Oscar night seems like an ideal time to shed some light on good cinema. But while Source staffers love “LaLa Land” and “Moonlight” just as much as the next Academy voter, we’re focusing on recent films about sustainability.
Not just sad polar bears. Promise.
OK, there may be a few of those in the films on this list. There were certainly a lot on the long list we started out with. One of them, “This Changes Everything,” based on the Naomi Klein book of the same name, actually starts with an admission from Klein that vanishing glaciers and desperate polar bears make her want to click away and that she’s always “kind of hated” films about climate change. “Is it really possible to bored by the end of the world?” she asks.
Admirable sass. But that movie ultimately did not make our list – the second film-related list we’ve run in Source since we introduced the section nearly three years ago – because despite its promise of being revolutionary, it felt like a typical climate change movie.
That sounds blasé, but you’ve got to admit, rising temperatures, icebergs calving into the sea and yes, doomed polar bears have become a genre unto themselves. Movies like “An Inconvenient Truth” were groundbreaking (former Vice President Al Gore’s got a sequel coming out this summer, “An Inconvenient Sequel”). Now there’s a proliferation of them, enough so they feel tailor-made to every kind of audience. Need to enlighten a friend about climate change? Is he/she a fan of “Titanic?” Show them Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Before the Flood,” a primer on climate change starring the actor/producer, who furrows his brow while he discusses the world’s problems with scientists and leaders like Barack Obama.
But if you’ve already got a pretty good idea of the overarching saga of our warming earth, it feels both more interesting and more bearable to take a deep dive on incremental pieces of the sustainability puzzle: bees, birds, agriculture, renewable resources and so forth. Which is why our list is weighted by films that tackle single topics around human impact on the planet and its (other) living beings.
Enjoy. Just don’t watch all of these in the same week or you’ll have to take to your bed. (If you haven’t already done so.)
“THE MESSENGER”: This documentary about vanishing species of songbirds would definitely get our best song award. Directed by Su Rynard, who co-wrote it with Sally Blake, “The Messenger” offers closeup looks at birds under attack by everything from light pollution to house cats. (Did you know that 32 species of birds are extinct because of cats? Put a bell on it! Or better yet, keep puss inside). One of the most startling segments of this film addresses massive bird die-off around two skyscrapers in Toronto. They’re smooth, glass-side objects that look completely cool to us, but to birds they are reflected landscapes, and thus, weapons of mass destruction. At the peak of the crisis around these buildings, bird advocates collected 500 birds that flew into these windows and died over the course of just six hours. The addition of window treatments reduced the deaths by 88 percent, but still, the image of a floor lined with varied species of birds, so beautiful and innocent and so dead, is haunting. This film might deserve a nod for Best Villain, an ortolan hunter in France, who traps and eats the tiny buntings. “They mean everything to me,” he says, before announcing that he won’t stop hunting them until there is proof that he’s really impacting their populations. Despite ample proof of that. But we’d give it Best Song; because the camera work of singing birds will knock your socks off. Streams on Netflix.
“HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD”: This history of Greenpeace starts with the environmental activists’ first action in 1971, trying to stop the Amchitka nuclear test blast in the Bering Sea. (It happens anyway, driven by President Richard Nixon, and the creepy footage is included in the film). But five months later, the testing is stopped for good. From the bonding to the personality clashes, this film weaves a compelling story of idealism, risk-taking and the birth of the modern environmentalist movement. It’s filled with previously unseen vintage footage, thanks to the fact that troops of protesters brought along cameras and tape recorders and remembered to turn them on when it counted. One of them, Robert “Bob” Hunter, started the trip as a Vancouver Sun journalist and left it an activist. It was Hunter who came up with the term “media mindbomb” to describe an action that would gain widespread attention, or, as we call it now, “go viral.” Among the characters we meet is Bill Darnell, who unwittingly gave Greenpeace its name, suggesting that the group make “a green peace,” as in a peace symbol. This history lesson is incredibly moving, and at this juncture, just as a new resistance movement is gathering steam, feels unexpectedly timely. Written and directed by Jerry Rothwell. We’d give this Best Documentary at the Sustainability Oscars. Streams on Netflix.
“SEED”: Maine farmer and seed saver Will Bonsall plays a major role in this new documentary, now making the festival and educational circuit, about the massive losses in seed diversity in the last few decades and the people trying to stem further losses. Filmmakers Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel made two earlier films about food, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” (2005) and “The Queen of the Sun: What are the Bees Telling Us?” (2010) before tackling this topic. The last in their trilogy is jam-packed with voices (we’re biased, but Bonsall is a standout) and disturbing information. Did you know, for instance, that the last time there was a comprehensive study of seed diversity in the United States, surveyors found that we’d gone from having 46 varieties of asparagus to one? Or that where we once had 544 varieties of cabbages, suddenly we had 28? This enlightening 2016 film will make you feel much better about that time you bought four kinds of basil from Fedco. “Seed” played Portland last fall, but here’s hoping it makes it onto one of the streaming services or comes out on DVD soon. Even though only bits of it are animated, we’ll still give this our Best Animation award out of appreciation for the way those claymation corn seeds spread across North America. Keep your eye out for this one, while it has only been available for community screenings, it will be released on DVD, iTunes and other digital platforms in March. (A 53-minute version of the film will be broadcast on PBS Independent Lens April 17.)
