“What Hamlet was for the first time was a character who was questioning his place in the universe,” Founder and CEO of Me2Umedia Paul Lussier declared a few Fridays ago at the symposium that kicked off the 2015 Environmental Film Festival at Yale. “People were starting to believe that God was not the answer to all of their behaviors, all of their moral codes, that there was something other. Hamlet was the eco-story of its time.”
But the era that Hamlet helped usher in is quickly coming to a close. We are now in the anthropocene, a new geological period in which man’s activities are having a substantive and irreversible impact on the planet’s ecosystems.
This year’s Environmental Film Festival at Yale (EFFY), which took place across Yale’s campus from April 3rd through April 11th, presented a range of stories dealing with some of the most pressing environmental concerns of our time: man-made climate change, resource depletion, air pollution, water scarcity, sea-level rise, and urban decay.
None were explicitly vying to be the next Hamlet. But the best entries helped contribute to the steady construction of a new ethical framework that mankind needs if we — and our planet — are to survive and flourish in the years to come.
An Inconvenient Influence
The legacy of An Inconvenient Truth — a systematic, comprehensive, air-tight argument for the reality and threat of man-made climate change — hangs over the world of contemporary environmental filmmaking. Though controversial upon its release in 2006, the film was a critical and box-office success, and in 2007, Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
Almost a decade later, however, cracks are showing. To EFFY’s directors, panelists, filmmakers, and audience, Gore’s documentary has come to represent a noble but flawed approach to environmental filmmaking. In essence, the film seeks to overwhelm the audience with data, hoping that the sheer accumulation of numbers will encourage people to act.
“I was a primary culprit in doing that,” Lussier admitted to his audience. “I could find really interesting ways to communicate the same data over and over and over again. 3D, 4D, dumbed-down, simpler, faster, cheaper, put Kim Kardashian on it, whatever it takes! This method, however, has gotten us essentially nowhere.”
From China to Greenland to Concord, Massachusetts
No surprise, then, that the best films in this year’s EFFY approached environmental concerns with an emphasis on story, characters, and setting. There were 10 features and 14 shorts in all, spanning a vast array of subjects, locations, and filmmaking styles. Three films in particular stood out to me as effective and affecting examples of this new mode of environmental storytelling.
The Chinese Mayor, which played to a full house at the Whitney Humanities Center on Saturday, April 5th, tells the story of Communist Mayor Geng Yanbo of Datong, China. Formerly China’s cultural and political capital, Datong has become one of the most polluted cities in China, and therefore in the world, thanks to pervasive coal mining. The film follows Mayor Geng in his relentless pursuit to rehabilitate the city and return it to its former glory.
Geng is a fascinating character: ruthless, enigmatic, endearing, and intelligent. He is a tireless advocate for culture, but has little understanding of what culture actually is. He is an omnipotent local despot, convinced of his own wide-ranging expertise, who also argues with regular citizens on the street and is continually undermined by low-level corruption. Most of all, he is a man willing to sacrifice short-term popularity, as well as the livelihoods of thousands of other people, for a chance at a praiseworthy legacy for himself and for his city.
ThuleTuvalu, which screened on Monday, April 7th at Yale’s Loria Center, broadened its view from one fascinating character to two imperiled communities, bound together by the tangible side effects of climate change. Thule, Greenland is the northernmost inhabited place in the world, where a few families and their dogs survive primarily on seal hunting. Thousands of miles away, Tuvalu is a remote Pacific island nation, where a small community of fishermen live just barely above sea level. ThuleTuvalu interweaves the stories of these two communities, drastically different in topography, language, history, and culture, but equally remote and dependent upon a consistent, predictable natural environment.
Due to the melting of the polar ice caps, the Thule seal hunters are watching their hunting grounds slowly decay from stable ice to slush and water. At the other end of the globe, the rising sea has inundated Tuvalu’s fragile coastline with brackish, uncompromising seawater. A patient, meditative, gorgeous film, ThuleTuvalu documents two radically different communities experiencing very real difficulties due to climate change.
Divide in Concord, which played on Thursday, April 11th to another full house at the Whitney Humanities Center, offered a look at the political, social, and cultural debates that currently surround any discussion of the environment in the United States. Where The Chinese Mayor tells the story of one city’s precarious fate at the hands of a single complicated potentate, Divide in Concord focuses on the idiosyncratic and equally devoted characters that seek to initiate environmental action at the local level, one petition at a time.
Jean Hill is an elderly widow who, freed from immediate family responsibilities and repulsed by the toxic patches of garbage that swirl aimlessly throughout the Pacific Ocean, has set her mind on banning the sale of all plastic water bottles in her home town of Concord, Massachusetts. The film tells the story of Jean and a small group of allies as they try to gin up enough support for a majority vote in favor of this prohibition.
Divide in Concord remarkably shows how environmental concerns are part of the pervasive national debate about the role of government in society. Jean and her supporters are critical of a larger culture of consumption and waste, and want to find some small way to change a practice that has a serious, detrimental effect on people and ecosystems throughout the world. Her opponents see Jean as foolish and meddling, willing to sacrifice the happiness, freedom, and profits of others for a self-righteous and ultimately impotent cause. Played out in Concord, where historical reenactments of the American Revolution seem to happen on a daily basis, this debate takes on a symbolic significance, as both sides find validation in their town’s rich, revolutionary history.
What makes each of the three films remarkable is their candor. Instead of spewing facts, they embrace the very human stories that lie behind every environmental issue. They are about people — working together, fighting together, flourishing, suffering, surviving, and inextricably connected to their surrounding environment.
It’s too early to tell whether these or any recent environmental film will emerge as the eco-story of our time. But they take us one step closer to the new mode of storytelling needed to deal with the environmental issues ahead.