Inventing Tomorrow/Laura Nix

What’s it like to be fifteen years old and live in a world that’s so environmentally out of whack that it threatens human life? Against the backdrop of the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, filmmaker Laura Nix follows six teens from India, Indonesia, Hawaii, and Mexico who are finding solutions to environmental problems threatening their generation. Earth on Screen speaks with Nix and Sahithi Pingali, a brilliant young woman from Bangalore, India, who epitomizes the dedicated pragmatism that will be necessary to restoring balance to our earth. Click here to find out more about the film.  Availability: Opens New York City, August 31, IFC Center.  Thanks to Layla Hancock-Piper, Cinetic Media, for arranging this interview.

 

Sahithi Pingali in Inventure Academy lab; Bangalore, India. After the lake behind Sahithi's school caught fire twice, she invented a water-testing system, then crowd-sourced it online. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

Sahithi Pingali in Inventure Academy lab; Bangalore, India. After the lake behind Sahithi’s school caught fire twice, she invented a water-testing system, then crowd-sourced it online. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

EOS: At one time Bangalore was described as the land of ten thousand lakes. Now it’s known as the Silicon Valley of India. What environmental impact did this development have on Bangalore?

SP: There’s no river near Bangalore, so when the city was founded, they built lakes to provide for people’s water needs. The lakes were connected by channels. When it rained, the uppermost lake would overflow and fill all the others.

Suddenly all these IT companies moved to Bangalore. The city grew really quickly, without accompanying infrastructure, such as sewage treatment plants.The channels connecting the lakes were filled with debris to make them land again, cutting off the lakes from each other. There were a lot of people generating raw sewage, which went right into the lakes. With no channels to distribute freshwater, the lakes became cesspools.

EOS: Laura, you shot some heartbreaking footage in Bangalore.

LN: Oftentimes with environmental issues you can’t see the problem, so people have a hard time taking them seriously. Bangalore was the opposite.  It was visually extraordinary. Before we went we looked at stock footage and news reports, but they couldn’t prepare me for what it was like. The thing you don’t get from the footage is the smell. When you get out of the car you’re confronted with this stench as the sewage blows over the roadway and hits the cars. We got covered in it while we were filming. There’s one shot in particular where you can see the foam hitting the camera. [The foam is created by phosphates in the untreated sewage.]

 

EOS: The film gave me the impression that kids in developing countries are more connected to environmental issues than kids in the U.S. are.

SP: In India the awareness is high because when you step out of your house there’s no way to avoid it. Yet some people do manage to avoid it. They drive by the lakes every day with their windows up and AC on. They don’t get the smell, they don’t see the foam. The thing is, I was one of those people for a very long time. I only started asking questions when I was fifteen. It’s one thing to know the problem is there and another to be concerned about it and then quite another to take action on that concern. It’s the difference between avoiding it and approaching it. I think that in developing countries you do get more people who are concerned simply because they’re aware, but I don’t know if the ratio of people who know and the people who act is actually any better.

EOS: Laura, you worked with kids from Hawaii and Mexico and Indonesia. What did you find there?

LN: When we were casting the film, I interviewed over a hundred kids from all over the world. We did a data dive, looking at how many environmental projects were coming from each country. In many places, 50 to 70 percent of the projects had an environmental focus. In the States it was maybe 10 to 15 percent.

Jared Goodwin; Hilo, Hawaii. Jared devised a system for analyzing the spread of arsenic in the soil. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

Jared Goodwin; Hilo, Hawaii. Jared devised a system for analyzing the spread of arsenic in the soil of his hometown. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

It makes sense to me that students living in the developing world are coming up with solutions to environmental problems, because the problems are right in front of their faces. But in fact there are many communities in the U.S. facing ecological crises, environmental justice issues related to pollution or industrial contamination. Corporations are getting away with polluting these communities because the people who live there are underrepresented politically and financially, but they’re very much aware, and they’re taking action. We can look at front-line communities as a model of how we must respond.

EOS: Sahithi, your science fair project had two aspects. First you collected and tested water samples from the lakes, then you crowd-sourced the data through an app and website. What do you want to achieve with this project?

SP: At school I led a group of students to study the foaming lake right behind our school.  We interviewed the people who live there and found that they grow vegetables with that polluted lake water. Others had to close down their shops, others lost their livelihoods. How could I have been able to drive past this for so long and not see how much was happening?

When we brought the stinking water samples to school to test them in our lab, I started seeing that we were connecting to the lakes. We were seeing the water with our own eyes and handling it ourselves. Now I want this to be part of our school curriculum, where every kid goes out once a week and gets a lake sample.  It makes a big difference when you engage and do it yourself.

I started sharing the data through crowd sourcing to get everyone to see what was going on. When you do that, it’s important to make the data very visual so people don’t have to look at numbers. On my website I have color-coded maps saying whether the water is safe enough to drink or take a bath or water your vegetables. Now people can look at color-coded maps all across the world and see how their lakes are changing over time, what local actions people are taking. We’re building a community so that it’s no longer just one person going and getting a water sample.

