Green Documentary: Environmental Documentary in the 21st Century

Green Documentary: Environmental Documentary in the 21st Century

by Helen Hughes


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During the first decade of the twenty-first century, a stunning array of documentary films focusing on environmental issues, representing the world on the brink of ecological catastrophe, has been met with critical and popular acclaim. This cohesive and accessible volume is the first book-length study of environmental documentary filmmaking, offering a coherent analysis of controversial and high-profile documentary films such as Gasland, An Inconvenient Truth, Manufactured Landscapes, and The Cove. With analysis that includes the wider context of environmental documentary filmmaking, such as Modern Life and Sleep Furiously, about local rural communities in Britain and Europe, Green Documentary also contributes to the ongoing debate on representing the crisis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783201839
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 07/15/2014
Pages: 182
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Helen Hughes is a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of Surrey.

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Green Documentary

Environmental Documentary in the Twenty-First Century

By Helen Hughes

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78320-183-9


Introduction: Contemplation, Irony, Argument


Towards the beginning of the film Into Eternity: A Film for the Future (2010), the director Michael Madsen, standing in pitch darkness, strikes a match and, with half of his face lit and his name and signature reproduced on screen, he speaks the words: 'I am now in this place where you should never come'. He continues to deliver a kind of concrete poem, with his clearly enunciated words also reproduced onscreen in subtitles. The poem is about 'Onkalo', the place where he is standing. He explains that 'Onkalo' is a Finnish word translated as 'hiding place', and it refers to the place just entered, a massive tunnel leading down out of woodland and deep into bedrock. As Madsen speaks, the match he is holding burns down so that with the last question the light source goes out and his face disappears: 'If you, some time far into the future, find this, what will it tell you about us?' (Into Eternity: A Film for the Future, 2010)

With this line it becomes clear that he is not speaking to this audience here in London in 2012 but to our descendants some 100,000 years hence. As an audience we are asked to undertake alongside Madsen and the team working on Onkalo an extended thought experiment about the connections between ourselves and the people of the far-distant future. In this thought experiment strange things happen to the reference potential of communicative gestures. In this final sentence the referent of 'you' is unknown. We don't know what our descendants will be like after 100,000 years of evolution. But the place seen in the film, the 'this' that they will find, will, it is hoped, be the same, having lain, as predicted, undisturbed by earthquakes or other natural events. From the modality of the words it can be understood that the film itself cannot be conceptualized as a vessel to communicate with that future, but for the present it is a way to think and emote and experiment with the idea of communicating a message about the environment and about ourselves across time.

Into Eternity, subtitled A Film for the Future was released at the end of a remarkable decade for documentaries about environmental change. As a film it is typical of the ever more imaginative and thoughtful use of the theatrical documentary to explore and convey the impact of human civilization on the planet. Framed by this thought experiment, the film goes on to give space to contemplate the images and sounds of nuclear power production and the carefully considered arguments about how to store nuclear waste in such a way that it will not cause harm. The film is about the reality of the issues as they are framed in the present, and it uses documentary footage and interviews with experts to advance its points, but it does not shy away from the emotive use of these elements nor from the techniques of fiction film-making to encourage the imagination to engage with the problems.

The aim of this book is to give sustained critical attention to such award-winning and critically acclaimed cinema documentaries on environmental themes made in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The argument will be made that these documentaries represent significant developments in social and activist documentary film-making. Through their explorations into the creation of an environmental focus such films do not only raise public interest in important themes of the decade, they also extend the formal possibilities for factual film-making.

The chapters in this book all focus on environmental documentary films made for the cinema that have been produced in the first decade of the twenty-first century or earlier films that have provided significant models for the techniques used in contemporary documentaries. The films focussed on have all been given cinema releases and have gained audiences through festival awards, public television broadcasts, DVD and online release. During this decade different documentary strategies pursued in Europe and North America – the ethnographic film, the art film, the historical archive film and the campaigning film – emerge as models for documentarists with environmental subjects. At the same time documentary has achieved the visual and formal qualities that have made it possible for environmental films to be enjoyed for their cinematic achievement as well as their informative, sometimes controversial, content. This process of popularization is complex and often closely linked to the rise of subjective activist film-making and the public sphere politics of anti-capitalist globalization campaigns.

While the idea of the emergence of an environmental documentary subgenre is compelling, at the same time it is clear that there are many different ways to approach the question of how to categorize it. A combination of a pragmatic approach to genre combined with the documentary 'modes' of participation and reflection is appealing, but it is clear from the many different lists of environmental documentaries in film catalogues online that to do the field justice there must be subgenres within this subgenre and no clear-cut distinction between the different techniques used by film-makers exploring subjects without an environmental purpose or theme.

