In Honor of Earth Day: 10 of the Most Influential Environmentalism Documentaries

In Honor of Earth Day: 10 of the Most Influential Environmentalism Documentaries

Apr 19, 2012

[Editor's Note: Originally published on April 19, 2012]

Today is Earth Day, which is kind of like Valentine’s Day, but instead of being made to feel like you’re not romantic enough the rest of the year, you’re made to feel like you’re not being green enough. You’re probably doing alright, though, so don’t let this time be about your guilt. Let it be about celebrating the strides environmentalists have made over the past century so that you and the planet might have it better today.

Many names to think of are activists like Chico Mendes, writers like Rachel Carson and politicians like Gaylord Nelson. It’s worth recognizing, too, that modern environmentalism and cinema are roughly the same age, and so movies have been a big part of the picture since almost the beginning. Television did substitute a lot in some areas for a while, and now we’re back to an incredible new age of environmentalist documentary.

To honor the significance of the nonfiction film medium in this regard, I’ve selected ten titles I’ve found to be very influential, either on other documentaries or on the viewers who became aware or active as a result of seeing these works. For some, the influence fits both boxes. For all, the evidence of positive change for the earth is real and inspiring.  

1. Herbert K. Job’s wildlife films for the National Audubon Society (1915-1917)

Cinematographer and naturalist Herbert K. Job neither pioneered the genre of nature films, nor is he very well recognized for his efforts to the medium. It’s doubtful anyone from Walt Disney to David Attenborough would have cited him as a forefather. His wild birdlife shorts for the National Audubon Society probably wouldn’t even be preserved today if it wasn’t for some of them featuring Theodore Roosevelt. But fortunately we can see some of these near-100-year-old films of the former president touring the National Wildlife Refuges he established while in office a decade earlier.

These films, some of which can be watched online under the re-release catalog title of "Roosevelt, Friend of the Birds," are markers of the importance and achievements of conservation while also presenting early nature studies of birds, albeit rather simple ones compared to Oscar-winning and nominated successors like Water Birds (1952) and Winged Migration (2001), as well as Attenborough’s Life of Birds. And speaking of Attenborough, he may be the best but he clearly wasn’t the first to show us how nature films connect to environmentalist issues.

2. Nanook of the North (1922)

Robert Flaherty’s monumental feature documentary -- the first motion picture to be called a documentary, in fact -- is so significant that it deserves to be on any list of influential nonfiction anything. Never mind that it wasn’t intended to be for any environmentalist purpose. Conservation activists might even reject the idea that a film funded by a fur company could be of some good to their or any other cause. The reason Flaherty made Nanook of the North was to capture a disappearing culture, that of the traditional Inuit fisherman, and so he had his title character reenact already-gone practices for posterity.

Approaching its 90th anniversary (this June), we understand that Flaherty also captured a disappearing environment, as the Arctic terrain seen in Nanook is nearly unrecognizable today thanks to climate change. I was reminded of this film when I saw Sebastian Copeland’s Into the Cold (2010), in which he trekked up to the North Pole to film landscapes that will soon be totally altered by melting glaciers. Jeff Orlowski’s new festival hit Chasing Ice (2012) is another kind of documentation of such rapid transformation, both for record and advocacy. And because of it's retrospective concentration on vanished activities, Nanook also somewhat anticipated the from-the-future style issue docs like The War Game (1967) and The Age of Stupid (2009).

3. Pollution in Paradise (1962)

Airing exclusively on Portland’s NBC affiliate just two months after the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, this landmark documentary is exemplary of where environmentalism as an issue was at the time, relegated to local causes and regional news outlets. Pollution in Paradise presented a look at sewage and industrial waste in the Willamette River in Oregon and addressed the state’s terrible air quality.

The film was produced and hosted by Tom McCall, a former radio and TV news personality who would go on to become governor, and it made a huge impact on viewers and legislation resulting in cleanup projects for the waterway. As governor, McCall also started the nation’s first bottle return program. That’s not addressed in the film, but if we can believe the documentary helped get him elected, there’s another reason to acknowledge it.

4. Bulldozed America (1965)

Eventually environmentalist issues went national thanks to CBS, which has an excellent legacy for TV documentary (see Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly's 1960 episode Harvest of Shame for the premier precursor to today’s agriculture issue docs like Food Inc.). Bulldozed America is an episode of CBS Reports that highlights a variety of concerns, including strip mining, river damming and deforestation.

Produced by Robert Richter and reported on by Charles Kuralt, this special is considered the first major American address of environmentalism, and it has been followed by such broadly encompassing works as PBS’ ten-part series The Race to Save the Planet (1990) and Mark Kitchell’s new feature A Fierce Green Fire (2012; see #10).  

5. Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982)

Celebrating its 30th anniversary next week, Godfrey Reggio’s classic documentary is a remarkable spectacle of time-lapse photography, slow-motion, montage editing and other hypnotically stirring visuals set to a rousing Philip Glass score. It’s also very much a subliminal -- yet not too subtle -- environmentalist film. Void of narrative and narration, the images in Koyaanisqatsi do all the work in convincing us of the “life out of balance” subtitle (really just a translation of the main title’s Hopi phrase).

