Environment

Earth Day: 9 Films That Will Change the Way You Think About the World

This Earth Day consider adding a few of these these mainstream and indie documentaries to your must-see list.

Photo Credit: Surviving Progress Poster

In an apocalyptic 2012, is there a better time than Earth Day to remind ourselves just how lucky we are to be spinning through the void of space on this life-giving rock? From rapidly acidifying oceans and shortsighted deforestation to perpetually pollutive wars and the propping up of obsolete markets, Earth is taking killer blows that we're going to seriously regret delivering.

Like the worsening news about the future of our planet, the following films have recently arrived in short bursts. They deal out often visually spectacular but emotionally devastating losses of sea ice, as well as the unheard voices of nations beneath the rising waves. Some consider the double-edged sword of technological innovation, whose parasitic profit motive has compromised its earthly host. Others analyze those natural resources that so-called progress continues to exhaust in search of the new shiny.

But these Earth Day offerings are timely snapshots, because the slow-dawning realization that we've unplugged from a lethal, consensual hallucination can be screened far and wide in our pop-cultural productions. You've seen it in the post-apocalyptic allegory of The Hunger Games, last seen slaying the box office, whose forthcoming king will no doubt be The Hobbit, which takes place in a bucolic Middle-Earth bouncing its way toward an epochal world war. You can throw inGame of Thrones' murderous power grabs, Don Draper's advertising fetishism and plenty more.

But the mainstream and indie documentaries below pull away that fictional prism for convincing think pieces on sustainability and survival. Thanks to the death of appointment viewing, you'll get to watch them anytime, most likely on any platform, sometime this year.

1. Surviving Progress

Co-executive produced by Martin Scorsese and co-directed by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, this meditative documentary examines humanity's currently crucial crossroads between self-wrought runaway consumption, rapacious economics and natural resource exhaustion through the prism of so-called technological progress. Anchored in author Ronald Wright's 2004 Massey Lectures series A Short History of Progress and fleshed out by theoretical physicist cyborg Stephen Hawking, dystopian sci-fi author Margaret Atwood, famed primatologist Jane Goodall and others, the visually impressive Surviving Progress analyzes what it will take to dodge a global collapse that is priced into the future thanks to short-sighted past and present mistakes.

It's a poetic analysis, with a spare score that cedes ground to its visionary subjects, and their destabilizing subject matter. But it's also an optimistic exploration, holding out hope that humanity's exponential technological development can discover solutions to stave off what Hawking calls the next two centuries of natural and social disasters we'll have to negotiate to survive as a species. Some answers come from Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics, which is scouring the planet's oceans for microbes whose genes can help us "write software for life." Others can be found in the internet, which Surviving Progress posits as our interconnected planetary brain. If you're looking for a fiery polemic, Surviving Progress, opening in April, is not the film for you. But if you're looking for a sweeping think piece, welcome to the machine.

2. The Island President

Earlier this February, Mohammed Nasheed -- the Mandela of the Maldives, who like his forebear has spent much of his life being tortured in prison -- was allegedly forced from his presidency by gunpoint. A month later, The Island President, a documentary exploring Nasheed's campaign to reverse climate change in order to save the low-lying Maldives from being swallowed by inevitable sea rise, finally debuted in a United States that probably couldn't even locate his country on a Google map. Even so, The Island President's award-winning political and environmental intrigue still managed to capture the consciences of its viewers, critics and even his own country. 

Although director Jon Shenk's documentary takes place in a remote corner of climate change's evolving dystopia, it remains a cautionary tale for any nation that thinks its elections are clean and its political and economic priorities are being properly addressed and administered. And the show goes on with Nasheed's one-time ally, vice-president and Stanford graduate Mohammed Hassan -- whose own brother fingered him for helping oust Nasheed in a coup -- now sweating uncomfortably in global warming's hot seat. He'll soon be joined by politicians at the center of power webs in places Americans do know, like Miami, New York and others subject to the ravages of sea rise.

3. Bidder 70

After bidding on 14 parcels of pristine Utah public land near national parks and landmarks during a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction, Tim DeChristopher was taken into custody by federal agents and sentenced to two years in prison by judge Dee Benson, a controversial George H.W. Bush appointee. 

Award-wininng director team Beth and George Gage's Bidder 70 tells the compelling, infuriating tale of DeChristopher's conscientious civil disobedience, and the ludicrous legal ruling that has kept him behind bars for longer than anyone involved in the Deepwater Horizon spill or the global economic recession, tragedies much more deserving of judicial overreach. Despite the fact that his brilliant stunt allowed the incoming Obama administration to invalidate the auction altogether in lieu of adequate environmental review, the uncompromising DeChristopher is still unfairly incarcerated, awaiting his moment of triumphant redemption. One fervently hopes that Bidder 70 brings that moment much closer than his scheduled release date of April 21, 2013, which is perhaps not accidentally a day shy of Earth Day.

4. Chasing Ice

You'll have a hard time finding the sobering Chasing Ice in the malls, as it's still on the competitive documentary circuit. But one thing is for sure: There'll be even less ice to find when director Jeff Orlowski's documentary about climate change and vanishing glaciers finds foreign and domestic theatrical distribution later this year. Chasing Ice is produced by the team that brought you the dolphin horror documentary The Cove, and it's just as arresting, as it follows acclaimed National Geographic photographer James Balog to the Arctic in search of something that won't melt away before our eyes.

