Given the gravity with which scientists talk about climate change, it's surprising we're not flooded with more overt movie references. Instead, climate change remains veiled in metaphor, set in histrionic futures, the phrase itself rarely uttered or connected directly to plot. The New York Times even reported on Hollywood’s reluctance to embrace positive fictional stories about human adaptation to climate crisis.
Documentaries have been doing the heavier lifting in terms of investigating climate change. Al Gore’s dull “An Inconvenient Truth” felt dated in 2006, but it has served as an effective cultural touchstone. Not until 2012’s cavalcade of calving glaciers, “Chasing Ice,” did another climate change film get so much buzz.
And now, here we are, the Amazon ablaze and the UN Climate Action Summit slated for the end of September. Because movies have always helped humans process complex circumstances, from the scientific to the psychological or political, I decided to seek out (with help from several local film festival and art house programmers) the climate change films screening locally this fall.
It turns out New England will have a strong showing of films that grapple with the many ways in which our changing climate affects human and animal life. All but one of these 10 titles, listed chronologically by screening date, are thoughtfully-made documentaries. On the whole, they bring levity to inexplicable situations and nuance to the layers of ecological grief. They may help viewers contemplate the machine, but they’re not likely to instigate rage against it. Maybe that’s what’s in store for 2020.
This traditionally-made topical film about the collapse of the honey bee population in the United States has stuck with me since earlier this year. It’s one thing to read about how pesticide use and monoculture farming have threatened bees and something else altogether to see the lengths farmers go to ship bees thousands of miles only to find them diseased and worse. So in addition to deepening my own understanding of pollination this film has reminded me of the potency of visual stories. Whereas so many of the other climate change films use metaphor and essay-style approaches to allow smart viewers to make connections (a style I very much embrace too), this film reports a thread of the crisis mostly how it is. “The Pollinators” may not wow, but it does the job it sets out to do. A step back furthers the case that all types of storytelling techniques are needed as the climate crisis grows increasingly urgent.
'The Hottest August'
Camden International Film Festival; Brattle Theatre as part of The DocYard
Sept. 14; Oct. 7
Now here’s a title that flashes “climate change movie!” in neon lights. And “The Hottest August” opens with ominous stats about birth and death rates, garbage produced, and species gone extinct. But then it appears to shift gears and simply ask random New Yorkers what they think about the future. Guess what? Few mention climate change (save the recent college grad who can’t get a job protecting the environment). However their responses, collected during August 2017, come together with an essayistic ambition reminiscent of Jennifer Baichwal’s “Payback.” (Her “Anthropocene,” also on this list, should be seen as well.) The respondents’ climate change avoidance, reluctance, and all-out denial is crucial to the film’s fabric. While we viewers see everything through an effective doomsday frame, it’s painfully clear that they don’t. At times the film’s frame is maddeningly subtle and at times goes a bit too far. For example, just as I admired how the film was like a pot aptly coming to a slow boil, a pot boiled on screen. Even still, “The Hottest August” captures — like no film I’ve yet seen — the relentless anxiety felt by those who see climate change. It’s undeniable and everywhere. Yet, it’s oddly refreshing to know others out there feel the world this way, too.
An effective, evocative short film about a Rhode Island fishing family, “The Last Trap Family” was one of my favorites from the Newburyport lineup. (Full disclosure: I serve on the jury and see all of the films.) It focuses on Corey Forest’s love for both her job and the seafaring lifestyle that has been handed down to her over generations. With excellent cinematography and taut editing, “The Last Trap Family” documents the labor- and gear-intensive fish trapping process that is on the wane due to corporate consolidation. This film also illustrates a point that has been made repeatedly in regard to land-farming but less often about the sea: locally-owned and independently-operated food providers matter. “The Last Trap Family” makes a fantastic companion to the other high-quality shorts in the block labeled “trouble water series,” which I strongly recommend.
“The Last Man Fishing” offers a convincing overview of the breakdown of global fishing; one of its three vignettes focuses on Newburyport fisherman who has started to deliver his catch directly to Boston area restaurants.
“Recipe for Disaster: Green Crabs in the Great Marsh” takes on an invasive species to the point that one man says, “If we didn’t trap these things… they’d be walking the streets.”
