Today, movies continue to create magic like few other forms of media can. People with stories to share have now also discovered the power of the giant video-sharing website, YouTube, garnering millions of hits with simple yet powerful animation. In this issue, Gobar Times takes a look at some films, old and new, that created a buzz on the environmental circuit.
The issues the recent films highlight are many and varied, but climate change is indisputably the ‘hottest’ topic on reel. Coming up as a close second is another theme that has been triggered by the barrage of advertising that tells us to Buy Now and Think Later. A very talented and obviously inspired group of filmmakers have come up with interesting takes on the changing face of global consumerism.
Are ‘ecologically conscious’ buyers helping the environment more than others? How do present lifestyle choices actually diminish choices for what’s to come? A lot of these questions are asked by moviemakers in the US, perhaps because these problems have begun to hurt this society more intensely than any other.
So our selection does feature more than one North American film. But we have also kept in mind the fact that they are available to our readers for easy viewing (and reviewing!). We have attempted to showcase some memorable and eminently watchable films from other parts of the world, as well.
Story of the World’s Largest Movement
Beginning with the environmental movement in the US, it records the early conservation efforts of naturalist John Muir and his Sierra Club to halt dam-building in the Grand Canyon. It then focuses on the residents of New York State’s Love Canal neighbourhood (built on 20,000 tonnes of toxic waste) going on to chart the rise of Greenpeace and Save the Whales. The film skillfully show how in the 1980s, in the US, the burning issue of Civil Rights became inseparable from rights to healthy living standards for many African- Americans.
In Act 4, the film goes global, documenting the Brazilian Chico Mendes’ unification of forest communities in the Amazon, before moving across continents to present the Chipko Movement in India. But in the last part, it makes it clear that the most pressing issue unifying the entire planet today is climate change, discussing the summits at Rio, Kyoto and Copenhagen. The film’s core message is encapsulated in the words of Robert Bullard (referred to as father of the 80s’ environmental justice movement) quoted in the film, ‘There’s no Hispanic air. There’s no African- American air. There’s air! And if you breathe air – and most of the people I know do breathe air…then I would consider you an environmentalist.
Time for some answers, Mr Kitchell
The film does impress visually, combining first-person interviews, archival material and news footage to weave the past effectively, while defining future challenges. But it falters as it profiles models of sustainable living that are redefining development in many countries. The tone gets shaky and lacks confidence, and the viewer is left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Though to be fair to Kitchell, there was a lot on his plate to begin and end with anyway.
While the film has “the informality of an Occupy encampment, the militancy of anti-whaler Paul Watson and a genuine sense of history to hold your interest”, as pointed out by John Anderson in Variety Magazine, the narration is somewhat undermined by a low-key soundtrack.
But if you are a history buff who also happens to wonder if someone had ever asked the ‘green questions’ that are troubling you, watching A Fierce Green Fire is certainly an engaging way to find out.
Many of Ghoramara’s inhabitants were forced to migrate to other islands, or increasingly, to the mainland, while families sought marriages for their daughters with boys living elsewhere. Even the biggest of the Sunderbans islands, Sagar, which hosted refugees from other islands in the cluster, is now witnessing massive erosion, losing up to 100 bighas every year.
As sea levels rise, the inhabitants of Sagar – including the local politician who discusses building protective barrages, the 90-year old historian and the young housewife interviewed in the film – stand to lose their homes and livelihoods in the delta. The film makes a grim prediction: the nine sea-facing islands of Sunderbans, habitat for over 70,000 people, are likely to go down under within next 15 years.
Building embankments or reinforcing mud walls with bamboo barriers will not save their homes. But Mean Sea Level laments (striking the right chord with haunting baul music) the fact that middle class India and the political elite are turning a blind eye to the catastrophe.
We Didn’t Start The Fire: But we got scorched anyway
With its incisive narrative, Mean Sea Level combines glimpses into history with stark images of the present crisis skillfully. Although the mangroves steadily depleted since the British settlement of the Sundarbans 150 years ago, it is the challenge to livelihoods today that stirs us deeply, with chilling shots of empty fishing boats hauled up against grey mudflats.
The irony, as this film keeps reminding its viewers, is that the fishermen hardly ever had any ‘’carbon footprints”. It brings together individual accounts, narrated at a gentle pace but with a compelling tone, that shakes us out of our complacency.
A Kenyan Safari: But where are the wildebeests?
In A Gift from The Elders, we are introduced to Maasai Mara with breathtaking visuals of an ever-changing landscape: emerald plains transforming into golden seas of oat grass, that ‘are host to the most spectacular show on earth.’ When the slow-moving elephants and giraffes suddenly look across the savannahs and prides of lazing lions perk up their manes, you see herds of visiting wildebeests.
A few hundred are spotted in early June, soon swelling to several thousand, swarming the dusty banks of the Sand River and trampling their way across to Lookout Hill, down to the Mara River. But gradually we learn how, in the latter decades of the 20th century, this incredible migration had waned, with rampant poaching and poor infrastructure plaguing the reserve. The migratory route of the wildebeests also had to contend with illegal grazing along the fringes of the park.
The most worrying factor for conservationists was the Maasai people’s own compulsions to aid and abet the illegal trophy trade, and destruction of prime wildlife habitat. The elder Maasais, raised to protect the forest and inhabitants as their own kin, found opposition among newer generations, eager to hunt lions and elephants, lured by lucre.
The Gift of the Maasai
When the elder Maasais decided to allow a new management company to run the Mara Triangle, to promote wild animals over cattle, the lives of the Maasais changed. In 2001, Mara Conservancy, in collaboration with TransMara County Council, initiated a widespread campaign to combat poaching together with the local communities bordering the reserve, and also promoted eco-tourism and installation of renewable energy and water-harvesting systems in the reserve.