“MORE THAN HONEY”: “That’s definitely CGI,” my son said as we watched a huge bee swoop along the path of a river. It did look too vivid, too detailed and too close-up and personal to possibly be real. But that kind of footage is what makes this 2013 film about colony collapse disorder (i.e., the group of factors that is killing honeybees, from pesticides to brutal work schedules imposed by humans to parasites) so incredibly compelling. That and the glimpse of scientists at work, trying to figure out why and how bees do what they do. They actually put mini GoPros on these amazing creatures. You’ll never think about honey the same way, and you will want to do everything you can (plant habitat!) to help bees survive all the damage done to them by human beings. This German-made film from director Markus Imhoof gets our Best Cinematography award for sure. Streams on Amazon.
“PETER AND THE FARM”: Because organic farming isn’t all cute hipsters with babies and beards. Sometimes it is a cranky guy pushing 70, like Peter Dunning of Mill Hill Farm in Springfield, Vermont. He’s been farming 35 years in this spot, raising sheep and milking his cow and talking to his border collie. And he has persisted as wives and children and girlfriends have come and gone, and apparently, not looked back on the life or the man they left. “I could, in front of you, call all of my children and not one of them would answer the phone,” Dunning tells director Tony Stone and his small crew. He’s depressed. He’s a self-professed alcoholic. But he loves and needs his farm, and this is a brutally realistic look at what it means to be utterly consumed by and devoted to farm work. To get this close to a subject – who is suicidal at one point – is remarkable. We’d give this 2016 film (streaming on Amazon) Best Director.
“THE TRUE COST”: This 2015 documentary about fast fashion – the slapdash stuff, made by people working in terrible conditions for pennies, that fill American malls – will change the way you dress (and accessorize). Or it should, because the waste is horrifying. Director Andrew Morgan admits to knowing very little about his topic before he dove in to his investigation, and this gives the documentary a real sense of being a primer about how the fashion supply chain works, from explaining just how those H&M clothes can be so cheap and who really pays for them. This is not the “Citizen Kane” of documentaries but it’s fascinating, and I would argue, makes a great case for how the individual can effect change by changing the way he shops for something as simple as clothing. If you have teenagers who want something new every month, make them watch this movie and when it’s over, you’ll have an amazing argument against that next trip to the mall. Oh, and teach them about slow fashion. Best Costume Design for this one. Streams on Netflix.
“THE IVORY GAME”: Last year he picked up an Academy Award for Best Actor in “The Revenant,” but Leonardo DiCaprio has been doing a lot of work behind the scenes as well, within the documentary genre. He’s produced five films since 2014 that tackle environmental issues and man’s impact on the earth and animals. This 2016 film takes a searing look at the plight of the African elephant, which is being slaughtered nearly out of existence by poachers seeking their valuable tusks. The film tells us that an elephant is poached every 15 minutes, so extinction is a real – and looming – possibility. Is the world sustainable without elephants? We suppose so, but the larger issue is how poaching – the profits of which go to feed terrorist cells, according to the film – represents the rapaciousness of man. And how hard that is to stop. The “characters” include a hunky elephant advocate, Andrea Crosta of the Elephant Action League, who drives around Tanzania, either frantically looking for elephants or poachers or both, as well as ruthless villain who goes by the name “Shetani” (the Devil), and an undercover activist looking to help the good guys drive a wedge between the suppliers and the Chinese black markets where most of the tusks end up. It’s melodramatic in places but the lasting impression is not of that melodrama, but rather, these beautiful animals under attack. Streams on Netflix. Best Heightened Drama for this one, then.
“CATCHING THE SUN”: Another DiCaprio-produced special, this 2016 film takes a more solution-directed approach, looking at how the renewable energy of solar power can help counter the damage of climate change – or at least slow it down. The film was shot before Van Jones became a CNN star – he was running green energy programs for the Obama administration. It starts with an oil refinery accident in Richmond, California, and then builds a case for solar power, following a wannabe solar installer as he looks for work and taps into how political climates can hold communities back from making investments in smart energy for the future. A young Chinese entrepreneur boasts about his “friend” Rick Perry, the new president’s pick for Energy Secretary, then governor of Texas, who he hopes will help him build a vast solar city in Texas (Perry did support renewables like wind power, but solar, not so much). What floats up is the power of the individual, which might be of particular interest to Mainers who advocated for a solar energy bill vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage last year. LePage recently revealed that his key advisor on this issue is a refrigerator technician. This lively film gets our pick for Best (Social) Action Movie. Yes, we know that isn’t a real Oscar category.
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: