Category Archives: Eco-doc

SIFF 2016: Death By Design ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

Sue Williams’ eco-doc takes a hard look at what you might call the “iButterfly Effect” that the unceasing demand for new and improved personal high-tech devices is having on our planet. Granted, your average consumer who lines up at midnight for first crack at the latest smart phone has probably never heard of a suicide net, nor are they tossing and turning at night, haunted by visions of impoverished Third World children picking through chemical-leaching e-waste. But it’s never too late to start.

The river must flow: Watermark ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 3, 2014)

Oh, how pretty…depressing: Watermark

You know that schoolyard taunt, “Take a picture…it’ll last longer”? Sadly, that could one day become a truism in regards to our planet’s most essential element: water. This explains why photographer Edward Burtynsky refers to his beautiful yet disturbing bird’s-eye images that are featured in Jennifer Baichwal’s Watermark as a “lament” to this dissipating resource. I hear snickering. Water is a finite resource?! As long as it keeps raining, we’re cool, right? Until you recall that 97.5% of the water on Earth is saltwater (which we continue to pollute like there’s no tomorrow) leaving 2.5% freshwater…out of which 70% remains frozen in the polar icecaps (and they are shrinking). As Jacques Cousteau once wisely advised, “We forget that the life cycle and the water cycle are one.”

This documentary represents the second collaboration between Burtynsky and Baichwal; their first was 2007’s Manufactured Landscapes. In my review of that film, I wrote:

Burtynsky’s eye discerns a sort of terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated “modernization”. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on a kind of almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs begin to play like a scroll through Google Earth images as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock or M.C. Escher.

Ditto the imagery paraded before us in Watermark. Like its predecessor, the film is equal parts visual tone poem and cautionary eco-doc; although the emphasis here is on mankind’s cavalier attitude toward that aforementioned link between the life and water cycles. Some happy exceptions are evidenced, within certain venerated rituals of Earth’s more ancient cultures.

One such event, the mass river-bathing ceremonies conducted by tens of millions of Hindu faithful who congregate at the confluence of India’s holiest rivers during the annual Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, provides the film’s most beautiful sequence. Yet, within a stone’s throw of the same Mother Ganges, we also witness the doings at a water-intensive Bangladesh tannery, where poisons are spewed right back into the water table. This is the maddening dichotomy that gets to the heart of the matter. At this point in time (and as evidenced by Burtynsky’s photographic “laments”) Mother Earth isn’t politely asking, she’s telling: Clean up your room…NOW.

The voluptuous horror of mother earth: Chasing Ice ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  November 17, 2012)

We’re down in the Poles: Chasing Ice

This is not a put down: Jeff Orlowski’s  Chasing Ice is glacially paced. Because  “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. These days, glaciers are moving along (”retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. Unfortunately, this phenomenon does not portend well for the planet; as this ancient ice continues to dissipate at an alarmingly accelerating rate, leaving naught but barren rock in its wake, it is a red flag alert akin to Mother Earth experiencing a health-threatening hardening of the arteries. To put it in a less flowery way…we’re fucked. According to renowned nature photographer (and film subject) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”

Of course, there are those who continue to dismiss the concept of man-made global warming, despite the tangible evidence (and nearly unanimous scientific consensus). Orlowski opens his film with a montage of the usual braying deniers (Hannity, Beck, & co.) including one that surprised me (Weather Channel creator John Coleman…really?) interspersed with news footage of some of the freakish and catastrophic weather events that have become an all too frequent occurrence (gosh, it almost seems like last week…I seem to recall a “Hurricane Sandy” making a bit of a splash). Luckily, their appearances are brief, because the story centers on Balog’s eye-opening “Extreme Ice Survey” project.