“Thirteen Ways” humbly asks 12 “scientists and non-scientists” to plod a tract of Maine land in all four seasons and react to what they see. The filmmaker (Ian Cheney, “King Corn”), who questions his guests off camera, asks one scientist if she often wanders aimlessly in the woods. Not enough, she says, adding that allowing such space can leave one open to more complex thinking. That belief ultimately drives this film’s patient construction, which may wander too far afield for some viewers. (The collection of somewhat arbitrary human reactions or the collection of extreme examples of human industry begins to emerge as themes in climate change films.) Climate change is alluded to but not hammered as a topic. Instead, there’s a lot of eating and smelling and touching the natural world in unexpected and delightful ways. In one of the more profound moments, an astrophysicist talks about the rarity of life when considered on an intergalactic scale. “The world is larger than science,” he says, confessing that he doesn’t know what to make of that.
'The Seer and the Unseen'
Camden International Film Festival; Brattle Theatre as part of The DocYard
Sept. 15; Sept. 23
Planes to Iceland offer chances to watch Icelandic versions of American reality TV, like an entertaining take on “Project Runway,” and trivia, like how half the island nation believes in elves. Yes, elves. And actually no, not trivial. The belief in elves’ protective kinship with nature goes back to the Viking era, when the first law on Icelandic books involved removing dragons from ship prows to not frighten the elves. Now that Icelandic ambition has gone global — its economy skyrocketed with foreign investments in the early 2000s then crumbled in 2008 — the elves are undoubtedly scared and a bit pissed, too. “The Seer and Unseen” charts this magical history through the experience of one empathic grandmother. Ragnhildur “Ragga” Jónsdóttir has been talking with the elves since her childhood and as an adult decided to come out as a “seer.” “[The elves] asked me if I wanted to talk on their behalf because the humans do not seem to hear them very well,” she says gently, believably. She and other activists go to great lengths to preserve an elf chapel, situated in a lava field, that the government wants to doze for a highway. Like many others in this group of films, “The Seer” doesn’t dance directly on the fires of climate change but related concerns underpin its whole story. Plus it’s one of the few titles that offers the salve of faith. As one of Ragga’s elf friends tells her, “Humans are an impossible species.”
The demise of the northern white rhino, a grand mammal species decimated especially by poaching, makes two appearances on this list. “Kifaru” takes otherwise off-limits cameras into Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. That’s where Sudan, the last living male, lives with his daughter and granddaughter. His caretakers have bonded with Sudan not just because of the incomprehensibility of the situation but also because they live away from their families for 10 months a year. They must find purpose in their sacrifice, they say. What they don’t exactly trumpet (because they are sorrowful and kindhearted), but what permeates the entire film, is an admission of human-caused extinction. In this way, “Kifaru” becomes a necessary, extended elegy. “It will not be just a sad day for the rhinos,” says caretaker JoJo at the prospect of Sudan’s death. “The whole world will feel it.” He also wisely observes that if animals need human caretakers, some mistake has been made.
'Anthropocene: The Human Epoch'
Brattle Theatre (as part of a national screening event)
The Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal rightfully gained a following after her remarkable “Manufactured Landscapes” in 2006 followed by 2013’s “Watermark.” “Anthropocene” completes her trilogy of documentaries about the human impact on the natural world. Here, she and co-directors Edward Burtynsky and Nicholas de Pencier focus on the findings made by a group of scientists who have decided Earth has entered a new epoch, one with no analog, in which humans have permanently altered nature’s course. Told in chapters starting with “Extraction” and ending with “Extinction,” the film pairs lush cinematography with a quiet yet authoritative soundtrack; it is mature documentary production at its best. Chilean lithium fields take on hues from a Sherwin-Williams paint sample card and the world’s largest excavator borrows its design from the wild. Even the tangle of pipes and smokestacks that refine oil possess a strange beauty. Many sites are shot from overhead, which at once fosters contemplation and also a kind of false distance. Try as we might, the film suggests, humanity remains tethered to the world below. The grandeur of wreckage may be part of why we’re slow to change course. The resulting film is pensive, not overly didactic, and diplomatically apolitical.
Commendable as the only fictional film on this list, “Fast Color” opens the second annual Boston Women’s Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (It's also available to stream.) Organizers think the film, with a principally female crew, deserves more play. Hang with this slightly dystopian woman-power movie, since it could’ve been called “Slow Color.” Because if and when you’re ready, a lot happens quickly and the fine acting (especially by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), earns its emotional, celebratory wallop. In a draught-ridden parallel world without TVs but with Lauryn Hill, a family of women has special powers and a lot of conflict as a result. For generations, they’ve turned on themselves or each other. But that’s no way to thrive. If we’re to apply “Fast Color’s” wisdom to potential apocalyptic climate change scenarios, it’s that we don’t have to imagine what a healthy, functioning ecosystem looks like. We already know. Likewise, this film asserts that mothers, especially, have boundless power within. When it comes to protecting their young, watch out.