 

EOS: Laura, I was under the impression that only judges and competitors are allowed to attend the judging session at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. How did you manage to get in?

LN: We talked to the Society for Science and the Public for about a year to get permission to film the judging. They’d never let cameras in the judging process before, and it took a very long time to convince them of the value of that. I felt it was really important to show because that’s when you see the students communicating their science projects in a very quick way to someone who knows about it. I think that’s the greatest value in participating in the science competition, because it forces students to become science communicators. They must explain their research in a way that’s compelling, that involves storytelling, not just data analysis.

 Shofi Latifa Nuha Anfaresi & Intan Utami Putri - Bangka Sea, Indonesia. The girls invented a filter that local residents can use to remove the tin from their water, which is contaminated by local mining concerns. In this picture, the girls are speaking with representatives of the largest mining corporation in Indonia, which has agreed to do further research on the girls' invention. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

Shofi Latifa Nuha Anfaresi & Intan Utami Putri; Bangka Sea, Indonesia. The girls invented a filter that local residents can use to remove tin from their water, which is contaminated by local mining concerns. In this picture, the girls are speaking with representatives of the largest mining corporation in Indonesia, which has agreed to do further research on the girls’ invention. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

There’s a chasm in our culture right now between the general public and science. The scientific community can get better at communicating what the work is, how it’s done, and what value it has. But I think the general public also has a sense that it’s too hard for them to understand. I was very intimidated when I started to make this film because I don’t come from a science background. I ultimately realized that was helpful because I could stand in as a proxy for the audience: if I could understand it, the audience could understand it.

EOS: Sahithi, as a scientist yourself, how important is it to communicate what you’re doing?

SP: A lot of scientists are proud of the complexity of what they’re doing. They lose sight of the fact that it’s valuable not because it’s complex but because of what it can do. And they can’t make an impact unless the people who are helping them understand what’s going on. Solutions are made in the lab by scientists, but they’re brought into the world by businessmen, people in the humanities, salespeople, storytellers. So much more goes into bringing science into the real world.

Even the science aspect can’t be done alone. There’s a reason why solutions of scale are deployed by big companies. Individuals are limited. If I go on trying to push my project using only my own time and my own abilities, it’s not going to be nearly as impactful as if I brought in another five or ten people to work on it and make it a more robust system. I think the image of the lone scientist in the lab is a bad stereotype, because it limits what you can do with the technology you have.

L - R: Jose Manuel Elizade Esparaza, Jesus Alfonso Martinez Aranda & Fernando Miguel Sanchez Villalobos; Monterrey, Mexico. To combat life-threatening air pollution in Monterrey, they invented a photocatalytic paint that would convert carbon dioxide into water-soluble chemicals capable of nourishing the local plant life. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

L – R: Jose Manuel Elizade Esparaza, Jesus Alfonso Martinez Aranda & Fernando Miguel Sanchez Villalobos; Monterrey, Mexico. To combat life-threatening air pollution in Monterrey, they invented a photocatalytic paint that would convert carbon dioxide into water-soluble chemicals capable of nourishing the local plant life. Photo credit: IQ190 Productions LLC.

I don’t know where people got the idea that science should be done solo. If you look at the very nature of scientific research, you measure a paper’s success by how many other people were able to do work based on it. Science is by nature very collaborative, because nobody solves these huge complex problems alone. Nobody does it alone in the real world of science—it’s more in the depictions that it becomes a solo thing. In high school and college you do all your assignments alone. Making it more collaborative from the beginning might help, but so would depicting it the way it actually works, with a lot of people coming together.

EOS: Laura, what makes film such an incredibly powerful medium for communicating science?

LN: A lot of feature films focus on the biopic of an extraordinary person doing an extraordinary project. They gloss over the details of the science because they’re focused on the hero’s journey. I was really interested in showing the process of science. When you do science, you fail a lot. You do some research and you stop and start and don’t always get the results that you want, but you keep going. Watching young people tackle that in a very pure way was really inspiring, because they have a vision about what they’re doing and a clarity of purpose about the why of what they’re doing. The why is something that gets left out a lot when we depict science.

The why is also where you can find the emotion in the story. An environmental film focusing on a science fair seemed potentially very dry, so for me the goal was to bring emotion to the story and show how this was very personal, this was young people fighting to save their homes. Each of the students I chose for the film was very connected to the why of that they do. The challenge for me as a filmmaker was how to make this an emotional story and also something that was really compelling to watch.

I went about that by maintaining a kind of first-person perspective so that you get a sense of what it would be like to be fifteen years old and facing this huge environmental crisis. I wanted the film to communicate the uniqueness of that perspective, because we can learn something from it. These kids automatically understand that they have to do something. They’ve taken the responsibility of committing to action. The other thing that really struck me is the fact that they don’t think about it politically. They think, ‘Here’s a problem that we have to fix.’ Our generation got stuck in this political spin cycle where we can’t move forward because we’re blocked by financial and economic and political issues, but these kids don’t think about that at all. That’s the way we should be approaching it. I wanted to put that framing out into the world as a way for us to be able to learn from them so that they can become our role models as we look forward.