His journey began in 2005, while on assignment for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change on the Arctic. Previous to that trip, Balog had counted himself among the skeptics, candidly admitting that he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of affecting the Earth’s weather patterns in such a profound manner. His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project that he pursued with missionary fervor. His goal was to utilize specially modified time-lapse cameras to capture irrefutable proof that affective global warming had transcended academic speculation. After strategically placing the cameras next to sizable glaciers like Solheim in Iceland, Store in Greenland and several more in Alaska and Montana, Balog and his team began their painstaking waiting game.

The resulting images are beautiful and mesmerizing, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film itself mirrors the dichotomy, being equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. Balog’s stills and time-lapsed sequences are fantastical ice-wrought dioramas that look like they were imagined by Roger Dean and rendered by Dale Chihuly. Finding these diamonds in the rough of pending ecological disaster reminded me of Jennifer Baichwal’s 2007 documentary about photojournalist Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes. The film also demonstrates the blood, sweat and tears that goes into professional photography (particularly in some hair-raising moments where Balog and a member of his team make a risky foray into a seemingly bottomless crevasse, just to grab a couple of shots).

While Balog makes a number of impassioned statements about the urgent need to get everyone on the same page regarding this issue, Orlowski stops just shy of taking  a strident polemical stance. This is wise, because he doesn’t need to hit us over the head to make his point about the  profound effects of global warming. This is best illustrated in the film’s money shot, where one of Balog’s teams captures the largest “calving” event ever so documented. The jaw-dropping sequence, depicting an ice peninsula equivalent in size to lower Manhattan (and twice the height of its tallest skyscrapers) sluicing off of Greenland’s massive Hulissat Glacier, handily trumps any amount of squawking that emits from  the bloviating gasbag deniers featured in the opening montage, and proves that the old adage will forever ring true: a picture is worth a thousand words.

Crisis? What crisis? – Carbon Nation ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 12, 2011)

Remember those math story problems in elementary school? Good times. Anyway, here’s a fun one for you: Mankind’s daily energy use is 16 terawatts a day. Currently, an estimated 2 of those terawatts are derived from “green” sources. That means that the remaining 14 terawatts rely on traditional fossil fuels. Now, if the Sun alone (to name but one available form of “free” alternative energy) is bombarding the Earth with a potential tap of 86,000 terawatts a day, WTF IS WRONG WITH MANKIND? Oh-did you remember to carry the global warming deniers? Good! Now, you may put down your No. 2 pencils and pass your papers to the front of the class.

It’s a simple question, really. And it frames the premise of an eco-doc from director Peter Byck, called Carbon Nation. In all fairness, that little dig at the global warming deniers was my embellishment; the film’s tag line actually promises “a climate change solutions movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change”. This is either good news or bad news, depending on what you generally look for in an eco-doc.

If you are looking to have your worst fears confirmed about how screwed the planet might be (An Inconvenient Truth, The 11th Hour) or a “catch ‘em with their pants down” muckraker about the fossil fuels industry, like GasLand-then you may be frustrated by Byck’s non-partisan approach. However, if you already “get” the part about the sky falling, yet are looking for some positive news on the “solutions” front, this film could be an inspiration.

Byck traverses America, profiling people who are striving to make a difference in lightening our carbon footprint. People like Cliff Etherege, a West Texas cotton farmer who talked a number of his neighbors into pooling their relatively small 500-acre farms together into forming an operation called Peak Wind, which is now (collectively) one of the largest wind farms in the world. The formation of the company literally saved the town of Roscoe, which had been slowly dying for a number of years.

There is Alaskan entrepreneur Bernie Karl (who I had the pleasure of meeting through my Fairbanks radio gig many moons ago). Karl is the owner of the Chena Hot Springs Resort, a popular tourist destination about 60 miles north of Fairbanks. He has devised a machine that generates geothermal power from a water temperature of 165 degrees. 95% of the liquid drilled from the ground by most oil wells is water, which averages a temperature of…165 degrees. In an ideal universe, each of those wells would have one of Bernie’s converters on hand-which would create a power output equivalent to 10 nuclear plants. Oil companies currently view the water simply as waste-but we can dream, right?

One of the more admirable folks profiled is Van Jones, the civil rights advocate who has become a green jobs organizer. He was a key advocate for the Green Jobs Act (signed into law back in 2007). Armed with an uplifting catchphrase (“Green jobs, not jails”) Jones is shown spreading his message through economically challenged urban communities like Richmond, California, where disadvantaged youths have found steady employment installing solar panels on neighborhood homes through one of his programs. It’s quite inspirational to see that someone has figured a way to mesh the idea of sustaining a green economy with making a positive social impact.

Byck also touches base with “Green Hawks” who are working with the Department of Defense to make overseas military support operations more energy efficient via wind and solar power. One of them, ex-CIA head R. James Woolsey, delivers the film’s money quote. In consideration of the “blood and treasure” sacrifices that we suffer as a result of our dependence on fossil fuels, he observes, “President (George Herbert Walker) Bush probably would not have felt like he had to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq, if the Persian Gulf had been home to 2/3 of the world’s proven supply of broccoli.”

Woolsey’s comment is the closest that the film comes to being polemical; as I stated at the top of the review, Byck has made a concerted effort to just accentuate the positive. Which is all well and good (who can’t use an uplift and a little inspiration now and then?), but in a way it’s a bit of a shame, particularly with the timing of the film’s release (have any change left after filling your tank recently?).

With all the eco-docs that have dealt with the global warming/fossil fuels dependency issues, I’ve yet to see one that acknowledges and addresses the elephant in the room: Despite the fact that this is one issue that should transcend politics, it has been co-opted as a political football, and we need to get away from that (at least if we ever hope to see more planet-friendly legislation).

During my morning commute the other day I was listening to “Democracy Now” and heard Amy Goodman interviewing Naomi Klein, who is working on a new book about climate change and the climate change deniers. I thought Klein offered some thoughtful observations on why most of the deniers come from the Right:

But something very different is going on on the right, and I think we need to understand what that is. Why is climate change seen as such a threat? I don’t believe it’s an unreasonable fear. I think it is—it’s unreasonable to believe that scientists are making up the science. They’re not. It’s not a hoax. But actually, climate change really is a profound threat to a great many things that right-wing ideologues believe in. So, in fact, if you really wrestle with the implications of the science and what real climate action would mean, here’s just a few examples what it would mean.

Well, it would mean upending the whole free trade agenda, because it would mean that we would have to localize our economies, because we have the most energy-inefficient trade system that you could imagine. And this is the legacy of the free trade era. So, this has been a signature policy of the right, pushing globalization and free trade. That would have to be reversed.

You would have to deal with inequality. You would have to redistribute wealth, because this is a crisis that was created in the North, and the effects are being felt in the South. So, on the most basic, basic, “you broke it, you bought it,” polluter pays, you would have to redistribute wealth, which is also against their ideology.

You would have to regulate corporations. You simply would have to. I mean, any serious climate action has to intervene in the economy. You would have to subsidize renewable energy, which also breaks their worldview.

You would have to have a really strong United Nations, because individual countries can’t do this alone. You absolutely have to have a strong international architecture.

So when you go through this, you see, it challenges everything that they believe in. So they’re choosing to disbelieve it, because it’s easier to deny the science than to say, “OK, I accept that my whole worldview is going to fall apart,” that we have to have massive investments in public infrastructure, that we have to reverse free trade deals, that we have to have huge transfers of wealth from the North to the South. Imagine actually contending with that. It’s a lot easier to deny it.

Klein did go on to say that a lot of the major green groups are in a “kind of denial” as well; in that they don’t want to confront the fact that it this a political and economic issue. Getting back to Byck’s film, many of the people and companies he profiles are, in fact, proving that sustainability can be both an earth-friendly and economically sound proposition. So what’s stopping everybody from getting together on the same page? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Don’t make me turn this into another math story problem…

A (not so) clear-cut case: If a Tree Falls ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 23, 2011)

In the mid-90s, I worked at a Honeybaked Ham store in the Seattle area (don’t ask). Normally, I wouldn’t bring that up, but…funny story. Well, not “ha-ha” funny, but it does tie in with this week’s review.

Because you see, that was when I had my personal brush with “eco-terrorism”. I came to work one day, and espied a couple of Redmond’s finest standing outside the store, talking to the manager. Then I noticed  interesting new artwork adorning the windows, writ large in dried ketchup and barbecue sauce: MEAT IS MURDER! It was signed “E.L.F.”.  Apparently, several other restaurants down the street had also been hit (McDonald’s had had their locks glued shut).

So, as I was scrubbing to remove the graffiti, I wondered “Who is this ‘ELF’ …a disgruntled Keebler employee?” I had never heard of the Earth Liberation Front. I remember the manager saying “How much you want to bet this guy fled the scene in  leather Nikes?” “Yeah,” I snickered, whilst contemplating the dried globs of Heinz 57 on my sponge “these suburban anarchists aren’t exactly the Baader-Meinhof Gang, are they?” (I can’t say that I felt “terrorized”).

Flash forward to 2001. I turned on the local news one night, and saw the UW Center for Urban Horticulture engulfed in flames ($7 million in damage). The arson was attributed to the E.L.F. “Hmm,” I pondered, “maybe they are sort of like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ”

Or are they? According to the FBI, “Eco-terrorism” is defined as:

The use (or threatened use) of violence of a criminal nature against people or property by an environmentally oriented, sub-national group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.

That certainly covers a lot of ground. One could argue that Johnny Appleseed was an Eco-terrorist. Sure, he’s a legendary conservationist and agrarian icon. However, he was against grafting, which resulted in a fruit more suitable for hard cider than for eating. Hence, the “environmentally-oriented”  Appleseed was “responsible” for introducing alcohol to the frontier. And it’s inarguable that much “violence of a criminal nature against people or property” is committed under the influence. OK, that’s a stretch .

Then again, there are a number of “environmentally-oriented” types doing a “a stretch” in the federal pen right now for non-lethal actions that the government considers terrorism, and that others consider heroic. This is not a black and white issue; a point not lost on the directors of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

So what type of circumstance can change a nature lover into a freedom fighter? Anyone can make a statement by holding up a sign or throwing on a “Save the Rainforest” t-shirt, but what motivates someone who decides to take it to the next level-throwing on a Ninja outfit and torching a lumber mill in the middle of the night? And what would they hope to achieve? Wouldn’t that just encourage corporations to cut down even more trees to replace lost inventory?

In order to convey a sense of the humanity behind the mug shots, co-directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman focus primarily on Earth Liberation Front member Daniel McGowan, who at the time of filming was facing a possible life sentence for his direct involvement in several high-profile “actions” (including the arson of an Oregon lumber mill) that resulted in millions of dollars in property damage. Holed up in his sister’s NYC apartment (and sporting a house arrest anklet for the first third of the film), McGowan candidly opens up about his life and what led him to change his own M.O. for making a statement from “environmental activism” to “domestic terrorism”.

The filmmakers parallel the timeline and details of McGowan’s personal journey with a study about the development of the E.L.F., adding present day interviews with  his cohorts and archival footage of some of the group’s early “actions” (which were more in the realm of civil disobedience and passive resistance-like sitting in the path of bulldozers and camping out in old-growth trees marked for cutting). McGowan initially became involved with the environmental movement through “mainstream” activities, like “writing hundreds of letters” of protest and participating in peaceful demonstrations.

McGowan became frustrated with what he perceived to be the ineffectiveness of such actions. He sums it up with a rhetorical question: “When you’re screaming at the top of your lungs, and nobody hears you, what are you supposed to do?”

The tipping point for McGowan came in 1999, when he participated in the WTO protests in Seattle. There, through some of the more radicalized E.L.F. members, he became embedded with the relatively small band of black-clad “anarchists” who were disproportionately responsible for most of the property damage that occurred during the demonstrations (the majority of participants made a point after the fact to disassociate themselves from the anarchists).

From there, it was a relatively small jump to the more extreme acts that would lead to his eventual arrest and prosecution (he agreed to a “non-cooperation” plea deal that saved him from life in prison but still saddled him with 7 years and a “terrorism enhancement”).

The filmmakers give equal screen time to some of the law enforcement officials and prosecutors who made the case against McGowan and his associates. Although no one was ever injured or killed as a result of E.L.F. activity (astounding considering that there were approximately 1,200 “actions” perpetrated by the group during their heyday), there are still victims; and some of them appear on camera as well to offer their perspective.

Were these people “terrorists”? You almost have to get back to defining “what is a terrorist?” Or in this case, who are the real terrorists? One interviewee offers this: “95% of the native American forests have been cut down. Trying to save the remaining 5% is ‘radical’?” That’s a valid question. McGowan himself seems to be arguing (in so many words) that in a post 9-11 world, people have a tendency to make a “rush to judgment” without considering the alternate point of view (he suggests that the word “terrorist” has supplanted “Communist” as the demagogue’s dog whistle of choice).

I wonder if the filmmakers intend McGowan’s story to be a litmus test for the viewer (how far out on the limb would you be willing to go for your personal convictions?) If so, that’s a tough one. Part of me identifies with Daniel McGowan the environmentally-conscious idealist; but I don’t think I can quite get behind Daniel McGowan the criminal arsonist. For now, I’m just content to keep recycling and doing my part to think “glocal”. And in case you’re wondering…I haven’t stepped foot inside a Honeybaked Ham store since I quit working there 14 years ago. Those murderous bastards.

Krill, baby, krill: Disney’s Oceans ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 1, 2010)

 Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

-Rachel Carson, author of The Sea around Us

 We forget that the life cycle and the water cycle are one.

-Jacques Yves Cousteau, author of The Silent World


-Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the Exxon Valdez

 In their magnificent documentary, Oceans, directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud don’t need to hit us over the head with cautionary rhetoric about mankind’s tendency to perennially poison the precious well of life that covers three-quarters of our planet with pollution, over-fishing and unchecked oil exploration. Any viewer, who becomes immersed in this stunningly photographed portrait of the delicately balanced aquatic ecosystem, yet fails to feel connected to the omniverse we cohabit (and a sense of responsibility) surely has something missing in their soul.

More of an aqueous 2001: a Space Odyssey than Discovery Channel nature romp, the film follows a narrative path reminiscent of Perrin and Cluzaud’s previous collaborative effort, Winged Migration. In that 2001 film, the pair (with Michael Debats) introduced audiences to a new paradigm in nature documentaries. The innovative camera work conveyed a bird’s eye view of, well, a bird’s world, that literally made you feel like a member of the flock, disaffected by gravity and those other pesky laws of physics which conspire to keep bipedal creatures earthbound. The narration was sparse, poetic, at time stream of consciousness. Corny as this sounds, I felt truly bonded with the avian “protagonists” by the end of the film. Ditto for Oceans.

Not that one normally “bonds” with a cuttlefish or a mantis shrimp in a conventional sense, mind you. However, if your contemplation of marine biology rarely extends beyond schlepping the occasional Mrs. Paul’s Breaded Fish Filet from the freezer to the microwave, this film will be a guaranteed eye-opener for you.

Granted, some of the scenarios have been covered in other nature documentaries; orcas snatching seals right off the beach, newborn sea turtles making a desperate break for the surf through a gauntlet of predators, and requisite footage of everyone’s favorite Antarctic marine birds-although the penguin antics are mercifully brief.

That said, there are unique, exquisitely rendered sequences in the film as well. A pod of humpback whales, breaching majestically in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. A vast army of spider crabs (seemingly numbering in the tens of thousands) scuttling about the ocean floor en mass. A gargantuan ball of sardines getting decimated simultaneously from above and below by lightning-fast dolphins and dive-bombing sea birds. And in the film’s most sublime moment, an unexpectedly balletic display of maternal tenderness by a walrus, gently coddling her calf through his first undersea swim.

I would love to see the European cut of the film, which apparently runs 14 minutes longer; chiefly because I’m quite curious to see what Disney has excised. According to some reports, the chopped footage centers on our negative impact on the marine ecosystem. There is some extrapolation along those lines (endangered species entangled in tuna nets, satellite photos that clearly reveal ominously dark tentacles of pollution snaking the globe through every major body of water, etc.) but it does seem perfunctory in the U.S. cut.

The narration by Pierce Brosnan, while competent, doesn’t carry the gravitas that this type of meditation cries out for. Those few quibbles aside, I feel that this film is well worth your time. And as that horrendous oil “leak” in the Gulf of Mexico continues unabated, this rumination about what is at stake could not be any timelier.

SIFF 2010: Queen of the Sun ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 29, 2010)

I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me both laugh and cry-but northwest filmmaker Taggart Siegel’s Queen of the Sun is one such film. Appearing at first glance to be a distressing, hand-wringing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its accelerated frequency of occurrences over the past decade, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these seemingly insignificant yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. We bipeds harbor a high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these “lowly” insects are, in fact, the boss of us.

It turns out that there have been voices in the wilderness over the years; although they have been largely ignored. Albert Einstein once said: “If bees die, man will only have four years of life left.”  As early as 1923, Austrian philosopher-scientist-social thinker and bio-dynamic agriculturalist icon Rudolph Steiner warned that within 100 years, without careful cultivation and continued awareness of the delicate symbiotic relationship we share with them, the honeybees would begin to dissipate (silly Rudy).

Siegel documents how, in the 80-odd year interim between Steiner’s dire prediction and what is happening now, we have plowed ahead in our typical clueless fashion, taking and taking and not giving enough back. Siegel rounds up the usual suspects, like mite infestations, pesticides, and the use of domesticated colonies in mechanized industrial pollination (especially in regards to mono-cropping, for which the bees are sometimes fortified with corn syrup, of all things).

The film is not all gloom and doom.  In countries where toxic pesticides are currently banned, Colony Collapse Syndrome has been virtually non-existent (surprise surprise).  And there are  uplifting interludes throughout profiling individuals who offer a philosophical/spiritual perspective on the human-bee connection.

And perhaps most importantly, we meet people proactively working on solutions; biodynamic beekeepers, organic farmers, and some urban beekeepers in the heart of the Bronx who are risking actual imprisonment for maintaining their rooftop hives (obviously, there are some ridiculous laws that are screaming to be stricken from the books). The film is beautifully photographed, well-paced and features a lovely score by Jami Sieber. I’ll tell you one thing- after watching this you’ll never take that jar of honey for granted again.

Tip-toe through the P-path: No Impact Man ***

By Dennis Hartley

“Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold! It’s a difficult environment. I mean, our life is tough enough as it is. I’m not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort.” –Wallace Shawn, from My Dinner with Andre.

I don’t know about you, but I’m with Wally. And Kermit the Frog. Because, dammit, it ain’t easy being green. Oh, I suppose I feel pretty good about myself when I toss the empty cereal box (made from post-consumer fibers and printed in soy ink) into the recycling bin, bring my reusable bag to the farmer’s market, or screw in a low-wattage compact fluorescent bulb, but does that mean I’m doing my part to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint? After watching the new eco-doc, No Impact Man, it would seem that my crimes against Mother Gaia are running a close 2nd only to those of Capt. Hazelwood.