The film presents both the accounts of local stakeholders and those of the core team of Mara Conservancy, such as Dr Asuka Takita, to showcase a touching conservation success story. In fact, it makes you want to book the next safari to the Mara Triangle, with the majestic wildebeests. But note that if you’re expecting an orchestrated ‘animal show’, its not going to happen in Maasai Mara. Visitors to the park are monitored as stringently as animal populations, so this film gives you sneak peeks of the park’s inhabitants which you would not otherwise get.
Incidentally, the film production company, the African Environmental Film Foundation, was founded by the award-winning cinematographer of Out Of Africa and has a distribution network that reaches millions of children and adults in East Africa. These include ‘thousands of people who walk miles to see all-night shows in rural areas.’ Want to know more? Log on to http://africanenvironmentalfilms.squarespace.com
Carbon Nation asks the doomsday prophecisers of climate change to take a hike – through the American countryside mostly – where ‘green, baby, green, is the new red, white and blue.’ Interviewing small enterprise owners like Texan cotton-farmer-turned-wind-farmer, Cliff Etheredge, the film highlights the use of clean energy technologies including wind, geothermal, bioenergy, solar, combined heat and power, new generation electric vehicles and even algae. In fact, it contends that we already have the technology to combat most of climate change’s worst-case scenarios, and can run a good business with these!
Who let the Secret Out?
Over 200 people are interviewed, including Richard Branson (CEO, Virgin Group), Thomas L Friedman (New York Times columnist), James Woolsey (former CIA director), Denis Hay (founder of Earth Day) and a host of entrepreneurs, visionaries, scientists and climate change pioneers.
While it has its share of scary statistics, the film also presents low-carbon alternatives to save 1 billion gallons of fuel for the world per year. The viewer is spared preachy predictions and are shown instead why the US national security would stay intact by reducing its dependence on foreign oil.
Director Peter Byck was even heard remarking, “There are a lot of people who cannot stand listening to Al Gore.” So instead Byck has one interviewer saying, “Do it because you’re a greedy b&^$%#”, not your run-ofthe mill-tree-hugger.
Just a greenwash? Not really
If you are wondering why you should watch a film that would only interest North Americans, Byck suggests that many US citizens themselves are sharply divided on the urgency of issues related to climate change. But the film’s attempt to convince all sections of society with pragmatic solutions is hearteningly unconventional. Peppy graphics and animation, and a decidedly upbeat narration by Bill Kurtis, make for a fun, fast-paced watch.
But it has its pitfalls. In fact, the pace itself has many environmentalists unconvinced about the points that Byck makes, skimming over and not developing them concretely. The narrator, Bill Kurtis, himself asks, “If all these solutions are such great ideas, why haven’t they happened yet?”
Some critics even peg the film as a compilation of exciting news stories – including the world's largest wind farm, a refrigerator recycling plant and a green initiative project for low-income neighborhoods. But all in all, Carbon Nation does come off as more hopeful than many a gloomy documentary on an indisputably pressing subject.
Here we are stepping back a bit. This film was made (with a princely budget of Rs 1,50,000) long, long before environment became a buzzword. Yet rarely, since 1955, when it was released, have such enduring, heart-stopping images of rural Bengal been created on screen. The protagonist, the ten-year old, wide-eyed Apu, through whom we explore every nook and corner of the village, finds all kinds of treasures in the abundant, green groves, that belong as much to him as the rich, uppity neighbours.
Indeed, when Apu’s sister, Durga, thinks she has casually discovered a diamond, she even manages to convince her mother, Sarbajaya, who is as naïve as her young daughter about these ‘grown-up’ luxuries. Durga is even accused of stealing a bead necklace from the neighbours, but the beating she gets only steels her resolve to live up the simple joys of life – running through fields of kaash, splashing about in shimmering pools and savouring the taste of fruits and berries that mitigate immediate hunger, though the delicacies served at the neighbours’ house suggest a different order of comfort. This ‘other life’ also peeks through
henever the train goes whistling by, and when Durga’s father travels on it to search for better prospects in the city. He does find a job, as well as a prospective match for his daughter, but returns home to learn she has succumbed to a chill from getting wet in the rain. The family leaves the ancestral village, and as it does so, nature instantly takes her course and a snake enters the empty hut. Thus ends the first part of what is known as The Apu Trilogy, but Pather Panchali is our undisputed pick for ‘all-time best screen greens’. Want to know why?
‘Song of the Road’ that went places
With a memorable soundtrack by the sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shanker, the film has stayed with generations of moviegoers and moviemakers as a classic ‘human document’ of growing up in rural Bengal. As Pauline Kael, a New York Times film critic, remarked: “Beautiful, sometimes funny, and full of love, it brought a new vision of India to the screen.” The worldrenowned Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa thought it captured the rhythms of rural life in a way that overwhelmed him every time he watched it.
However, it did not go down too well in all quarters, especially the government, which felt it romanticised poverty. But in the 67 years that have passed since its release, people from various corners of the globe have come to hail Ray as a masterdirector of social realism rather than mainstream ‘masala’. Much later, US director Elia Kazan called Ray the “filmic voice of India – speaking for all classes of the country.”
He also nominated Ray, as did George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, and James Ivory, of Merchant-Ivory Productions, for the Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1991. Indeed for many, Ray created a world that was not handicapped by economic or political inequalities, only hinting at these very gently. Like the pather panchali—the song of the road.