 

EOS: So, Sahithi, what is it like to be a teenager facing this huge environmental crisis?

SP: Every year we put on a play in school.The scriptwriters base the play on the students’ attitudes. Last year our play was about the environment. The last line was “If not us, who? If not now, when?” I think it’s as simple as that. We can’t do nothing. We can’t wait, because it’s only going to get worse. But I think there’s also the fact that it can get better. This is something people don’t appreciate enough. Right now, at this point in time, we have the technology to not just slow down climate change or stop it but actually potentially reverse it. It would be hard, things would have to be implemented at huge scale, but we could. It’s not impossible. It’s not even a lack of abilities. It’s something we can do, it’s just that it’s not happening. Young people who are really engaged in this realize the potential is there. We don’t know if we’ll ever reach it, but we can’t not work towards it. We can’t go back and undo what’s been done, so we just have to do what we can now. It’s important to keep in mind that it can be done. It’s not beyond possibility to actually take things back.

Copyright © Earth on Screen 2018

Human Flow/Ai Weiwei

In Human Flow, Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei documents the worldwide refugee crisis, combining the power of his nuanced aesthetics with his firsthand experience of exile. There are currently seventy countries that wall themselves off from their neighbors, he tells us, denying refuge to millions fleeing war, genocide, famine, and the effects of climate change. In his quest to bring us to our senses, he visits refugees at walls and camps in Turkey, Greece, Palestine, and the United States, reminding us that this is an international problem whose solution requires the full measure of our intelligence and empathy. •Availability: Opens in New York and L.A. October 13. Click here for theater listings, tickets, and trailer. Thanks to Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.

DT: Let’s begin with the title. In English, it’s “Human Flow.” When you think of flow, you think of something natural, like water or air. But the human flow in the refugee crisis is completely man-made. It’s completely unnatural. Does the Chinese title also have that same juxtaposition?

Hungarian border guards, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

Hungarian border guards, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

AW: The Chinese title is even worse. “Human flow” in Chinese means ‘man-made abortion.’ But if we’re not talking about war, if we’re not talking about hatred or differences or religion or all those arguments, then it is a human flow. Even the flow in water is caused by some unknown reasons. Since early civilization, records show people coming out of Africa. In written history, long before Jesus Christ, the Jews left Egypt.  You can call them all refugees. You can look at those facts as human flow because we’re always trying to find a new place that is more suitable or where we can survive or have a more prosperous life.We have to look at it in that way to understand that this is human nature. It’s human dignity, rights, to have the choice and be accepted, or to help those people.

 

DT: It’s a very powerful film, and I think it gets its power from a number of different things, including a simultaneous microfocus and macrofocus. Was that intentional?

AW: It’s a strong intention to have the maximal understanding of the words of human beings and also refugees’ vocabulary of the flow itself. But I also wanted almost a poetic portrait of a human being. It could be children, oddly, or women, or the tiger that people loved so much that they had to rescue it [i.e., a tiger trapped in one of the refugee camps that was the subject of a great rescue effort]. The film has humor but also a very historical grand thinking and the texture of a real touch, a cup of tea, a blanket, all those kinds of necessities.

Drone shot of the Kutupalong Camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

Drone shot of the Kutupalong Camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

The power is created also in the image. We have drone [shots] from an abstract indifferent look to gradually seeing human activity, which is right on the surface.Then you have some kind of understanding of those problems that really are created by human beings, which make some people so miserable and pitiful that they couldn’t survive another day, or even if they could survive another day, they don’t have a future. Those people are sacrificed or wasted. But on the other hand you have to listen to their stories. Once they start to talk they have to stop, because it’s hard for them to repeat them. And they all have the same stories. It’s about human cruelty and violence, abuse and negligence.

 

DT: In the film you say seventy countries now have walls to separate them from their neighbors. Although there have been a number of films about the refugee problem that focus specifically on the EU, you look at it all around the world, recognizing it as a universal problem. This takes the responsibility and puts it on everybody, really. As you said in your film Disturbing the Peace, “In clarifying the facts for Tan Zuoren, we are clarifying them for everyone.”

AW: I always see humanity as one. If someone’s rights are violated, we are all deeply hurt. Even if we don’t know it, it still hurts us. If we know it, we have to act on it. In any kind of religion, to save one life or to help one life is the highest ritual. Nothing can be higher than that. So we all know those things and then we all…

Kids watching the police in the Idomeni refugee camp, Greece, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

Kids watching the police in the Idomeni refugee camp, Greece, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

But modern life is often cut off from responsibility. We all feel, What can we do? This is so big. I made this film to say, Yes, you can do something. This is a film made by an artist. You can make one piece, or you can tell your children that that these kids in refugee camps will never go to school because such a thing is happening. We always have to share this compassion with other people, otherwise how can we call ourselves human beings?