Yeah, it would take another guilty liberal to make a guilty liberal like me feel, uh, guilty; and filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein have succeeded in doing just that in their film, documenting the efforts of blogger/author Colin Beavan to spend an entire year making as little environmental impact as possible. Operating under the supposition that there are more than a few liberal minded, well meaning, self proclaimed “environmentally conscious” wags out there who don’t exactly practice what they preach (and humbly considering himself to be among them) Beavan set out to put his, uh, mulch where his mouth is. Beavan decided that if he was really going to go for it, he would have to convince his dazzling urbanite wife, Business Week writer Michelle Conlin (a classic New York neurotic) and their toddler to join in as well. So how does a family of Manhattanites pull this off without leaving their metropolitan cocoon? This paradox provides plenty of rich narrative compost for the filmmakers, and they cultivate it well.

Beavan’s strategy was to go whole hog; well, not literally, because he and his wife were apparently vegetarians already going in. But any food they were to consume in the course of the experiment would have to come from local growers (although, dwelling in the heart of New York City, they had to fudge the definition of “local” a tad). Much to Michelle’s chagrin, this meant no more Starbucks (the inevitable scenes dealing with her caffeine withdrawal angst, while initially amusing, begin to feel a little stagy). Electricity was right out, so they dutifully shut down the breakers in their apartment. Automated transportation was also nixed, only walking and biking allowed (elevators were also verboten). And lastly, they make what is arguably the ultimate sacrifice: no material consumption (during a thrift store visit, Michelle gazes wistfully at a used Marc Jacobs bag; the look on her face speaks volumes about the twisted pathos of consumer culture). When Beavan announces that toilet paper is off the list, the shit (no pun intended) really hits the fan.

Okay, despite the obvious “Dah-link I love you, but give me Park Avenue!” parallels, it’s not exactly Green Acres; after all, this is a serious-minded documentary, not just going for the quick yuck. In fact, one of the more fascinating aspects of the film is its exploration of the outright hatred that Beavan receives from some quarters. In one scene, he mopes at his laptop, so befuddled and browbeaten by all the negative comments on his blog that he’s ready to just throw in the towel on the whole project (“Ah yes, Grasshopper, we bloggers must all suffer through that phase at some point,” I mused to myself, while thoughtfully stroking my imaginary Fu Manchu mustache). Ironically, some of his detractors accuse him of being the very creature that he set out to prove to himself that he wasn’t-one of the hypocritical “green fakers”. Even one of his consultants, an urban gardening expert who he has befriended, questions his sincerity. He proffers that Beavan’s wife writes for Business Week, “…for which millions of trees are cut down on a regular basis in order to promote the thoroughly fallacious propaganda that American corporate capitalism is good for the people.” He’s only getting warmed up. He concludes: “If it’s your contention that it evens out because she doesn’t take the elevator in your 5th Avenue co-op…I have to say you’re either dishonest, or delusional.”  Ouch!

For me, the most pragmatic takeaway from the film stems from one of Beavan’s more thoughtful observations. Perhaps the point is “…not about using as little as we can possibly use…but to find a way to get what you need, in a sustainable way.” The major question that looms is: why are some people so threatened by the very idea of “thinking green”? Beavan offers that perhaps it is “…the idea of deprivation that scares people the most” – which of course brings us back full circle to Wally’s lament from My Dinner with Andre that I quoted at the top of the post. Short of chucking it all and joining an Amish enclave, I think it’s possible to be eco-conscious and enjoy some comforts of modern technology without feeling guilty about being alive in the 21st Century. For Wally, it’s the idea of losing the use of his electric blanket. For me, it would be my DVD player. And my DVD collection. OK, and my cable service, and my DVR. I will happily sort out all my garbage, buy locally (when feasible) and avoid using my vehicle whenever practical, but you’ll only get my Universal Remote…when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

SIFF 2007: The Planet ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 30, 2007)

This week we’re looking at The Planet, a powerful new Scandinavian documentary. The “planet” in question would be the Earth. The issue would be how we are methodically destroying it. Now, I know what you’re flashing on (and it has something to do with a former VP, PowerPoint presentations and a Melissa Etheridge song, right?).

