’ve avoided seeing it, know it’s an introductory lecture of the best kind, where you’re not behind on the reading, and the prof is eager to entertain, perhaps even desperate that you stay enrolled. The film appeals to elites who attended prestigious liberal arts schools and are nostalgic to return.
The glimpses of Gore’s personal life, which I thought I’d find annoying, were too brief to be bothersome. They proved welcome digressions, the tangents of a favorite teacher. And Gore’s reminiscences are visualized, so no imagination is necessary. Gore’s movie provides all the joys of school without any of the exertion.
From his years of political campaigning, Gore has finally acquired charisma, the lack of which impaired his presidential run in 2000. His communication skills are now so honed that the movie is a feat of psychological manipulation. I discovered I rather like being manipulated when I’m being made into a better person through no effort of my own.
One anecdote sticks: Gore projects a slide of a cartoon frog leaping out of a pot of boiling water. If the frog enters lukewarm water that is gradually heating up, “It will sit there and sit there—” Gore says, as the cartoon frog looks increasingly uncomfortable and eventually dire, “until,” he says rather too happily, “someone rescues it!” The audience laughs with relief. No longer the dullard of the 2000 elections, Gore tackles problems with a positive spin.
“Doing the right thing moves us forward,” Gore proclaims, suggesting that environmental amelioration will create many jobs. “We have everything we need to solve the problem—save perhaps political will. But in America, political will is a renewable source.” We can only hope.
Thank goodness Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, sponsored the Artivist Film Festival. In protest, director Martin O’Brien withdrew his short film, Justicia Now: One People’s Fight Against Big Oil, sparing the audience the excruciating boredom of having to sit through it.
As the film opens, a voiceover says there is “A call, a plea coming from the rainforest for a new direction.” A group of people organize themselves so that their bodies spell out “justicia now.” It’s a passable camera shot, but it doesn’t mean a thing, since we haven’t been told the dilemma.
Justicia Now documents—no, “documents” implies something more thorough—compiles some clips from a lawsuit on behalf of 30,000 people from the Northern Ecuadorian region of the Amazon who seek compensation for the toxic waste Chevron/Texaco dumped into unlined pits, where it continues to leach out and contaminate the groundwater. Chevron/Texaco denies any responsibility for this ecological catastrophe.
In fact, it’s the worst oil contamination in history, covering an area the size of Rhode Island. What image do our filmmakers select to exemplify this monumental tragedy? A lizard. “He’s not going to make it,” Donald Moncayo of the Amazon Defense Front says as five people watch him peel an oil-soaked lizard off a rock. “This is a consequence of the genocide Texaco has created.” With a spill the size of Rhode Island, there are greater devastations than a lizard, even a lizard that might otherwise end up eaten by a bird, as Moncayo is careful to tell us.
A third of the way into this thirty-minute movie, Amazon Watch’s John Quigley finally says something compelling: “Lago Agrio—Sour Lake. Texaco guys named it after some oil site in Texas—a chilling prophecy of what they were creating.”
Justicia Now spends too much time focusing on the reaction to the disaster rather than on the disaster itself. The best documentaries are those with a silent activist behind the camera, not a loud one in front of it. (Or a swarm of loud ones, for that matter.) Activist Quigley says, pointing to the waste-filled pits, “You look at the negative impact of the industrial revolution and if you put it in the framework of a bomb, this would be Ground Zero.” Um, okay. He continues: “This is sort of the ultimate in the arrogance, the negligence, the unsophisticated technology of resource extraction as a way for us to create our energy.” Hmmm.
Even when the directors stumble upon a truly gripping story—a woman who gathers enough money to treat her cancer only to find that her daughter has cancer too, and who in relegating the money to her daughter condemns herself to death—it is merely told to us. A throng of unremarkable activists standing on soapboxes doesn’t make a film. Only in the last minute is an interview set against evocative music, spliced with powerful images. Way too little, way too late.
If Justicia Now is the sloppily Xeroxed ‘zine with the most important words cut off the edge of the page, Planet in Peril, the two-part CNN documentary starring Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is the glossy national. This film has high production values, vivid images, and a polished score. Moreover, it has an assortment of investigative topics and world rhythms to suit every scenario.
