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The Advance of Electric Light Has Sent Nighttime into Retreat, With Astonishing Effects On Humans and Wildlife
“A documentary about light pollution that is entertaining and thought-provoking? It hardly seems possible, but that’s what Ian Cheney has made in The City Dark. . . . This film makes you want to go find a starry sky to camp under quickly, before it’s all gone.” — Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times
The town in rural Maine where Ian Cheney spent much of his childhood has about 4,000 residents. Waldoboro had electric lights, but on a cloudless and moonless night, it was impossible not to be struck by the incredible array of stars visible above. Cheney became deeply curious about the stars, as humans have been for millennia. He followed his passion into amateur astronomy, fashioning his own homemade telescope, and then into astrophotography to capture the wondrous scenes that revealed themselves at night.
But when Cheney moved to New York City, his familiar world of light and dark was upended. In this metropolis, light was everywhere —but starlight was much harder to find. New York’s brilliance was undeniably alluring, yet for Cheney the glare of streetlights also suggested a deep loss. The City Dark follows Cheney’s journey to discover the surprising and alarming costs of light pollution and the disappearance of the night sky.
The City Dark has its national broadcast premiere on Thursday, July 5, 2012 at 10 p.m. during the 25th anniversary season of the award-winning PBS series POV (Point of View). POV continues on Thursdays at 10 p.m. through Oct. 18 and concludes the season with fall and winter specials. (Check local listings.) American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a Special News & Documentary Emmy Award for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking and two International Documentary Association IDA Awards for Continuing Series.
The world’s first light bulb was switched on in 1879, and since then artificial illumination has spread across an increasingly urban globe, radically changing humanity’s relation to the night. Yet light pollution is a phenomenon little noted except by those, like astronomers, whose endeavors have been directly hindered by the changes. Meditating on his dwindling connection to the stars, Cheney wonders about the global consequences of artificial lighting, and in The City Dark he sets out to discover what ecologists, cancer researchers, astrophysicists, philosophers and designers have to say about it. Cheney weaves these interviews with time-lapse images of the night sky, culled from tens of thousands of high-resolution still images shot around the world.
The filmmaker discovers an informative and intriguing cast of characters. Irve Robbins, a Brooklyn-born astronomer running the last remaining observatory in Staten Island, N.Y., is a surprising reminder that stars could once be studied in New York City. Now only the brightest objects shine through the light-polluted sky. Robbins says, “I’ve seen the Milky Way twice–when there were blackouts.” At a vast Hackensack, N.J., warehouse filled with myriad light bulbs, owner Larry Birnbaum shows off antique bulbs, including an original Edison that still works, and explains that successive generations of bulbs have exponentially increased in brightness. Today’s bulbs produce thousands more lumens than earlier ones–often many more lumens than we need.
The effect has not been lost on Manhattan Boy Scout Troop 718, whose leader jokes that wayfinding in a dark forest now means following the pinkish glow in the night sky. These Scouts must embark on a trip far from the city to see the Milky Way for the first time. Another native New Yorker, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, describes falling in love with the stars during his first visit to the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan–noting the irony of being smitten with an artificial night sky while the real sky above his own Bronx neighborhood revealed just a handful of stars.
Cheney leaves New York City seeking darker skies and finds his way to Sky Village, a dark-sky haven for astronomers in rural Arizona. While the village’s denizens come from all walks of life, what draws them together is their need to be close to a dark night sky. Cheney visits a mountaintop in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, considered the best site for professional astronomy in the world. Astronomers rely on Pan-STARRS, the world’s newest, largest telescope-camera to detect Earth-killing asteroids, but even here, urban growth in the valley below creates a luminous haze that impedes their work. “It’s as though you’re looking through fog,” says John Tonry of the University of Hawaii.
But astronomers are far from the only ones affected by the worldwide retreat of the night. Biologists along the Florida coast have determined that thousands of hatching sea turtles die every year because they fail to make it to the ocean after they confuse the light-polluted horizon of the land with the starlit horizon of the sea and head the wrong way. Similarly, millions of birds, evolved to navigate by the stars, crash into brightly-lit city buildings each year during migration season. This raises the question: Do humans also need the dark?
Suzanne Goldklang for years worked a night shift selling jewelry on television. Now a breast cancer patient, she is surprised to learn about epidemiologist Richard Stevens’ suggestion of a link between persistent exposure to light at night and increased breast cancer risk. Indeed, Stevens’ research shows that female night-shift workers are almost twice as likely as day-shift workers to develop breast cancer. The disruption of humanity’s millennial cycle of light and dark may have profound physiological consequences; the World Health Organization has even deemed shift work a probable carcinogen.
Artificial light has undoubtedly revolutionized life in numerous positive ways–beating back humanity’s fears of the dark, extending the active day and facilitating productivity and social interaction. Historian Roger Ekirch notes that every civilization has expressed a fear of the dark. Criminologist and former policeman Jon Shane says, “History is replete with examples of poorly lit areas that are transformed by light,” and goes on a nighttime visit to a Newark, N.J., park once riddled with crime. Neighbors attest that the installation of more lighting has made the park markedly safer. But the extent to which increased lighting reduces crime remains controversial; and though Cheney acknowledges that humans are drawn to the light, he also asks if there’s such a thing as too much light.