Each generation has to define those values. You can never take freedom for granted. It’s not possible; it will rot. It rots immediately. So this kind of effort I’m making, it’s just one person’s effort. Every situation is there, and I can only grab very little, a tiny fragment compared to what kind of darkness humans are being treated to in history. It’s a way we understand ourselves. I think it’s necessary to understand our own position.

 

DT: You seem to have a visceral connection to the refugees.

AW: My primary visceral connection was my childhood experience when my father was exiled. I was born the year we were sent to exile. Every refugee in the world has twenty years, on average, of living in exile. I had my ten years growing up in a very remote area after we were pushed out from our home. Ever since then I never had a home. Ten years is not a short time. So that gave me a backdrop for how I can feel naturally as part of this unjust condition. I can sense those people. I can feel their fear, their sorrow, and I can also enjoy the moment they feel happy.

Refugees in Kenya, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

Refugees in Kenya, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

Many of them feel happy. You see big families, thirty people, and you can see there are still family ties there. People sharing, the older people are respected. If you offer something to the children, they  often ask their parents, “Should I take it?” They have dignity. They’re not beggars. They come only because if they didn’t come, they would die, so they only made one choice—just to stay away from death. Europe or other nations try to find an excuse to push them away or store them in Turkey or somewhere else; they even pay money as long as the refugees don’t come to European land. It’s very selfish and very shameful.

 

DT: You refer to climate change in the Africa sequence in Human Flow. You’re currently doing a series of talks in New York City: are you finding that people are not aware that climate change plays such a big role in the refugee crisis?

AW: It’s obvious that climate change is not only about playing a big role in the refugee crisis. Before the Syrian war, there were seven years of drought that made the area very unstable. It could be that things happening in Houston could happen every year. New York now has the longest summer; it’s October but it’s still so warm. Humans have such a short time on earth, but we’re experiencing such dramatic change. That means something. That means the end has come. It’s not an exaggeration. Many, many scientists have said that with this kind of change, we can easily predict the future. I really believe in scientific research because it all comes out of clear analysis, but I can also sense that our condition, our ecosystem, our environment, is in a very fragile condition. Think about the fact that thousands or millions of planets don’t have life. Why? Either they don’t have this kind of miraculous condition or they’re too close to the sun or too far away. They’re too hot or too cold.

Kenya, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

Kenya, from the film HUMAN FLOW by Ai Weiwei.

We are very fragile. As humans we cannot take such change, but we are not really appreciating the whole beautiful miracle, human development, culture. Instead we are very blind or very greedy or short-sighted. We still have so many nuclear bombs. One day if we don’t stop them, they’re going to be used. It’s a very dangerous world we’re living in, but it seems we sleep very well. Yes, there are lots of nuclear bombs around us, but we sleep well.

 

DT: You’re doing a number of installations around New York to support Human Flow. What’s the relationship between the installations and the film?

AW: I did many installations and museum shows while shooting this film, and all had a refugee topic. Some are two dimensional, some are three-dimensional installations, some are films, or photographs, or wallpaper or objects. By every means necessary I want this to bring attention to what I’m doing and also to what I see happening in the world.

Always I want to establish a true relationship between me and the world. It’s not really for anybody else. It’s a really selfish way as an artist to reestablish the true relations between the so-called yourself and the world outside of you. Film is also an extension of that, but they’re all [i.e., the installations and artworks] a little different, because they all adjust for a different audience. Film could be the most popular audience because films look so real and the language is easy to understand and it generates emotion and knowledge. At the same time, I’m doing a large project called “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.”

It’s a Robert Frost poem. It talks about who you want to fence out and what you’re really fencing. It’s an interesting topic. We talk about water, territory, fences, and in such a beautiful, beautiful capital of immigrants, New York City. The whole energy and color and imagination of this city is because it’s so mixed. It’s never one type. You never feel you’re a foreigner here, you’re just one of the varieties. I spent ten years here and I love the city. If I can contribute something to this city, I would be very proud.

It has to do with my understanding of what this city is about, so dealing with immigration and this refugee condition is what I think is the right work. We made about three hundred pieces through all five boroughs, at every level, from subway station to bus station to some landmark locations such as Washington Square or Central Park, or right in front of the Plaza hotel two blocks away from Trump Tower. All those locations deal with the city’s element and the people who are using the city who experience these works. It will start October 11.

 

DT: You say the film establishes your relationship with the problem, but I see it as a call to action. What action would you like people to take?

AW: Once you make something like this, you have one hope.  I want people to see it. They don’t have to like it, they can criticize it, but at least they should see it. There’s something to see and to learn from it.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

 

 

Earth: One Amazing Day/Richard Dale

Nothing could be more banal than the thought of another day, yet the miraculous presence of life on our planet depends on our 24-hour cycle around the sun. Earth: One Amazing Day reveals the beauty of the rare gift we have received. Now it is up to us to go forth and protect it. To see the trailer, click here. To visit the film’s website, click here. •Availability: Opens October 6. Thanks to Lee Meltzer, pmkbnc, for arranging this interview.