The approach that has been developed in this study has been to seek out a less formal and more subjective way to characterize the environmental documentary in keeping with its emergence as a response to the issues raised by the problem of the impact of humans on the planet. While the environmental documentary can be understood as instrumental – as a means to disseminate knowledge and encourage debate – what is clear is that the theatrical documentary has not defined itself in terms of a role as information film but in terms of a variety of contexts more or less defined by the film projects themselves.

The central aspect of the environmental documentary is the subject of the environment, however conceived. In this study the environmental documentary is understood not as a means to disseminate knowledge but as a response in itself to the ideas, beliefs and emotions that emerge in the process of audio-visual research into the environment. This process, like many other social documentary themes, involves the film-maker understanding herself as not only engaged but involved.

In making a film about the environment, understood as a political subject, the film-maker is involved in a special way. Film is a medium that is imbricated in the modernity that it critiques, and thus film-makers can do no other than acknowledge involvement in the theme of environmental change on both a professional and personal level. Thus the film-maker must attempt to limit as well as justify the role of film-making in environmental degradation through what films offer to the global dissemination of environmental consciousness.

However, the perception of the eco-doc as a response to the dilemma of engagement in modernity leads to a different kind of categorization. Here documentaries that engage with environmental themes can be differentiated according to the tone of response they represent. In the discussion about genre and mode the environmental documentary is defined through aesthetic categories and strategies of engagement with the subject. However, such films may be more profitably defined as a communicative response in dialogue with the many debates taking place in the fields of environmental communication, environmental education and environmental psychology. In this case the film may be understood as an ambivalent or contemplative response, as ironic or as argumentative in response to the consciousness of the complexity of the issues. In making such a shift the eco-doc is here conceptualized in a slightly different way.

To place documentary in the context of communication rather than aesthetics is to take sides on the question of agency or intentionality in film and possibly to claim intentionality as a fundamental for environmental documentary. The kind of intentionality involved in ambivalent, ironic or argumentative communication is complex. This book is about the communication through documentary film of what the researchers in environmental psychology Kollmuss and Agyeman (Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2002) have called 'environmental consciousness'. The film Into Eternity does not only inform its viewers about some of the facts regarding the storage of nuclear waste. The role of film as a vehicle for communication between people separated in space and time is used to draw attention to the wider significance of the questions about long-term storage and the need to communicate with generations far into the distant future. This can be seen as an extension of what Willoquet-Maricondi has described as 'ecocinema' (Willoquet-Maricondi, 2010), as it allows the materiality of film-making to be acknowledged as part of the environmental impact of human behaviour.

Documentary revival and the environmental theme in film studies

Part of the context for the development of environmental documentaries has been general growth in interest in the creative possibilities of the documentary form. In the middle of the decade at the Grierson Awards in 2005 Nick Fraser, Storyville series editor at BBC Four, spoke about the extraordinary revival of documentary. In an interview on the series homepage online he put this down to 'a reaction against the platitudes and stereotypes of television', 'the steadily lowering cost of equipment' and the fact that young people want to make and watch documentaries: 'It has become a very convenient form of self-expression and a contemporary cultural form' (BBC Storyville, 2004). Although Thomas Austin has pointed out that the increase in audiences for documentary was probably not as high as it appeared, the perception in the middle of the decade was that documentary had emerged as an exciting popular form after a period of decline (Austin, 2007).

In parallel with the documentary surge, the perception that film as a medium was increasingly being used to convey environmental ideas also became steadily more prominent in film studies research. In the preface to his book Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema, David Ingram writes, 'In September 1990, the Hollywood Reporter announced the arrival of a new movie genre: "film vert". When Audubon magazine confirmed "the greening of Tinseltown" in March 1992, the "green" movie, it seemed, had become an identifiable cycle within Hollywood film production' (Ingram, 2000, p. vi). Ingram's book deals with Hollywood feature films from the 1950s to the end of the twentieth century that raise environmental issues and turn them into stories or the background for melodrama or disaster movies. Ingram argues that 'Hollywood environmentalist movies are ideological agglomerations that draw on and perpetuate a range of contradictory discourses concerning the relationship between human beings and the environment' (Ingram, 2000, p. viii).

Three books appeared focussing specifically on 'green' feature films in popular, largely Hollywood, cinema: Ingram's book mentioned above and Pat Brereton's Hollywood Utopia: Ecology in American Cinema (Brereton, 2005) that drew out the ways in which a variety of films, not necessarily only the explicitly 'green' ones, insert ecological thinking into their narratives, particularly into their resolutions. Sean Cubitt's EcoMedia (Cubitt, 2005) differed from these two studies in putting forward a theory about developments in contemporary media forms at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries that reflect the reciprocal communicative relationship between human society and the environment.

