Back in early 2012, I’d watched the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove (2009). As with many other people, it left an indelible impression on me, which made me look around for other documentaries that championed the green cause. Did they all have the capacity to potentially create global change, like the Louie Psihoyos directed, Ric O’Barry led stunner?
There’s been an explosion of environmental films since 2000, the most vociferously supported arguably being the landmark Blackfish (2013). Others have been overseen by Hollywood stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio, featured former President-elects, and many more have made their way to streaming behemoth Netflix. Emotive and powerful they may well be, but the question must be asked – are they making a difference?
Since 2000, what have been the big hitters? After some research, and quite a bit of viewing, I’d suggest they’re in the following list:
- An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
- The Cove (2009)
- Chasing Ice (2012)
- Blackfish (2013)
- Mission Blue (2014)
- The True Cost (2015)
- A Plastic Ocean (2016)
- Chasing Coral (2017)
- An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017)
- Okja (2017)
- Rotten (2017 – a Netflix original TV series)
This is leaving off a number of high-profile vegan films (discussed further below). Some of these are on Netflix, or were produced by the company outright, but they fight for attention amongst the white noise of Hollywood’s big budget extravaganzas. This makes their task doubly difficult.
Despite this, several have made it through to the mainstream, or at least found a cult following – if they have the right emotional impact, and create enough press interest, then it can be enough to create a world changing documentary.
Making a splash
I’m not a scientist, I’m a layperson with an endless passion for culture, and it’s fascinating to see when a film makes a difference on a global scale. Blackfish was one such example – directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, it created genuine social change and a backlash against SeaWorld, whose fortunes have taken a thrashing ever since.
The film even helped force through new regulations regarding SeaWorld trainers and their relationships with the orcas, as well as potential changes to captivity laws.
Yet most environmental films can expect only a smidgen of the attention and accolades Blackfish received. Is there a secret formula to success this one tapped into? Not that I can see, as it seemed to be a surprise hit (helped along by being an excellent film).
It’s obvious an environmental film isn’t going to cause box office figures like the latest Star Wars or superhero film. Even something as interesting as Okja won’t get there. It graced Netflix and met with strong reviews, but has since been buried by a new wave of releases – no social change whatsoever, although it will have made some viewers think.
Most cinemagoers, however, are there for simple escapism – to forget about the world’s ills, rather than be reminded of them. This is what environmental films are battling against, high-concept, light entertainment with lots of CGI.
There’s nothing wrong with a bit of escapism, of course, as we all need downtime. But it can prove to be much easier to switch off and forget about the likes of Cove. This will be frustrating if you’re trying to make a bold statement for change.
The potential for change
Another issue is these films are only likely to attract people passionate about the subject.
A bunch of climate change deniers convinced they’re right aren’t going to watch Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth sequel (especially after some critics lambasted it for being a vanity project). They’re already convinced they’re correct and, even if they did watch it, they’d be even more certain in their conviction.
If it’s a timely issue, however, as well as provocative enough, and fronted by a big name, then a film can break through to the mainstream. A good example? The first An Inconvenient Truth! It was revered back in 2006 and landed Al Gore a Nobel prize – climate change deniers grumbled, guffawed, and complained some more, but Gore’s film forced the subject into the public conscience.
Others have done the same. A Plastic Ocean (2016) received a lot of attention, helped along as it was published by Netflix. For UK viewers, it became available in late 2017. It timed its release perfectly, a surge of anti-plastic laws have been introduced to try and alleviate the plastic hangover the nation faces.
Here, the Netflix factor provides many environmental films with an unexpected boost. Asides from funding progressive projects that might otherwise have never seen the light of day, Netflix is also introducing a wider audience to these types of films – even the sort who would normally steer well clear of them.
Whether through a fit of boredom or curiosity, people can tune in without having to go all the way down to the cinema to watch something they might deem as dull, irrelevant, or depressing. That’s pretty revelatory.
The vegan verdict
With veganism on the rise, there’s been an upsurge in documentaries supporting the, often misunderstood, lifestyle choice. Cowspiracy (2014) is one of the most famous – I can’t stand the title, but it’s also one of the most effective and emotional environmental documentaries I’ve ever seen.