Yes, directors Johan Soderberg and Michael Stenberg do trod upon much of the same ground that was covered in An Inconvenient Truth, but speaking from a purely cinematic viewpoint, I would have to say they execute their message in a less prosaic, more attention-grabbing manner. (Before I get jumped in an alley, let me say that I would recommend An Inconvenient Truth to strangers on the street, it is an important film, and Al Gore is a sincere and passionate crusader, but there is something about the man’s languid drawl that lulls me into a drowsy state of alpha. But that’s my personal problem.)

“The Planet” appears to take some visual inspiration from Godfrey Reggio’s classic observation on the global environmental zeitgeist, Koyaanisqatsi and mixes it up with sobering commentary from environmentalists, scientists and academics. The visuals are stunning, yet also distressing. Zebras and gazelles graze against the backdrop of a modern urban skyline, whilst a renowned wildlife photographer reminds us in voice-over that all those documentaries depicting boundless expanses of habitat untouched by human encroachment are just so much puerile fantasy. Kind of takes all the joy out of watching Planet Earth on Discovery HD Theater, doesn’t it?

One of the more chilling observations comes from geography professor Jared Diamond, who makes a convincing case citing Easter Island’s man-made and irretrievable ecological devastation as a microcosm of what is now occurring to the planet as a whole.

And it gets even better (er-don’t ask me about what could be happening as early as 2010).

The interviewees are all insightful, and they certainly pull no punches (viewing this film may be traumatic for depressives and those who have empathetic tendencies). In a nutshell? If we don’t change our present course, we’re fucked. And it will not be cinematic.

The scouring of the shire: Manufactured Landscapes ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 28, 2007)

After viewing Canadian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, you may not be able to ever look at a “Made in China” product label again without envisioning the film’s unforgettable opening scene.

In a tracking shot that would make Orson Welles proud, Baichwal’s camera dollies along the factory floor of a surrealistically huge Chinese manufacturing plant, passing endless rows of work benches, manned by thousands of employees. The shot dissolves into a striking, beautifully composed photograph of the entire milieu. The spectacle of myriad factory drones in their bright yellow uniforms, as captured in the photo, resembles a “human beehive” in every sense of the word. This is how we are introduced to the photography of Edward Burtynsky, the subject of Baichwal’s documentary.

Baichwal follows Burtynsky as he travels through China photographing the devastating impact of that country’s industrial revolution upon its environment. Under Mao, China was transformed into a nation 90% agrarian and 10% urban; in a relatively short period of time, the current regime has facilitated a near flip-flop of that ratio. Through Burtynsky’s lens, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a substantial price to pay for such frenetically paced “progress” (especially after a visit to the Three Gorges Dam project, which has required the dismantlement and obliteration of 13 cities, brick by brick).

Burtynsky’s eye discerns a kind of terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated “modernization”. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on a kind of almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs begin to play like a scroll through Google Earth images as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock or M.C. Escher.

Burtynsky states in the film that his work is “apolitical”. Despite her subject’s disclaimer, however, director Baichwal sneaks in a point of view here and there. In one scene, Burtynsky comes up against some reticent company officials, who attempt to convince him that the “light is bad” for photos. When that fails to sway, they ask the filmmakers to turn their equipment off. They pretend to comply, surreptitiously keeping the camera going anyway as the officials then admit that they are afraid that any photos depicting an environmental impact might give anyone who would view them the “wrong impression”.

This is a worthwhile film, with a unique, slightly more artistic bent than the most of the recent spate of environmentally-themed, “sky is falling” docs (I am quite cognizant that the sky, indeed, is falling, but enough with the lecturing already.)