We count on indie filmmakers to sniff out the conspicuous absences in mainstream media. Journalist and investigative reporter Amy Goodman once said, “The role of independent media is to go to where the silence is.” To environmentalists and scientists, the silence around climate change is deafening. And as environmental themes and issues are always on everyone’s mind when Earth Day rolls around, we compiled a list of very worthwhile independent films that tell stories about sustainability and climate change. [updated April 2020]
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power [and An Inconvenient Truth]
Even before An Inconvenient Truth garnered two Academy Awards, including Best Documentary, the sequel was already in the offing. The intervening decade has brought a furious acceleration of climate discoveries, natural disasters, changes in the global economy and in the US political climate. How could the directors give us anything but a completely different film? Describing the sequel as “primarily a verité film,” director Bonni Cohen says, “Hopefully what comes across is his tenacity and his pursuit to combat the [climate] crisis 24 hours a day.” And his humor. Gore still uses his old chestnuts like “it’s a nature hike through the Book of Revelations,” but with his blend of optimism and dry wit, the new film feels like it has more levity than the first. Wide release in the summer.
One side note (per Hollywood Reporter): Although one scene shows Gore’s visit to Trump Tower for that well-publicized meeting, the movie gives nothing away about Gore’s views on the president, suggestive to some of Gore’s own political aspirations.
Critics have a few beefs with this short nature VR film (also narrated by Al Gore), suggesting that while VR might be a fine medium for sweeping landscape or nudging at our empathy neurons, it is just too much for a short film trying to do both at once. But this is a brand new medium we’re talking about, and it’s come a long way. The film looks impressive. Directed by Danfung Dennis, whose To Hell and Back aired on Independent Lens and was nominated for an Oscar, Melting Ice was an official selection at Sundance. (The VR short, produced by Condition One, is viewable on Google Daydream or Oculus headsets.) Learn more in this Utah Public Radio piece.
One of the most urgent films on the list. The sleeper of the Spring film festivals, as well as winner of an Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary category at Sundance, in Chasing Coral director Jeff Orlowski, a team of divers, and scientists team to take us on an ocean exploration to get to the bottom of massive reef die-off. This is not disaster porn. It’s a love letter to the endless frontier of the deep. (There’s also a VR companion to Chasing Coral as well.)
Out of the Blue
Another short VR film depicting a family of fishermen in Mexico who sacrifice their livelihood to save open ocean sea life from extinction, narrated by Dr. Sylvia Earle, “The Deepness” herself. Best known as the first marine science to use scuba equipment (known as the “Jim Suit”), Dr. Earle is the former Chief Scientist of The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “I wish that everybody could go live underwater, if only for a day,” she once said. This VR experience is the closest some of us might get to living underwater, if only for 9 minutes. [Read more about Earle and the feature documentary about her, Mission Blue, here.]
Water & Power: A California Heist
Showing how water barons find ways to work the system to their own advantage in California’s convoluted water system and a groundwater crisis, this National Geographic film exposes centers of power in conflict with small farmers and citizens as they suffer through drought years while others profit from the scarcity.
Plastic China (2017)
Through the eyes of those who handle its waste, this delicate but moving film is a deep dive into global consumption and culture. We follow the story of a young girl by the name of Yi-Jie, working in a recycling facility and dreaming of attending school.
To the Ends of the Earth (2016)
We find ourselves in the soothing company of Ms./Dame Emma Thompson as she guides us through a journey that chronicles the rise of extreme energy, detailing the economic costs of more intensive energy production, and the people and wildlife caught in the crossfire.
Forget Shorter Showers (2015)
Based on an Orion Magazine essay with the same title, this short film by Jordan Brown and Derrick Jensen upends the idea that lifestyle changes like shorter showers and energy efficient bulbs can help mitigate climate change. Instead, it suggests that what the planet really needs is a larger seismic shift brought about by changes in economic policy.
You can watch the short in its entirety here:
[NEW] Our Planet: Now available on Netflix, this beautifully shot film is narrated by earth nature doc stalwart David Attenborough but focuses more on how climate change impacts all life. Plenty of gorgeous nature photography showcasing the wonder of our planet to bring you some comfort despite the depressing subtext.
The Future of Energy: Lateral Power to the People (2016)
The film asks how we can achieve a clean-energy society in a dubious era. Mustering the mettle of all social movements, eco-philosopher Joanna Masey fires back on that question with the age-old rejoinder “Just keep going. There is so much happening on the grassroots level.” This documentary aims to inspire the widescale adoption of renewable power. Note: It is also, alas, currently hard to track down but worth it if you can find it.
The Age of Consequences (2016)
On a darker note, these word of caution might come as a surprise from former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and George Schultz. Both have done work to call attention to the link between national security and climate change. These insiders make the compelling case that consequences of climate change, such as waves of refugees, failed states, terrorism, will increase by an order of magnitude unless we can reverse its effect.
Evolution of Organic (2016) and A Fierce Green Fire
Premiering at the Opening Night of San Francisco’s Green Film Festival is Mark Kitchell’s new film. Best known for his documentary Berkeley in the Sixties, Kitchell’s film Fierce Green Fire, which aired on PBS’s American Masters, gave an all-encompassing overview of the environmental movement, and the concluding chapter focused on climate change in a dire yet hopeful fashion. Kitchell’s film, which premiered at the SF Green Film Festival, tells the history of Californian organic farming.
The Islands and the Whales (2016)
A film about descendants of Norse settlers living on the Faroe Islands who have eked out a living for the over a thousand years. Mercury contamination now threatens their livelihood. This beautifully shot and moving documentary explores how pollution affects the far reaches of the planet.
The Memory of Fish (2016)
This film won Director’s Award for Cinematography at the Woods Hole Film Festival. Fisherman Dick Goin spent decades working to bring salmon back to his home turf on the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula after dams destroyed their habitat. This quiet documentary, narrated by actress Lili Taylor, is a commentary on the synergy between the natural world and people who embrace their total reliance on it.
The True Cost
The next generation of fashion designers voice their concerns about the tremendous waste in the rag industry in this breakthrough documentary directed by Andrew Morgan, a filmmaker focused on social change stories. Hear Morgan discuss the role of indie media in an interview on the Heritage Radio Network.
Rancher Farmer Fisherman: This documentary narrated by Tom Brokaw is based on the book by Miriam Horn, and weaves together the stories of four unlikely conservation heroes working in America’s heartland. “At a moment when it seems that collaboration is not just nonexistent but impossible, these working families cross political and other divides to arrive at real solutions for protecting the land and sea that define our country – and are crucial to all of our survival.”