Update: Environmental Films At Sundance

UPDATE: EVERYTHING’S COOL had a limited theatrical debut in November 2007. MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES went on to win Best Documentary at both the Genie Awards and the RiverRun International Film Festival. The film had a limited theatrical release this past June 2007 and can now be bought on DVD.

Make sure you tune in tomorrow (1/8) at 9pm the Sundance Channel’s screening of BLUE VINYL (from the filmmakers of EVERYTHING’S COOL) as part of 31 Days of Sundance presented by Stella Artois. EVERYTHING’S COOL will be shown on January 22, 2008 at 9pm.

See original blog post below.




When the power-point lecture, global-warming documentary AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH [www.climatecrisis.net] appeared at Sundance last year, no one could have predicted what a cultural, commercial and critical juggernaut it would become. Or that green politics could so easily translate into financial green for film distributors. This year a new crop of films take on the politics of global warming and environmental protection, along with a renewed interest in those films from sites like Grist [gristmill.grist.org] and Jen’s Green Diary [green-jenni.livejournal.com]. But for these filmmakers, getting the word out is often more about the media than the message.


Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfand have been dealing with environmental issues for years. They came to Sundance in 2002 with their documentary BLUE VINYL [www.bluevinyl.org], an exploration of the ongoing effect of PVC plastic, a common industrial material that produces the pollutant dioxin. This year the filmmaking couple returns with EVERYTHING’S COOL [www.everythingscool.org], a semi-comic journey through the contemporary debate on global warming. According to Gold, the film actually started years ago at Sundance: “I was sitting in a hot tub with this guy who was downing beer after beer. He told me he was a snowmaker, and was really depressed because he couldn’t make the rent, since it was too warm to make snow. So Judith and I decided right then, “Let’s get a camera and start shooting”.”

Helfand, who co-founded Working Films [www.workingfilms.org], a distribution arm that offers a range of socially conscious films, understood that their biggest challenge would be finding the right tone. “How the story is told is as important as the facts or the science,” explains Helfand. “Should it be about polar bears? Or should we make it a job issue? Should we bludgeon the public with bad news? Should we call it global warming or climate change?”

In the end, they decided to make it about the people behind the global warming debate. The film’s passionate cast of characters — a bio-diesel pioneer, a government whistle blower, the Weather Channel’s first global warming reporter, etc. — all fight to be heard above the din of public confusion and corporate misdirection. “As we got into it,” explains Gold, “we got interested in the disconnect between what science knows and what the public seems to understand. There is a gap. We wanted to look at how did that gap come about and who are the people out there trying to close the it.”

For Gold and Helfand, the film is only the first step in a campaign to inspire and organize viewers into social action. One such action occurred on Monday when students from a local middle school streamed onto a snowy field to spell out a message (as seen from aerial point of view) to be delivered to Congress. Their demand, “Step it Up in 07,” [www.stepitup07.org] a short hand for pushing politicians to seek 80% carbon reduction by 2050, is part of national campaign spearheaded by environmentalist Bill McKibben [www.billmckibben.com].

In her documentary MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES [www.mongrelmedia.com], Jennifer Baichwal uses the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky [www.edwardburtynsky.com] to reframe both the discourse and the vision of environmental issues. Shooting Burtynsky in China as he shoots the “manufactured landscapes” that have been created as result of the country’s radical industrialization, Baichwell’s film poses questions rather than providing pat solutions about how to deal with this level of environmental disorder. “What the photographs do,” acknowledges Baichwal, “which the film tries to do as well, is allow the viewer to witness the places we are all responsible for yet never normally get to see. I think through honest witnessing, consciousness is changed, and through consciousness being changed, behavior starts to change. If the film initiates that process in the audience — and it seems so far for some to be doing that — we are profoundly grateful.”

The third green film, Laura Dunn’s THE UNFORSEEN [festival.sundance.org], looks at the ecological ramifications of the American dream. The film’s lead character, Gary Bradley, went from being a Texan farm boy to being one of the state’s most powerful and successful real estate developers. In the 1980s, however, his plans for the Circle C Ranch, a 4000-acre super development, were stopped short when environmentalists claimed it would destroy the ecology of a local nature sanctuary. In discussions with local politicians, real estate people and environmentalist, Dunn uses this case to ask the same question: how much will it cost to keep the American dream alive?

Peter Bowen

Senior Editor, Filmmaker Magazine