Film and Environmental Activism: Catching up with Everything’s Cool’s Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold

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Environmental issues are a hot topic this election year. David Nanasi caught up with POV alum Judith Helfand (A Healthy Baby Girl, POV 1997 and True Lives 2005, and The Uprising of ’34, POV 1995) and Daniel B. Gold to hear more about what they’ve been doing to support their latest film, Everything’s Cool.

Both Everything’s Cool and your previous film, Blue Vinyl, have centered on environmental themes. What drew you to the subject?
Judith Helfand Judith: Sometimes stories and themes choose us. Personally, my focus on the environment as a filmmaker is the result of an unnatural turn of events — when I was 25, I was diagnosed with cancer from in utero exposure to the anti-miscarriage drug and synthetic hormone diethylstilbestrol (DES), which my mom took when she was pregnant with me in 1963. Within minutes of my diagnosis, the “environment” became personal. It was not out there in “nature,” but in here — in our bodies, in our homes and apartments, inextricably linked to our relationships with our mothers and fathers, in our ability or inability to reproduce, parent and protect our young.

That experience led me to make A Healthy Baby Girl, an autobiographical film that reframed the toxics issue into a story about family, and how one generation unwittingly poisoned the next.

That film naturally led to its sequel Blue Vinyl, which I was truly fortunate to co-direct and co-produce with Daniel Gold. Dan also shot the film and received a Sundance Excellence in Cinematography award. I think the cinematic and political challenges we faced with Blue Vinyl — and the great feeling that comes from making a movie that has the narrative capacity to both entertain and be in service of a movement — inspired us to tackle global warming, which Dr. Heidi Cullen, the Weather Channel climatologist who is featured in Everything’s Cool calls the “mother of all environmental problems.”

The challenge is at the heart of the global warming messaging problem, and is in fact at the heart of the story we tell — it is what animates our characters: how do you collapse the future (the real-life threat of an ever-warming world and our short-sighted addiction to oil) into the present and make the message urgent enough to take action before it’s too late?

Everything's Cool
Still from Everything’s Cool by Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold

 

Has the release and popularity of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth had any effect on Everything’s Cool (E.C.)? For example, by creating a wider audience of people interested in the environment, or maybe overshadowing the impact of E.C.?
Dan Gold
Daniel: I’m sure that An Inconvenient Truth has had a major effect on our film, primarily on the politics of distribution. Although the people who saw E.C. in the theaters in New York and Los Angeles this past November seemed to love the film, we couldn’t get the support to widely distribute it in theaters nationwide, and I suspect it’s in large part because the powers that be felt that people had already spent their money on the “global warming movie.” Having said that, they are two very different films with entirely different objectives. An Inconvenient Truth set out to prove that global warming is real, while E.C.’s goal is to show why the message of global warming has been so difficult to get out to the American public.

If someone saw An Inconvenient Truth and walked out wondering, “My God — how is it possible that humanity is in this corner? Why wasn’t this frequently on the front pages of The New York Times, Newsweek, and Time magazine as well as a regular lead story on CNN for the past ten years? How is it possible that we as a nation are finding out at such a late date that we have so little time left to turn this massive problem around?” — we think they would truly appreciate Everything’s Cool. And of course, if they haven’t seen An Inconvenient Truth, we hope they’ll still appreciate our film just as much!

Can you talk about how you are using the film?
Judith: Well, let’s see…
In coordination with Working Films, we planned and coordinated a number of strategic activities for the film’s 2007 premiere at Sundance, including the launch of everythingscool.org.

We leveraged our Sundance 2007 premiere in many ways — small and large.
Over the course of the week at our 6+ screenings, we distributed 3,600 energy-efficient light bulbs to audience members, who then plugged them into their Park City hotel rooms: we saved 1,260 tons of carbon, and offset 420,000 miles of travel for our audiences with Clif Bar Cool Tags through NativeEnergy. We also collaborated with the League of Conservation Voters to hand-deliver postcards to Senator Harry Reid and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who has made “green workforce development” a priority in her environmental agenda. Perhaps the biggest thing we did, literally, was that we kicked off our partnership with Step It Up, a nationally organized campaign calling for Congress to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Working Films and Step It Up orchestrated an aerial message to Congress in Park City that was featured in The New York Times and became the image that launched two national days of action that really pushed the message out — into the streets, in communities, cities and suburbs all across the nation. To see how we did this, see our videos, How to Leverage a Film, Part 1 and Part 2.

Overall, our goal is to entertain as we educate and offer the choir, the believers, the questioning consumers, the concerned parents and even, hopefully, the unconverted, a way to participate and act.

To do this effectively, we have produced a series of strategic “activist extras” created to be supportive of the inevitable and necessary green jobs revolution. Check out our videos, Green Jobs and Biofuels High.

And the film just had its television premiere on the Sundance Channel’s The Green smack in the midst of the presidential primaries.
At this point, all roads lead to the election. And in collaboration with our campaign partners, we are committed to using the film to engage the public, who will engage the presidential candidates to make global warming, green jobs for all and the energy transformation not only a real priority — but a reality.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Daniel and Judith: Yes… Out of the blue, or perhaps we should say out of the “green”: this article appeared in The New York Times on January 20. It looks at the United States of global warming denial and deceit, as well as the potential power of a small group of people in Westport, Connecticut who had gathered to screen Everything’s Cool and to talk about what’s next. It reminded us how powerful — and even radical — a living room, a monitor and a group of people can be.

David Nanasi
David Nanasi
David has worked on POV's website since its infancy, helping to develop and nurture it, as well as producing special features. David also oversees and administers POV's internal network, maintaining hardware and software for the POV staff. Prior to joining POV, David, served on the staff of CyberEd, an 18-wheeler Internet classroom that toured nationwide. Since 1997, David has worked independently as a computer consultant, including systems, networks, databases, and web design and construction. David's favorite documentaries are: 1. Eyes on the Prize - Henry Hampton (Executive Producer) 2. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 3. The Thin Blue Line - Errol Morris 4. Roger & Me - Michael Moore 5. The Camden 28 - Anthony Giacchino
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