I saw incredible reactions across social media after the film appeared on Netflix UK in 2016. Many stated it had changed their lives and they couldn’t remember a film which had made such an impact on them.
Similar documentaries include Vegucated and Earthlings, although you can also throw the notorious Super Size Me (2004) into the mix. Morgan Spurlock’s film has since been criticised for being a bit daft (of course you’re going to gain a lot of weight by doing that), but also for allegedly skewing medical results and not releasing the full details of his experiment.
This anti-fast food film was backed up by Food Inc. (2008), which was adapted from Eric Schlosser’s bestselling book Fast Food Nation (2001). Schlosser’s work was far removed from Spurlock’s diatribe, instead explaining the McDonald’s industry with an impartial tone. The reader is left to make of it what they want, whereas Spurlock aims to shock and disgust.
As an anti-McDonald’s sort, I do support Spurlock’s message, but having to listen to him scrunching and munching his way through burger after burger (amplified by the microphone attached to him) really set my misophonia off big time! Still, it makes for a fun film. The message? Don’t eat McDonald’s, kids.
The restaurant chain responded and survived its ordeal, introducing a wider range of healthier options across its menu in order to compete with Subway Sandwiches. Now there’s a pitched battle for the claim of most conscientious and healthy fast food brand.
In the meantime, veganism is on the rise, but generally gets a reaction of rolled eyeballs and confusion from the wider public. The definitive vegan film to change public opinion could well be on the way, but for now Cowspiracy remains, arguably, the best effort.
A source for good?
2005 is considered the year the world woke up to climate change, and 2018 has provided a plastic wake up call. This was helped along by Blue Planet II and a passionate appeal from Sir David Attenborough.
A number of environmental films have contributed to a societal desire for regulation changes. Of course, they’re far from the main reason behind this shift in laws, but they have played a part – it is, after all, a concerted effort from various sources that creates an outcome.
This is where I think environmental films can excel – by taking a complicated topic, explaining it to the layperson, and eliciting a positive reaction that can lead to real change.
Yet climate change denial is still rampant; the President of the most powerful nation on Earth remains a firm non-believer. He’s signed a batch of bills that race on with mass energy production and wastage, but numerous liberal states in America have chosen to ignore him and keep up greener strategies.
Adding to the problem, from a subjective viewpoint, I find many environmental documentaries end on the same misguided note. Having outlined the disastrous nature of the situation, a genre trope is utilised to offer an upbeat conclusion.
In the final few minutes of numerous environmental documentaries I watched, in comes some upbeat acoustic guitar, the narrator’s serious tone rises optimistically, and we’re told everything can improve if we all follow this Twitter account, sign a petition, read that blog post, and sit back having done our bit.
I find it somewhat nullifies the serious message of these films, but perhaps they’re necessary to encourage people to head out there and do their bit. If total nihilism was embraced, why bother producing the film to begin with?
A green future
True change comes from the world’s governments. The problem there is getting that capricious lot organised is going to be more difficult than landing a spaceship on Mars. Environmental films can, at least, raise public awareness, in turn putting pressure on politicians to force through change, but is it too little too late?
Some social scientists, such as Dr. Mayer Hillman, have a morbid outlook. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was busy outlining the changes that needed to happen to stop environmental disaster. These are only now being taken up by governments; “We’re doomed”, he told The Guardian in April 2018.
Other modern thought leaders, bestselling writers such as physicist Carlo Rovelli and historian Yuval Noah Harari, have similarly morbid outlooks. Rovelli believes humans are ultimately doomed due to the damage we create. Harari suggests humans won’t see out the next 1,000 years.
Now, at last, businesses and governments are reacting to public pressure. Desperately needed legislations have been instigated. The problem? The likes of anti-plastic laws should have been in effect decades ago.
It is, however, a step in the right direction – all we need now is for more people to start doing their bit. Perhaps a film or two will be able to help with that?
Alex Morris is a copywriter and creative writer from Manchester, where he runs the satire and culture site Professional Moron. He’s watched a fair few films, reads quite a lot, and drinks a vast amount of tea.