It may seem counter intuitive to get in touch with nature by watching movies about it. But a movie can lead to powerful changes in attitudes or behavior. Environmental advocates would say such changes are urgently needed to sustain human life long term. This month, two film events with Massachusetts ties focus broadly on the delicate systems of the natural world. One draws together a sampling of environmental films made over the last year or so augmented by in-person discussions and the other sounds the climate change alarm with Boston-area experts on both sides of the camera.
The first case is kind of like a guy walked into a bar, only instead, a scientist walked into a film festival.
Seven years ago, environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel thought Martha’s Vineyard could use a weekend devoted to environmental films. He happened to know French actor and director Jacques Perrin, who had picked up an Academy Award for his 2001 documentary “Winged Migration” and went on to make other nature-minded films for French television.
Ausubel connected Perrin with Richard Paradise of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival and the Vineyard Conservation Society. And a film festival was born.
Paradise says the whole thing began with a low-key celebration focused on Perrin and his nature films. But the 7th annual Martha’s Vineyard Environmental Film Festival (May 27-30) has established itself as one of the region’s only multiday film events focused on issues of conservation, climate change and the natural world. Now, it’s also one of six festivals Paradise programs under the umbrella of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society.
This year’s eight feature films and one short film program — all nonfiction — run the gamut from the intense observation of a sow and her piglets (the ambient, stunningly shot “Gunda”) to a cross-continental road trip with Malian pop star Inna Modja. In “The Great Green Wall,” Modja takes interest in a bold effort to re-green a swath of Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia, meeting up with other musicians along the way. (I relished this film’s incongruously off-the-cuff, activist, and self-consciously stylized approach, plus, its soundtrack.) Together, the festival’s line-up tells stories that can feel local (like David Abel and Andy Laub’s “Entangled” about the collapsing population of North Atlantic right whales with footage shot throughout New England) but are underpinned by the pressing realities of sharing borderless ecosystems. Even when not directly mentioned, the climate crisis ticks in the background like a dogged plea for humans to get their act together.
Yet over time Paradise has noticed an overall shift in tone. “They’re more hopeful,” he says of the films. “They’re more driven by solutions: This is what we can do as a nation, as a community, as individuals.” Indeed “Entangled” captures the starts and stops of various factions of people desperate to not let right whales go “extinct on our watch,” including a lobstering couple who believes fishing and whale protection can coexist. Though tough to remain optimistic for the whales after seeing this vital record of their decline, it’s clearly a necessity for any action on their behalf.
After last year’s entirely virtual festival, this year will be hybrid. All films will play in-person at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center as well as through its streaming platform, available throughout the United States and for the duration of the festival. In-person special guests include David Abel with “Entangled” and panelists from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission Climate Change Task Force. Streaming rentals often include a prerecorded filmmaker or panel conversation.
With the island setting, Paradise says he has always kept an eye out for films that address marine issues. Whether as a result or by coincidence, in the last five years he’s noticed, “a lot more films about oceans and ocean ecology and marine life.” The shorts program, a package called the “One Ocean Film Tour,” focuses entirely on oceangoing (including a story of the recovery of humpback whales in Antarctica). While the well-crafted closing night film, “8 Billion Angels,” depicts several global ecosystems under threat, it captures a particularly poignant moment with an oyster farmer in Maine concerned for his – and everyone else’s — grandchildren. This documentary hangs its case for change on population control, a controversial topic on its best day, and its array of experts sensitively articulate their recommendations.
Experts from Massachusetts play an important role on both sides of the camera in another environmentally minded film series. “Climate Emergency: Feedback Loops” screens virtually through the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History through August 11 with monthly panels planned to shed further light on current research and action steps.
Inspired by George Woodwell’s pioneering articulation of feedback loops and climate stability, Boston-area filmmakers Susan Gray, Bonnie Waltch, and Barry Hershey call upon Woodwell and many of the scientists working at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Woods Hole to explain how the loops work in four crucial areas: forests, albedo (or the sun’s reflectivity), permafrost and atmosphere. Averaging about 15 minutes per topic, the four short films can be watched one by one or together (and incidentally would make a great orientation to climate change for young people).
Together, this smartly constructed series explains — with clear language, graphics and undeniable urgency — how increased CO2 and methane are on the verge of kicking off devastating “ever amplifying loops.” For example, at a certain point in the not so distant future, deforestation will turn trees from a carbon sink, or absorber, into a carbon producer. “We all have to look honestly at what we’re doing,” says “Climate Emergency” director Gray. “From that, you find people who are like minded. That’s what we’re trying to do with these films.” The films are also available through the free Global Resilience Summit taking place online through May 29; Gray and Waltch will participate in a conversation on May 27.
To some extent, the formula for an “environmental” film hasn’t much changed since “An Inconvenient Truth” came out in 2006, which by some measuring sticks was belated (and dull) but also a promising turning point. Yet, the formula goes now as it did then: Sound the alarm. Talk numbers. Translate the data into analogies that hit home. Play up the major chords. End on hope.
It may be a familiar blueprint, but when push comes to shove, most of us would prefer a push.