Movies making the environment matter

Nature and environment films are attaining unprecedented popularity among mainstream audiences

Nature films and TV programs like BBC’s Planet Earth have moved from the fringe of film culture to student living rooms everywhere. (Photo by Christine Blais)

Not so long ago, when you thought of nature films, images of boring high school science classes and droning documentaries came to mind.

But with the environment front and centre, nature movies have become unabashedly popular as more people want to learn about our planet and the issues of preserving it.

The biggest surprise came in 2005 when March of the Penguins, a film about penguins in the Antarctic, dominated summer box offices. Then in 2006, Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth put climate change on almost every politician’s agenda.

Since then, there have been many massively successful environment and nature broadcasts, from Who Killed the Electric Car? to BBC’s widely-acclaimed Planet Earth series and Disney’s Earth. Nature films have always held a respected place in the film world, but how did they suddenly enter the mainstream?

Trish Van Huesen, MA ’10, has made several experimental nature films and is completing a master’s degree in environmental studies.

Van Huesen said the widespread popularity of nature films can be attributed to our increased environmental awareness.

“More and more people are becoming aware about what we’ve done to the planet, maybe more because they’ve had to,” Van Huesen said. “With global warming and things like that people are more aware that they need to respond.”

For environmentalists, though, these films and the green movement have a rather ambiguous relationship. Are they popular because people are more interested in the environment, or is it the films’ popularity that generates interest?

“It’s kind of a question of what comes first, you know, the chicken or the egg,” Van Huesen said. “Are people interested first or is nature calling out to us first? I think it all happens at the same time.”

Van Huesen said some activists may be wary of the film industry’s involvement in the environmental movement, but the awareness these movies create is sure to help the cause.

“I’m obviously pretty cynical about the film industry like Disney, but if it’s able to reach a wider audience and in some way insight them to look deeper, I’m all for that,” she said. “Because people are very media-oriented—our generation especially—it’s a means to spread a message.”

There seems to be two broad categories of environment films. One is a positive look at the earth’s beauty. TV series Planet Earth and films like March of the Penguins would fit in here. The other approach is a more critical one and looks at how climate change and human actions have adversely affected our planet. An Inconvenient Truth would apply here.

Van Huesen said it’s important to have both.

“I think there has to be a balance between them,” she said. “I found for myself it can be really discouraging watching all these films, what we’ve done wrong and feeling pretty helpless. … So I think it’s really important to explore the positive side more. And I don’t mean just show the beauty but I mean show ways that we can change things.”

Environmental Studies professor Michael Smith said it’s also important to showcase both the positive and negative aspects of the environment, but filmmakers have a duty to look critically at what’s happening and what needs to change.

“What is left of the planet is beautiful. Nobody wants to see the destruction of beautiful places but a genuinely environmental film has to tackle this head-on not with a few moralizing platitudes about humanity’s greed, but with real analyses of what eceonmic and political issues drive these destructive activities,” he told the Journal via email.

Smith said film is one small part of how we experience the environment. He said people are more likely to be motivated by actual experience.

“Like many environmentalists, my own relations to nature were probably mediated more through actual experiences of the countryside, the presence of pets and by books than film per se. So I don’t think we should exaggerate the role of film but it has been effectively used by environmental movements in many instances,” he said.

Eric Walton, Green Party candidate for Kingston and the Islands, directed a film after graduating from Queen’s in 1983 called Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. The film, which explores industrial development in India’s northern region of Ladakh, was picked up by CBC and showed on their program The Nature of Things.

Walton said films have a powerful role in activism because of their accessibility and their breadth of coverage. With the mainstream success of films like An Inconvenient Truth, people are becoming engaged with environmental issues who otherwise wouldn’t.

“Film is an interesting medium. It has a lot of emotions, visuals, it tells stories and it’s also very easy to digest very quickly a lot of content … I think more people saw An Inconvenient Truth than had ever read anything about climate change,” he said, “I’m a Green Party candidate and my mother never got a grasp on climate change despite the fact that her son is an activist. But then she saw the film and it was like, ‘Okay, I get it.’”

Walton said although educational programs and environmental filmmaking have been around for decades, the recent surge in popularity is due to an increased urgency to the problems of environmental degradation. As a result, these films have strong effects.

“For films to work—for environment films or any awareness-raising films—there has to be something it resonates to. And I think one of the reasons we’re probably seeing a lot of films now that are getting a lot of coverage and actually showing in mainstream theatres … is because people sense that some change is happening that’s beyond the ordinary,” he said.

Walton said the educational programs initiated 25 years ago had had an enormous impact on the way younger generations, the ones who go to the movies, understand environmental issues. He said this was evident when he would tour elementary and high schools in his early days as an activist and can now be seen in the demographic makeup of Green Party supporters.

“We were amazed at how aware they were when they spoke in the schools and how sensitive they were to the issues. These children are older now,” he said. “If you look at the support for the Green Party, the highest support we have, ahead of all the other parties, is with the 18 to 25. And we’re strong in the 25 to 30.”

Walton said it’s uncertain whether films will motivate people enough to radically alter their lifestyles, but they help to deliver information and aid the transition.

He said he’s optimistic people can change, but it can’t come from just watching movies.

“For many, [the films] help them with the adjustment. There are some very big changes happening and people are very good at adjusting, but to adapt you need the information.”

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