Avant-garde and experimental films from the 1950s up to the late 1990s that can be interpreted in terms of their connectedness with an ecological history of American painting and literature were the subject of a book-length study by Scott MacDonald: The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place (MacDonald, 2001). The role of large-format landscape photography and the documentary films of the New Deal era by Pare Lorenz and Robert Flaherty are discussed in Finnis Dunaway's Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform (Dunaway, 2005) that takes its story up to the late 1960s and then continues in an epilogue up to the late 1990s.

Confirming the many insights in these studies, environmental themes have continued to be developed in film studies in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann's Ecology and Popular Film (Murray and Heumann, 2009) presents a series of case studies from Oil Wells of Baku: Close View shot in 1897 to 28 Weeks Later (Fresnadillo, 2007) further exploring the ways in which ecology has been reflected in the popular sphere in a range of different genres. Furthermore Sheldon Lu and Jiayan Mi's edited volume Chinese Ecocinema: In the Age of Environmental Challenge (Lu and Mi, 2009) with its 'ecocinematic' analysis of environmental issues in China, including Hong Kong and Tibet, providing an analysis of China's political and economic history as the context for its analyses of a wide variety of examples has ensured that the focus in the English-language literature on the subject has an increasingly global reach followed up by Pietari Käpää and Tommy Gustafsson's Transnational Ecocinema: Film Culture in an Era of Ecological Transformation (Käpää and Gustafsson, 2013). Paula Willoquet-Maricondi's edited collection Framing the World: Explorations in Ecocriticism and Film (Willoquet-Maricondi, 2010) has also offered a variety of approaches to both fictional and documentary films adapting the discourse of literary ecocriticism to critique the efficacy of cinema as a means to 'retrain perception' in the development of a new ecocentric consciousness.

At the very end of the decade John Blewitt's Media, Ecology and Conservation: Using the Media to Protect the World's Wildlife and Ecosystems (Blewitt, 2010) demonstrated the ways in which television, film and the Internet have responded to the need to expose industrial practices that threaten the future of species and the habitats they depend on. His book represents an important development in the literature on wildlife film that since Derek Bousé's book on the subject has consistently pointed to the ways in which the wild is distorted by the filming and editing techniques of wildlife narratives (Bousé, 2000). The effects of this severe discrepancy between the experience of the wild and its representation have become a significant field of research, circling around the issues of documentary representation, truth and reality.

These studies in ecocriticism and in media analysis draw film studies into the interdisciplinary fields of environmental communication and environmental justice studies. The journals Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture and the Journal of Environmental Education Research, for example, have both devoted special issues to film and media research and regularly publish articles on audio-visual issues. The concern in this interdisciplinary space is to find ways to bring together the many insights of separate disciplines in their own integration of environmental concerns. Salma Monani's introduction to the cross-fertilization of the term 'ecosee' (Dobrin and Morey, 2009) and environmental justice debates is an exemplary case in point as she writes: 'Communication theory is rich with more empirical approaches that can consider questions of audience reception, participant interactivity, and discourse analysis, all of which can focus on questions of spatial justice and just sustainability in cinema and new media' (Monani, 2011, p. 144). The collection Ecocinema: Theory and Practice coedited by Monani, Stephen Rust and Sean Cubitt is set to become a standard text in the field (Rust et al., 2013).

The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen in particular the appearance of increasing numbers of environmental documentary films intended for theatrical distribution, these have managed to gain attention beyond special interest groups. Many have been made in North America and Europe but by no means only there. The aim of this book then is to study the nature of these environmental documentaries as they have developed in North American and European examples and to consider their contribution to environmental communication and to documentary film more generally.

Although they cover a variety of themes, explicitly activist documentaries, like environmental feature films, have tended to display a shared structure, a consistent set of characters and a recognizable iconography. Like the fiction films that by 1990 were seen as a new genre cycle in Hollywood, they are peopled by good and bad scientists, passionate but rational campaigners, committed journalists, farmers and agricultural workers, enlightened consumers, politicians of all kinds, die-hard and reformed entrepreneurs and good and evil corporate managers. The iconography includes big and ingenious machinery, gigantic starkly colour-coded factories, global transport connectivity, impressive images of mass production and consumption, spectacular waste and landfill sites, crowds of people, cities, landscapes, both beautiful and scarred and animals, domestic and wild.


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Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Introduction: Contemplation, Irony, Argument

Chapter 2: The Institutional Context

Chapter 3: The Contemplative Response

Chapter 4: The Ironic Response

Chapter 5: The Argumentative Response

Chapter 6: The Material Response

Works Cited

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