Notes astrophysicist Tyson, “When you look at the night sky, you realize how small we are within the cosmos. It’s kind of a resetting of your ego. To deny yourself of that state of mind, either willingly or unwittingly, is to not live to the full extent of what it is to be human.”
“Spending a lot of my childhood in rural Maine, I fell in love with the night sky and wanted to try and capture it as best I could,” says director Cheney. “I used a Pentax camera borrowed from my dad, a high school photography teacher, and used an unforgivable amount of his Kodak Gold film. But when I moved to brightly lit cities, my connection to stars faded and I began to feel I was losing something important. I asked myself, ‘Why do we need the stars?'”
Cheney continues, “The City Dark took three years to make. I began by speaking with astronomers, which pushed me toward two other lines of inquiry: the intangible idea of our spiritual and emotional connection to the stars and the science of the night, including the effect on humans and wildlife. The film carries these themes forward by weaving together more poetic, meditative footage of the night sky with handheld footage of people exploring these issues by day. My hope is that the film will inspire people to look up more; to reconsider the way their houses, streets and cities are lit; and to realize that tiny changes in the way we light our world can make a big difference.”
The City Dark is a production of Wicked Delicate Films.
About the Filmmaker:
Ian Cheney (Director, Producer, Co-cinematographer, Co-editor)
Ian Cheney is a Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker. He grew up in New England and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Yale University. He co-created and starred in the Peabody Award-winning theatrical and PBS documentary King Corn (2007); directed the feature documentary The Greening of Southie (Sundance Channel, 2008); co-produced the Planet Green documentary Big River (2009); and directed the whimsical 2011 documentary Truck Farm, starring the farm Cheney planted in the back of his ’86 Dodge pickup. He has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Men’s Journal, as well as on CNN, MSNBC and ABC’s Good Morning America.
Cheney is a co-founder of FoodCorps, a national service program launched in 2011 that places young people in communities of need to plant and tend school gardens, teach nutrition education and source healthful foods for school cafeterias. In 2011, Cheney and longtime collaborator Curt Ellis received the Heinz Award for their innovative approach to environmental advocacy.
An avid astrophotographer, Cheney travels frequently to show his films, lead discussions and give talks about sustainability, agriculture and the human relationship to the natural world. He is currently working on two projects: The Search for General Tso, a documentary about the cultural history of Chinese food in America, and BLUESPACE, a feature documentary about the degradation and renewal of urban waterways and the search for water in outer space.
Director/Producer: Ian Cheney
Co-producers: Tamara Rosenberg, Colin Cheney, Julia Marchesi
Cinematographers: Ian Cheney, Taylor Gentry
Editors: Ian Cheney, Frederick Shanahan
Original Music: The Fishermen Three, Ben Fries
Running Time: 56:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer: Cynthia López
Vice President, Programming and Production: Chris White
Series Producer: Yance Ford
Coordinating Producer: Andrew Catauro
Awards and Festivals:
- Jury Award, Best Score/Music, SXSW Film Festival, 2011
- Grand Jury Prize, Best Feature, Environmental Film Festival at Yale, 2011
- Best Professional Documentary Award, Real to Reel Film Festival, 2011
- Best Documentary Award, Hardacre Film Festival, 2011
- Audience Award, Kandy International Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Abu Dhabi International Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Independent Film Festival Boston, 2011
- Official Selection, Indianapolis International Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, Maui Film Festival, 2011
- Official Selection, MountainFilm in Telluride, 2011
- Official Selection, Environmental Film Fest in the Nation’s Capital, 2012
- Official Selection, Green Film Festival in Seoul, 2012
For a complete list of awards and screenings, go to www.thecitydark.com,
Produced by American Documentary, Inc. and celebrating its 25th season on PBS in 2012, the award-winning POV series is the longest-running showcase on American television to feature the work of today’s best independent documentary filmmakers. Airing June through September with primetime specials during the year, POV has brought more than 325 acclaimed documentaries to millions nationwide and has a Webby Award-winning online series, POV’s Borders. Since 1988, POV has pioneered the art of presentation and outreach using independent nonfiction media to build new communities in conversation about today’s most pressing social issues. For more information, visit www.pbs.org/pov.
Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the desJardins/Blachman Fund and public television viewers. Funding for POV’s Diverse Voices Project is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Special support provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. POV is presented by a consortium of public television stations, including KQED San Francisco, WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG.
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American Documentary, Inc. (www.amdoc.org)
American Documentary, Inc. (AmDoc) is a multimedia company dedicated to creating, identifying and presenting contemporary stories that express opinions and perspectives rarely featured in mainstream media outlets. AmDoc is a catalyst for public culture, developing collaborative strategic engagement activities around socially relevant content on television, online and in community settings. These activities are designed to trigger action, from dialogue and feedback to educational opportunities and community participation.
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