 

EO: I love the concept of life on earth responding to the 24-hour journey of the sun. How did you come up with the idea?

EOAD_Earth in space

Earth: One Amazing Day. Earth in space.

RD: I’m not a natural history filmmaker, I confess, so I didn’t come to the project from a great history of fascination with the natural world for its own sake. What I have, and what my film’s about, is a great fascination with us and how we live and how we see things. I’m really interested—and was from the beginning—in how something we see every day…even the way we use the word is an everyday thing… isn’t ordinary at all. I was fascinated with the idea that if you happened to come to earth and hadn’t seen it before, you’d think, ‘Man, that’s amazing. That giraffe, is that real?’ And if you could see things as they actually are, so intertwined and driven by the day, by the power of that daily change, light and dark, heat and cool, you couldn’t see things as everyday again.

If the film is done well, it should give you an idea that changes the way you look at every other thing in the world, every other part that isn’t in the film. A film can only contain so many things. It can contain an idea and a germ of something that can stay with you at its best and give you a different perspective on everything else in the world. I think the day is like that. If it wasn’t for that completely random alteration of temperature, of light and dark, of variation even over seasons, then we just wouldn’t be here. It’s a difficult one, isn’t it, because it becomes one of those extremely logical arguments where people say the earth is just right for life, well of course that’s going to be true because if it wasn’t you’re only going to get the life that’s right for it. It is really fascinating that something like a word for something normal is actually so extraordinary. Something’s that’s everyday is actually the opposite of mundane.

 

EO: Did scientists play a role in developing the story?

RD: The film is not intended to be scientifically revelatory in any way. We’re not saying anything unexpected, but the iguanas and the racer snakes in the Galapagos are an interesting example for me. They exhibit an amazing piece of behavior [neither iguanas nor racer snakes can move quickly before they are sufficiently warmed by the sun]. I think everyone appreciates that, but what the film does is place the iguana in the context of how this has to happen at a certain time, both of the year and of the day because it’s a cold-blooded creature so it can’t run until it’s hot. When you think of it that way, the iguana is juggling between, Do I wait til I’m nearly hot enough, or do I wait til I’m completely hot and full of energy but then my enemy is too? Just giving it a little bit of context about the science in that regard is all we’re really trying to do. I hate films that are just a list of facts. I’m not overlaying a sense; I’m trying to reveal it. These things happen at that time of day not because I think it fits in well with a noonday structure but because that’s when they happen and this is why that’s true. We aim to give a sense of the substructure underneath the natural world that is the real driving force of our lives, which we tend to skip by.

Earth: One Amazing Day.The white headed langur monkey is one of the rarest creatures on earth.

Earth: One Amazing Day.The white-headed
langur monkey is one of the rarest creatures on earth.

EO: The reason I ask about scientists is that some of the footage you got is mind-boggling, and I wondered how you ended up being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. How many people get that footage of giraffes, for instance? How did you know to be there?  How did you know to be there when the bee was attacking the hummingbird or when the sloth set out to court a mate?

RD: The answer is it’s years of observation. To take the example you mentioned, the giraffe encounter was so bizarre that not even the cameraman who was filming expected it to happen. They’re giraffe experts, and it was something that they had never seen. It’s one roll of film, it happened in such a short time. It’s clearly not unique in that it happens in the world, but it had never been filmed, and the giraffe expert had never seen it, so it’s incredibly unusual. Likewise the racer snakes on the Galapagos: that was reported to the production team as something that someone knew happened at one particular beach on one particular island. We went back there three times over the course of a couple of years to witness it.

Perhaps that’s where the scientists come in. The observations of the behavior are absolutely driven by expertise on the ground in these unique locations, and the production teams are very lucky in that it’s possible to make three separate filming expeditions to a remote Galapagos island. The other one that was exceptional in that regard was the filming of the chinstrap penguins. No one had landed on that island before and filmed that. From a behavioral standpoint it’s not unique, but from an understanding of their environment and their habitat and just the sheer pressure of their lives, it’s absolutely unique because no one’s ever managed to land a crew on there and actually film it.

Earth: One Amazing Day. A sloth trying to find a mate.

Earth: One Amazing Day. A sloth trying to find a mate.

EO: You visited 22 countries, had a 100-person crew in the UK and China alone, 38 camera operators, and you filmed 38 species. Can you talk about the vastness of the undertaking?

RD: I’ve never been involved in something of this scope before. We’re very lucky, because the film is the result of projects and a budget spent not just to realize this film but to realize all the other aspects of television and film production that the BBC natural history unit has been involved in for the last five years. I think it’s unachievable in any other way. If you started off trying to make it from scratch, it would be very, very hard. We were able to pull together film crews that were already traveling to some of these exceptional places and get them to do things specifically for us. We could send off our own film units to search  for certain creatures, but we could also coinvest on shoots that would take us to other places. We could multiply and double up our budget by pushing other people to do things they weren’t thinking of doing and using that footage. We were able to really punch above an already considerable weight, if you follow me.

