Sundance Film Festival, starring...the environment

Redford's indie film fest saw a huge spike in submissions for environmental documentaries. Those screening this year cover topics ranging from dirt to overfishing to no-net-impact lifestyles.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
6 min read
SFF 2009 festival graphic

Nevermind the Hollywood glitterati. Many of the films debuting at this year's Sundance Film Festival feature a more understated star known as Mother Earth, and she plays roles ranging from dramatic to mysterious to horrific.

With one film all about dirt, another about global overfishing, and another still about a family's attempt to live with no net impact on the earth, the environment is getting top billing this year at Robert Redford's indie film festival, which kicks off Thursday night in Park City, Utah, and runs through January 25.

Five out of the 32 documentaries competing at this year's festival--which saw record film submissions and strong advance ticket sales despite the U.S. recession--fall squarely in the category of environmental films. But that's just a small fraction of the number of such films submitted to compete at the festival and doesn't include two out-of-competition environmental documentaries making their world premieres.

"We turned down about 50 environmental docs this year, and some really good ones. We didn't get anywhere near that many in the previous two years combined," said David Courier, a programmer for the festival's U.S. and world documentary competition. "We've had a history of showing terrific environmental docs, but this is the year for it, for sure...It's absolutely a reflection of what's on people's minds."

Of course, one of the most famous environmental documentaries of late came straight from a Sundance festival screening room. Former Vice President Al Gore's Academy Award-winning An Inconvenient Truth premiered at the festival in 2006, no doubt increasing awareness about global warming and also fueling interest in documentary film as a medium.

"That film had so much impact," said Laura Gabbert, one of the directors of an environmental doc screening this year called No Impact Man. "It makes sense that so many documentary filmmakers would respond and really take it to the next level."

Others in recent years have included Everything's Cool, Who Killed the Electric Car (later released by Sony Pictures), and Flow: For the Love of Water. And there was also Fields of Fuel, (now shortened to just Fuel), in which director Josh Tickell tells of his travels across the country promoting alternative fuel in his biodiesel-powered "Veggie Van." Last year, Fuel won the festival's audience award for documentaries.

Fueling activism
This year, however, there are not only more green offerings, the films have a broader range of style and theme, with quite a few focusing on the world's seas. And they go beyond just sounding alarm bells.

"So many of them are proffering solutions, too. They cross the line from just observation into activism," Courier said.

The End of the Line
A film still from The End of the Line, a documentary screening at Sundance about global overfishing. Sundance handout art

One such example is The End of the Line (PDF), which is based on the book of the same name by British journalist Charles Clover and shows how global overfishing, if not curtailed, is expected to mean the end of most seafood by the year 2048.

Director Rupert Murray said he felt compelled to make the film after reading Clover's book to show "how decisions that are made on land have devastating effects on the sea."

With characters working to shed light on fishing practices, Murray likened his film to a detective film noir. Around the globe, fishermen were saying they weren't catching as much, and yet the global catch numbers kept going up. "It turned out the data had been incorrect for like 12 years," Murray said.

But the telling of the story was only one component of the film's mission, Murray said. It was also always intended to illustrate the "relatively simple solutions" and to be a call for action and a kickoff for a global campaign for citizens to demand better marine policies.

And given his own conviction on the issue, Murray, who was also at Sundance in 2005 with the documentary Unknown White Male, is not too surprised by the numbers of environmental docs coming in.

"The issues of the environment are affecting more and more people in more and more serious ways," he said. "Simply, the stories are there, and they're coming thick and fast. They recognize the magnitude of their story and they have to tell it. That's how I felt."

In another prominent nod to the green movement, Sundance chose the documentary Earth Days (PDF) to be its closing night film, which means it's not in competition. Directed by Robert Stone, Earth Days is pitched as a history of the modern environmental movement as seen through the eyes of its key players.

Earth Days
A film still from Earth Days, a documentary closing the Sundance Film Festival that chronicles the environmental movement since the first Earth Day in 1970. Sundance handout art

"It's just epic in scope," Courier said. "What makes it particularly powerful is that it goes through all the big environmental movements and catastrophes since the 1970s without wagging the finger or pointing blame. It's showing how each one of these incidents collectively has impacted the planet and how we all have to do stuff to help it. It raises consciousness in such a skilled way."

The Cove (PDF) is another film that focuses on the sea, specifically about the peril of dolphins in a secret cove nestled off a small, coastal village in Japan. Directed by Louie Psihoyos, one of its main characters is Rick O'Barry, the dolphin trainer from the TV series Flipper. O'Barry leads a group of activists who reveal--using an array of covert cameras--the plight of the creatures after they are captured by the world's largest dolphin supplier.

"It's part horror film, part environmental film, but it plays like a thriller," Courier said.

The Cove
A still from the film The Cove which is about the peril of dolphins, particularly in one cove off a coastal village in Japan. Sundance handout art

Conservation lifestyles
The festival category called Spectrum--which spotlights seven out-of-competition documentaries--features an altogether different type of green-focused film called No Impact Man (PDF). Directed by Gabbert and Justin Schein, the film follows author Colin Beavan and his family as they leave their high-consumption Manhattan lifestyles behind and try to go a year with zero impact on the environment.

Both filmmakers were having dinner with Beavan and his wife, Michelle Conlin--a Business Week writer and childhood friend of Gabbert's--when they learned about the family's ambitious plan, and they immediately recognized the documentary potential, they said.

Gabbert and Schein always viewed it as an environmental film, but one that was especially character-driven and relatable, particularly with its focus on how the year was affecting the couple's marriage (The net-impact life was Beavan's idea and his wife and daughter sort of got taken along for the ride.)

No Impact Man
A film still from No Impact Man, which documents writer Colin Beavan and family's attempt at having no net impact on the environment for a year. Sundance handout art

Of course, there were many unexpected twists and turns along the way, including an article in The New York Times that triggered a media frenzy and forced the family into the public spotlight. But in the end, the message of individual and community responsibility for conservation rung clear.

"It's made me change the way I live my life," filmmaker Schein said. And it's likely to change others, especially given that two organizations will be doing public outreach in connection to the film.

Another in-competition environmental film goes by the catchy name of Dirt!: The Movie (PDF), directed by Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow and pitched as the story of the relationship between humans and dirt. It's not just how humans are destroying the earth's soil, but also about what they could be doing, Courier said.

"Pardon the pun, but that film really does cover a lot of ground," he said. "It spans the globe and you're dealing with farmers, physicists, activists, wine critics, and church leaders. And the entire third act is about what we can do."

In addition to a handful of short films focused on the environment, two other feature-length documentaries in competition include Crude (PDF), directed by Joe Berlinger, about oil spills in Ecuador by Chevron, and Big River Man, by John Maringouin, who tells the story of an endurance swimmer from Slovenia who swims rivers--the Mississippi, the Danube, and the Yangtze to date--to highlight pollution in the world.

If it's true, as they say, that independent film is a reflection of societal consciousness, then things might just be looking up for the environment.

"I think we're entering a new time where I find it quite different," said Murray, of The End of the Line. "The more trivial, more frivolous, the further away the subject matter is from the really massive problems that the world is facing, the harder I'm finding to engage with it."

Dirt! The Movie
A still from Dirt! The Movie, which covers the relationship between humans and soil. Sundance handout art

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