In second grade, and then again in fifth grade, American children are taught about the rainforest. We learn that important species are going extinct, that we’re in the midst of the sixth great spasm of extinction in the planet’s history, the first driven by human activity rather than natural causes. But I never fully felt the implications until I watched Planet in Peril.
Instead of showing an ecosystem destroyed by extinction, Planet in Peril shows an ecosystem restored by the reintroduction of an exterminated keystone predator. A government-led extermination project in the early 20th century erased wolves from Yellowstone National Park. Without a natural predator, bison and elk populations exploded. These grazers and browsers ravished the foliage, particularly willows, thus destroying songbird habitat. Reintroducing the wolves kept the bison and elk populations in check, allowing willows to bounce back and songbirds to return. The film claims it’s one of the greatest conservation stories of the past decade, but even if it were the 100th best story, it’s a terrific way of explaining what’s at stake. Rather than scolding us for the harm we’ve caused, it celebrates the good we’ve done and, what’s more, generates inspiration for the good we could do.
The investigative reporting (replete with drumbeats) takes us to biodiversity hotspots and reveals the huge global trade in wildlife, a large part of which proceeds illegally. We’re witness to the tiger paw and penis black markets in China. We see bears stabbed with tubes and pumped for bile, a precious ingredient in Eastern medicine. The coverage can be packaged—”You’re looking at one of the first videos ever taken of the black slavak,” Anderson Cooper says while the camera pinpoints a funny-looking black bear. He doesn’t need to sell us—we don’t need persuading.
Planet in Peril Part II, covers the same material as An Inconvenient Truth—climate change and global warming—by taking you out of the classroom and on the ultimate fieldtrip to lands in crisis. What’s causing the Carteret islands to sink? Although forty percent of the ice sheet has melted over the last forty years, CNN takes us to the islands to show us that the answer is more complicated. Global warming is destroying the coral reef that protects these islands and breaks the storms. Increased light and temperature causes the coral to expel its algal tissue, resulting in a fatal bleaching.
Both parts begin with the same words: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” Anderson Cooper states. “Nothing occurs in a vacuum. There is a ripple effect.” The framing feels a bit formulaic, like watching Mister Rogers hang up his coat and zip his sweater. Yet these repetitions help us process the information we’re about to learn—and thus move closer to acting upon it.
Imagine a documentary set to the score from Star Trek, and you have some idea of the heavy-handed tone in The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and The Collapse of The American Dream. Heavy chords are effective (witness Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood), but here the unveiling is all show. I braced myself for the “coarse language” that I was warned about, but all I heard was the shrill fatalism of a balding lecturer with apocalypse in his eyes and a little stud in his ear.
The problem with Suburbia is that it isn’t about suburbia; the word is just a euphemism for consumerism and gauche gluttony. The movie could have been named America, and director Gregory Green would have attracted the same conglomerate of critics, who all say the same thing: Big Business is in bed with Big Oil, and the marriage has spawned millions of dependent bastards, the American people.
OK, such criticism is warranted, even necessary. But in the end, this movie is just a bunch of talking heads explaining that GM, Firestone, and Standard Oil banded together to buy out light rail so that suburbanites would be forced to rely on GM buses with Firestone tires that ran on cheap oil. We learn how oil affects our agricultural system: pesticides are made from petroleum and fertilizers from natural gas. “In the US and North America, we consume ten calories of hydrocarbon energy for every calorie of food we eat—and that doesn’t count transportation and cooking,” says one. At its worst we get hysterical doomsdayism: “It’s not going to be a matter of not being able to drive to the mall—it’s going to be a matter of not knowing how you’re going to feed your children.” Or “I think we’re going to have to downsize everything we do, everything from farming to education.” Education, really?
It’s a shame. Suburbia would have made an interesting subject. It’s really not fair to call the suburban project the “greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world” without taking a serious look at that lifestyle. Between Leave It to Beaver’s afternoon snacks and Mother’s Little Helpers, amidst suburbia’s mowed lawns and meth underbelly, suburbia has a fascinating history, of which oil is just one part.