EO: Were those BBC crews who were out in other places, or did you contact outside people?

RD: Everybody in this business is a specialist or an outside person in a way. In the natural history world of filmmaking, the units who get some of the most unique footage are almost animal specialists more than camera specialists. I mean, they are camera specialists, but they’re specialists in filming that animal. The guy who’s filming the giraffe has to be there for months and months and months, so he’s a giraffe photographer, a photographer based in that habitat. He’s unlikely to be the guy who also goes to Greenland or something. We work with what we think are the best people in the habitat or with the animal.

 

EO: Many of the sequences in the film depict a hunting situation, where our sympathy lies not with the hungry hunter who has to feed her family but with the terrified victim. Why and how do you do that? Through the script? Because we’re introduced to the victim before we’re introduced to the hunter? Why aren’t our sympathies with the hungry predator?

RD: You encounter this a lot, and I think sometimes the predator in these things is pretty short-served sometimes. You think, ‘Actually they should be getting our sympathy too.’ In our film, we say, “The penguins are predators, they are hunting too.” The reality is that one’s sympathy is with whoever is introduced as the character. You could probably make the argument you’re making the opposite way around for a number of those creatures, but your point’s a good one.

I think the ambition behind the film in a more general way might answer your question. I didn’t want a film that felt like this is a pristine world in which things happen in a grand manner overseen by the gods, where we’re looking at it through glass, as if it’s not a real place, it’s a place from textbooks or awe-filled ideas of what some natural history films can be, separate from us as people. I wanted to make a film about our home, the place we live, and to use language that makes that clear—that we live here too and this is about creatures who have understandings of their world perhaps not unlike our understanding of our world. They have families. They want to look after their children or do something for their partner. It’s a family film in that sense. It wants to be applicable and understandable, not just academic. One way of putting it is I didn’t want to make a film for people who are interested in animals. I wanted to make a film for people who live on earth.

Earth: One Amazing Day. Chinstrap penguins on Zavodovski Island in the Southern Ocean.

Earth: One Amazing Day. Chinstrap penguins caring for their young on Zavodovski Island in
the Southern Ocean.

EO: You’ve made a number of films about space travel. New discoveries have been made about Saturn that might suggest the possibility of life on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. After making this film, does that interest you as a subject?

RD: Personally I think it’s absolutely inevitable that we’re going to find life on another planet. What kind of complexities that life will have is the big question. It’s interesting that you would pick up on that other interest of mine. I suppose where it impacted most on this film was in the Apollo 8 story: the idea that the Apollo 8 astronauts go to the moon, orbit around the moon and are the first people to see the other side, and five or six revolutions later what they do is look up and they see the earth and take that famous picture, “Earthrise” [coincidentally, the banner image for this website]. I have to look this up, but I  believe it’s the most reproduced picture of all time, the earth rising above the moon’s horizon.

That embodies what this film, and what my attitude to these films in general, is about: we live on the most extraordinary place, and sometimes it takes a different perspective to see it for what it is. You go to the moon and you discover the earth; in that same way if you can look at it afresh you can see how an everyday situation is far from everyday. There is something very much in the film that is embedded in the idea of space travel, of seeing the earth as a blue dot in an otherwise gray universe and thinking, ‘What an extraordinary place.’ At the very beginning, we made a little film for ourselves as a kind of mood piece, and it was based on this idea of the Apollo 8 astronauts and how they discovered the earth. It gave us the sense that if we made this film right, the Intergalactic Tourist Board would show it and say, “Want to spend your holiday somewhere great? Go to Earth, they’ve got everything there.” And we would say, “Aren’t we lucky? We already live here.”

 

Copyright © Earth On Screen 2017

Company Town/Natalie Kottke-Masocco

 

The Koch Brothers are poisoning the tiny town of Crossett, Arkansas. On the outskirts of this largely African-American hamlet, Penn Road lies just across the runoff ditch from the Georgia-Pacific paper and chemical plant. Eleven of the fifteen families who live on Penn Road have lost someone to cancer. Tests conducted on Crossett’s air, land, and water reveal harmful chemicals such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide, and formaldehyde, linked to the plant. For the past four years, the residents of Crossett have been fighting back against Koch Industries, Georgia-Pacific’s owner. Despite testimony from regional scientists and experts on federal environmental law, Crossett’s efforts to force the EPA and state agencies to enforce state regulations regarding emissions and dumping of toxic waste have been largely unsuccessful. Filmmakers Natalie Kottke-Masocco and Erica Sardarian have recorded the town’s battle in Company Town, a documentary that is also a tool for social justice. To take action on a petition submitted by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic in support of the citizens of Crossett, click here. •Availability: Opens September 8, New York City, Cinema Village. Thanks to Kelly Hargraves, First Run Features, for arranging this interview.