Balog's project to photograph the region's warming climate is not called the Extreme Ice Survey for nothing. For the last five years, it has mounted 30 time-lapse cameras across three continents to chronicle the jaw-dropping loss of Arctic sea ice, drawing a sharp, immediate focus on the ramifications of that nearly unprecedented warming. The EIS has published these results in National Geographic, but the still photographs are nothing compared to the existential terror and environmental beauty of Chasing Ice, one of 2012's most important documentaries. Watch it by any means necessary.

5. To the Arctic

Chasing Ice may be a more wide-ranging documentary analysis of the entire Arctic region, but it is To the Arctic's tale of a mother polar bear and her twin cubs that is getting the 70mm IMAX treatment this April. It's also boasting narration from Meryl Streep, as well as songs from Paul McCartney, in case you were looking for further pop crossovers. But this is not to say that To the Arctic is a lightweight crowd-pleaser.

Directed by outdoor IMAX filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, To the Arctic is an eye-popping exploration that hangs its environmental message on three live animal leads, hoping their modest story of solitary survival can teach us all a lesson about living in an interdependent system at the mercy of the natural world's disruptively real-time changes. That it does so in stunning visual fashion doesn't derail that message, so much as couch it in an empathy perhaps more suitable to a much less cynical era. But if every parent in the world took their kids to see To the Arctic instead of The Lorax, the world might be in a lot less of a mess.

6. Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison

Being extraordinarily large nomads who like to graze on open land, bison stick out of our light-speed 21st-century technopolis like sore reminders of times long past. For this reason and others, we haven't been able to stop killing them. Or worse, privileging the unsustainable factory-farming of cattle, consumption of which drastically raises our chances of illness and death, all while hypocritically crying about the tragic loss of the West in the process. This April, Public Broadcasting System's Independent Lens series airs High Plains Films' Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison as a timely remainder of this historically problematic human-animal relationship. 

It's an intricate analysis, brought to life by archival imagery, original animation and wildlife photography that will hopefully compel its viewers to get out of their cubicles into open spaces where existence takes on more dimensional meaning. Facing the Storm also examines not just the ages-old battle between cattle ranchers and Native Americans and like-minded conservationists, but also suspicious domestication strategies designed to strip bison of their nomadic instincts altogether, so that we may better contain and eat them.

7. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

A long-time poster child for the failure of public-policy planning and urban renewal, St. Louis' ambitious Pruitt-Igoe housing project opened its doors in the mid-'50s and was spectacularly demolished by 1968. (That iconic demolition was included in the cult film Koyaanisqatsi.) But now that our new century has experienced the ravages of unsustainable suburban sprawl and a predictably collapsed housing market, Pruitt-Igoe's primary example of modernism's architectural death is undergoing a suitably postmodern reevaluation.

Director Chad Friedrichs' The Pruitt-Igoe Myth arrived on the festival circuit in 2011, but premieres theatrically in April and will no doubt head to on-demand alternatives shortly after. For good reason: It examines the white flight, political opposition and economic decline that doomed its "poor man's penthouse" to controlled demolition and historical scorn. With the help of Pruitt-Igoe residents and a desire to rid urban renewal of its arguably undeserved stigma, Friedrichs' award-winning documentary is a compelling interpretive history reminding us that a planet with a population of seven billion and counting, is eventually going to have to learn to live in closer quarters than ever before. 

8. Windfall

Given all of the fearsomely mounting resource shortages we're facing, alternative energy should instead be called necessary energy. And wind power is one of its promising components, despite the fact that it's capable of tearing communities apart, for good and bad reasons. Released in February, Laura Israel's visually impressive feature documentary Windfall analyzes its potential for profit at the expense of the people it is purportedly trying to wean off of fossil fuels with no future. Thanks, of course, to out-of-town investors with ties to Wall Street financial stratagems.

Israel focuses on two upstate New York towns, Meredith and Tug Hill, whose turbine farms, and their startling sounds and strobing effects, cause all kinds of problems for residents invested in renewable energy for one reason or another. But it's ultimately a dispiriting affair, given that wind farming and solar arrays will inevitably claim not just the bucolic pastures of upstate New York but territories across the world as the fossil fuel industry inevitably collapses. If anything, Windfall calculates the human costs of renewable energy, which should be mandatory math for greens worldwide.

9. Dirty Energy

The irony that the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred two days shy of Earth Day in 2010 is so perverse as to seem purposeful. But while we know that none of its major-failure players are innocent -- from Transocean to Halliburton to British Petroleum to the Gulf region power players whose deregulated framework allowed it all to happen -- there are plenty of dirty hands. Director Bryan D. Hopkins' independent documentary Dirty Energy attempts to examine the spill's human aftermath by watching as the region's inhabitants struggle to put their lives and livelihoods back together in the shadow of economic turmoil and health risks the rest of us too easily ignore.

Unlike most of the films on this list, Dirty Energy is a resolutely indie affair that wouldn't have happened were it not for the galvanized activism of Hopkins and the Facebook donations that kept his film alive. The fact that he didn't find the alternative energy happy ending he had originally envisioned illustrates just how far off the deep end we have gone in the name of the status quo. As such, Dirty Energy is a localized dystopia lost in a sea of macro-environmental messaging. Here's hoping its personal message gets heard, and seen.

 

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.