Pitting images of the natural world against the modern, industrialized and often deteriorating world has its obvious connotations in the contrast, but it’s not really against the urban and technological developments, which are presented just as poetically as anything else, so much as it implies an increasing disconnect between humans and the environment. Reggio has made two “sequels” to Koyaanisqatsi, though neither is so eco-focused, and has inspired many similar films, such as Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011), both directed by Koyaanisqatsi cinematographer Ron Fricke, as well as thematic successors like Surviving Progress (2011).

6. The Decade of Destruction: “In the Ashes of the Forest” (1984)

When the Amazon rainforest became a widely known environmentalist issue in the early 1990s, it was particularly due to the campaign of assassinated rubber tapper-turned-activist Chico Mendes. But we might not have known about Mendes were it not for Adrian Cowell, who’d been making documentaries in the region since the 1950s. His coverage of the Amazon deforestation began in 1980 and resulted in five documentary episodes making up a series called The Decade of Destruction, which was produced for UK television and later shown on PBS in the States.

The first to air was "In the Ashes of the Forest," which introduced the world to the cause by shedding light on the destructive colonization of inner Brazil, which had led to large scale burning of rainforest and extermination of natives. The series also exposed World Bank involvement, followed mining interests and spread the story of Mendes’ work and death. Surprisingly, Cowell, who died last fall, is not a name many people are familiar with. It is thanks to him, though, that the destruction of the rainforest is still to this day one of the major global environmentalist causes that we are familiar with.

7. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Regardless of your take on the issue of global warming or climate change, there’s no denying that Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning documentary of Al Gore’s campaign and presentation was a huge spark in the raising of awareness and discussion. It wasn’t the first and certainly has not been the last documentary on the topic, though much of what has come out since, from both sides of the debate, is either responsive to or conscious of this high-grossing phenomenon of political pop culture. Most noteworthy is the opposition it has influenced, from Ondi Timoner’s toned down approach with the Bjorn Lomberg adaptation Cool It (2010) to the directly debunking focus of this year’s An Inconsistent Truth (2012).

8. The Cove (2009)

Another Oscar winner, Louie Psihoyos’ documentary about dolphin slaughter in Japan brought about the greatest amount of attention to an oceanic wildlife cause since Greenpeace started going after whaling ships in the 1970s. While the issue itself is certainly worthy of widespread notice, the film was mostly a success because, unlike most docs of its kind, The Cove is also a thrilling piece of cinema, described by many as a sort of hybrid spy and heist film set amidst the real world of marine conservation activism.

In the years since the doc’s release, the “world is watching” angle has worked in decreasing the killings in Japan’s Taiji cove and has helped campaigns in other parts of the world, as well. Hopefully it also has an impact on the future of environmentalist documentaries, many of which could be more engaging, maybe even entertaining. 

9. GasLand (2010)

Continuing the achievements of environmentalist documentary in the eyes of the Academy Awards, this nominee is another film that probably should be recognized more for its storytelling and filmmaking craft than its authority on the issue. Directed with a slightly naive combination of curious inquiry and greenhorn investigation skill, Josh Fox nevertheless delivered the expose on hydraulic fracturing. And GasLand is such a monster issue film, good or bad, that it’s similar to An Inconvenient Truth in terms of raising mainstream awareness and provoking back and forth discussion. 

The doc got the immediate attention of the natural gas lobby, which quickly began a debunking campaign and has now led to response films like the upcoming FrackNation (2012) in which the pro-fracking side claims to be the new underdog in a flip-flopped David vs. Goliath scenario. It’s hard to accept GasLand is a real Goliath, but Fox definitely threw a giant into the ring with his film, and he’s still fighting for the cause with a sequel, simply titled GasLand 2, which is expected to be released later this year.


10. A Fierce Green Fire (2012)

The very film that inspired this list, A Fierce Green Fire premiered at Sundance in January, and I have been thinking about it ever since. Oscar nominee Mark Kitchell (Berkeley in the Sixties) has compiled a history of the environmentalism movement from the 1960s through to the present, tackling and chronicling such chapters as conservation, pollution and climate change. Very few people have seen it so far, and I just recently learned that it’s technically still a work in progress, but I trust that the finished film will be a good influence on viewers who will be reminded and convinced that action has been successful in the past and is on the right track moving forward.

There’s still a lot more to do to ensure Earth has a healthy future, and there are a lot of cynics, skeptics and doubters out there who either think it’s too late or believe there’s no real problem. A Fierce Green Fire is one of the necessary new films that keep us hopeful amidst a sea of doom-and-gloom docs, and it will be joined this year by the exceptionally optimistic water crisis doc Last Call at the Oasis (2012). I trust this will be the way to go with the next generation of environmentalist films, too. You can see A Fierce Green Fire in its unfinished state at fundraising and festival screenings through the next couple months. Check its website for locations and dates. 

Thank you to Kitchell for graciously consulting with me on this list, even if I didn’t feature all of his suggestions. Here are some more titles you might be interested in checking out, as recommended to me by him: Chemical Valley (1991), Ecological Design: Inventing the Future (1994), Cadillac Desert (1997), People’s Century: “Endangered Planet” (1999), Monumental: David Brower’s Fight for Wild America (2004), Children of the Amazon (2008), Six Degrees Could Change the World (2008), The Age of Stupid (2009), The Big Fix (2011), Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson (2011), The Island President (2011), Just Do It (2011), Chasing Ice (2012), Symphony of the Soil (2012) and anything from distributor Bullfrog Films.

Categories: Documentary, Features
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