A victim of Georgia-Pacific’s pollution in Crossett, Arkansas. Photo by Nikolaus Czarnecki.

A victim of Georgia-Pacific’s pollution in Crossett, Arkansas. Photo by Nikolaus Czarnecki.

DT: Can you give us an overall picture of what’s happening in Crossett, Arkansas.

NKM: Crossett, Arkansas, is a tiny rural Southern town that’s ruled by this company called Georgia-Pacific. Georgia-Pacific is a paper mill and chemical plant owned by the Koch Brothers. This company has extreme power, and it’s the true lifeblood of the town. The mission of our story is, What do you do when the only employer in town is also poisoning you? The people in this town work for the mill, their grandfathers worked for the mill, it’s generational. It’s part of the fabric of their everyday life. It’s their bread and butter. It’s their paycheck. People either work there or have a child there, and they’ve given their entire lives to the company.

 

Only there’s egregious pollution in this small town by Georgia-Pacific. There’s door-to-door cancer. On one street alone, eleven out of fifteen homes experienced a death from cancer. Their water is polluted, their air is polluted—they’re wracked by the pollution at Georgia-Pacific. We set out to tell the story of what that situation looks like, as well as the blatant disregard by the local government and the Environmental Protection Agency, the lack of oversight, and the total dismissiveness of the EPA. It’s a story that’s very complex.

 

DT: The Reverend David Bouie, the local pastor, is organizing the town to fight back. Had they already started to organize when you entered the picture?

Organizing in Crossett. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki.

Organizing in Crossett. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki.

NKM: When I first came in, the town was not organized. It all started in 2011, when I was working on a documentary called Koch Brothers Exposed directed by Robert Greenwald. I was looking at the Koch Brothers’ environmental catastrophes across the country, and I produced a small segment on Crossett and literally just stumbled upon this town. I called Pastor Bouie, who is our main subject in the film, and he said, “I won’t speak with you unless you come here in person.” Two days later I flew there and we knocked on doors together and I met with him, I met his neighbors, I met the community, and it blossomed from there.

I spent six years covering the story, four years investigating the cancer cases and documenting the investigation into the EPA, as well as the people taking action in this town. When I saw something of the pollution they face and spoke with neighbors and spent so much time with Pastor Bouie, I knew there was a bigger story there that really deserved to be told.

We were documenting the investigation of Georgia-Pacific and the EPA as it was unfolding over four or five years, so we were embedded with the EPA and embedded with the citizens, and we got a whistleblower to come forward, Dickie Guice, who’s incredibly brave and spoke out in the New Yorker last fall about the egregious pollution dumping behind people’s homes. It’s really quite unbelievable, to the point where government officials are on the land of a worker who has invoices showing that Georgia-Pacific dumped waste on his private land even though it’s not designated landfill by the EPA.  The federal EPA officials are on his land holding the contamination in their hands and saying, “I don’t know what to do with this.” This blatant disregard for citizens’ lives is egregious, and it highlights what we’re seeing today in the Trump administration, with Scott Pruitt heading the EPA.

Holding solid toxic waste. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki.

Holding solid toxic waste. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki.

DT: The EPA under Pruitt is taking a direction none of us want, but I was shocked by the EPA’s behavior in your film, which took place before Trump came in.

NKM: Exactly. It’s now clearly  obvious to the public that Scott Pruitt is literally tied to the Koch Brothers. The New York Times revealed only days after he was appointed that he had direct ties to the Koch Brothers to benefit his pocket and the Koch Brothers’ plants. As a former attorney general, Scott Pruitt sued the EPA fourteen times. He is a blatant anti-environmentalist, and this is the man who is now protecting public health, which is totally outrageous.

Our film highlights what was happening on a local level across the nation before Pruitt. You have these local administrators who are supposed to protect the people—in this case, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality—and you see that the citizens have to do everything in their power to bang on their door and they’re still not listening. The fact that the EPA is looking the other way is not new. As you see in the film, they’re laughing and smirking. At the meeting where the citizens are giving testimony after testimony, the EPA and the Department of Health and the Department of Water just blatantly one after the next disregard the findings of independent scientists, which include benzene in the water along with sixty other chemicals, and an outrageous amount of hydrogen sulfide in the air. Georgia-Pacific has had numerous violations this year alone of hydrogen sulfide, which causes severe headaches, nausea, stomach pain.

You see these meetings where the local and federal officials are disregarding blatant evidence presented by the community and by independent scientists, but you also see an example of the resistance movement happening today: people on a grassroots level like we’re seeing in town halls across the country right now are fighting back because the government isn’t protecting them. This has been a longtime problem, before Scott Pruitt, but it’s exacerbated now with Pruitt and the Trump administration.

 

DT: While documenting the investigation of the EPA and the local government agencies, did you find that they were in the Koch Brothers’ pockets, the same way the Times discovered the emails between the Koch Brothers and Pruitt?

