Is it just me? Or are climate-change films getting warmer? Warmer, that is, not in temperature, but in terms of friendlier tones. Those who found Al Gore’s documentary truths to be inconvenient or author Naomi Klein’s doctrine to be shocking might feel more comfortable with a new brand of ecofriendly movies that warn and inform in less alarmist ways. “I think there’s been a long history of a particular kind of climate-change films,” Canadian filmmaker Brett Story says, “and I think we’re now seeing the limits of that.”
Story’s latest documentary The Hottest August is a seemingly casual series of conversations with New Yorkers (particularly those in outer boroughs) that subtly addresses the Celsius-based calamity forecast by scientists. The film opens the Planet in Focus environmental film festival, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. Over its two decades, the Toronto festival has, among other things, sounded alarm bells over extreme weather and coming apocalypses.
In the festival’s first year, audiences were confronted with Rising Waters: Global Warming and the Fate of the Pacific Islands. Frightening titles in the festivals that followed included The Arctic is Melting, From Sea to Rising Sea and The Antarctica Challenge: A Global Warning.
"In the past, we’d seen all these films premised on making the urgency clear to everybody and delivering information,” Story says. “It was my sense that it wasn’t an effective strategy to activate people. It certainly didn’t make for great or interesting cinema.”
What we’re seeing now in the genre are less strident documentaries. For example, last year’s Canadian-made Metamorphosis is billed as a “poem for a planet,” while Alison McAlpine’s Cielo is serene and spiritual. From 2017, Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees, features the agreeable narration of Gordon Pinsent. And this year’s visually striking Aquarela, from Russia’s Victor Kossakovsky, uses no narration or talking heads at all.
We live now in a time where the issues surrounding the science are much better known than they were two decades ago. Still, those in denial over the mounting evidence are more firmly entrenched than ever.
“Most people do know about climate change today," says Story, whose 2016 feature documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes looked at the social impact of the prison-industrial complex in the United States. “So if we’re going to talk about climate-change denial, we have to talk about something a little more complicated than simply ‘some people are stupid or uninformed or have their head in the sand.’"
If not their heads in the sand, then at least their lawn chairs. For her charismatic The Hottest August, filmmaker Story chats with chatty New Yorkers, some of them on the beach. They build sand castles, bake in the sun and fret over the “realities of being an adult.” An older gentleman chases a windblown shade umbrella.
One hard-boiled Staten Island woman is defiant. She believes the “Al Gore stuff” was all about making money. She talks about a protective wall being built, paid for by “our taxpayers.” She pooh-poohs 100-year floods and 300-year storms. “We grew up with rubber boots on our feet,” she says.
Story describes The Hottest August as an “exploration of dread.” It’s about societal anxiety, survival strategies and distractions. She was living in New York when she decided to make the film, but she also saw the city as the best place to study money and power. Two white, male students look forward to graduating, travelling, commanding a high salary and “living someplace awesome.” A young, black man must evacuate his apartment by the next morning.
“This film is of course about the spectre of climate change, but it’s also about this particular moment in capitalism where we have increasing levels of inequality and unsustainable economic relations,” says Story, an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts. “I think now is a time not to just talk about environmental policy, but also a more justly organized society.”
Planet in Focus runs Oct. 15 to 20 at various venues. (planetinfocus.org)