NKM: Yes. It’s in the film, and this is incredibly important to note. In the film, the deputy of EPA Region 6, Sam Coleman, says to Pastor Bouie in a private phone conversation that is revealed in the film, “Mr. Bouie, you were correct. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA are in bed with Georgia-Pacific and the Koch Brothers.” He said that. They’re doing everything they can to get away from this, and they’re on the run. We have them in violation. Sam Coleman from the EPA admits that Georgia-Pacific is in violation, and he admits that they’re in bed with the local state agencies and looking the other way. It’s so blatant.

 

DT: What recourse do the citizens of Crossett have now?

Pollution flowing out of the Koch Brothers’ Georgia-Pacific plant in Crossett, Arkansas. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki.

Pollution flowing out of the Koch Brothers’ Georgia-Pacific plant in Crossett, Arkansas. Photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki.

NKM: This is total environmental injustice along with total economic injustice, and it’s happening all across the country. Crossett represents small towns like Hinkley, California, Love Canal, and Flint, Michigan. These communities are being bullied by big business, and they’re taking the power in their hands and speaking out. You see the citizens of Crossett organizing in the film; Pastor Bouie has created the Crossett Concerned Citizens for Environmental Justice. The town is galvanized, they are organized, and we are using this film as a tool for social action.

This isn’t just a film: it’s an official action campaign. Tulane Environmental Law Clinic has filed a civil rights petition against the EPA for discrimination based on the fact that Crossett is predominantly an African-American community that is disproportionately polluted by Georgia-Pacific. There is a complaint at the civil rights desk at the federal EPA in Washington, D.C., right now, and they have accepted the investigation. What a citizen can do at this moment is actually call the desk to put pressure on the EPA.

 

DT: Whom should people call, and what’s the number?

NKM: You can take action by calling Tanya Lawrence. She’s acting director of the EPA office of civil rights. The number is 202-564-2916.

DT: Is this ongoing, or is there a time limit on when Ms. Lawrence will accept phone calls?

NKM: It’s ongoing. I’m checking in on it weekly, but at the moment it’s ongoing. It will be voice mail as well, so I hope people don’t get deterred by that. They’re getting all of the calls and they’re getting all of the voice mails, and the more people who leave messages and the more calls they get, the more powerful the pressure will be on them to go to Crossett and investigate it. We were in the middle of the investigation as we shot the film, and we’re rolling out the film right now with the theatrical release. We’ll update the website if there are going to be any changes to the actual action, but right now the most powerful tool and the most powerful way a person can step up for Crossett is by making these phone calls and putting pressure on the EPA.

 

DT: How are you using the film as a tool for promoting social change? Where are you screening it? How do people access it? Do you have a presence on social media?

NKM: We’re having our theatrical premiere in New York, September 8, for one week at Cinema Village Theater in Greenwich Village. We also have incredibly exciting news that the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, is speaking opening night at 8:00 p.m. It will be incredible to have him there, and we are really honored.

DT: Do you have a Facebook page?

NKM: You can reach us on Facebook at Company Town Film. The people in Crossett are incredibly brave for stepping forward, and we want the people who watch this film to feel inspired to act and to help clean up Crossett, as this represents communities across the country that are polluted by big business.

 

DT: Is the film going to be available online? How can people who don’t live in New York see it?

NKM: We’re doing a theatrical release first in New York, then in L.A., then in D.C., and it will eventually be available online. That will be announced. People can go to our website companytownfilm.com  and subscribe. We send out a monthly or bimonthly newsletter, and we’ll have updates on where the film is showing across the country and when it will be available online. We encourage people to visit the website because our action is also up there, so people can sign up for the newsletter, how to watch the film, and also how to take action to clean up Crossett.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

NKM: This story is incredibly powerful, and these people are incredibly brave. We really want the film to be a tool to put pressure on the EPA for stricter regulations in Crossett. I urge people to take action and get involved and engage with us on social media so we can make a big impact to clean up the town.

 

DT: Has anyone started a national movement to connect the Love Canal, Flint, Michigan, and Crossett, Arkansas dots? Is anyone aggregating them in a lawsuit or some kind of national movement?

NKM: We highlight in the film that we look at Crossett as part of a movement and an example of towns across the country polluted by big business. As far as an aggregated movement online…that’s a great idea! In the film and on our website and in all of our materials we’re very mindful of including those other examples as cases of what’s happening across the country and connecting them back to Crossett because they’re eerily similar. Flint, Michigan, exploded back in 2015, and it was just like in Crossett—the EPA on the ground and local state officials turning the other way.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Chasing Coral/Jeff Orlowski

Warming ocean temperatures are killing the world’s coral reefs at an alarming rate. This amazing film is the first step in a campaign to save this underwater miracle.  Click here for the film’s website. To join the campaign, click here•Availability: Streaming now on Netflix, and available in select theaters. To host a screening or to find a screening near you, click hereThanks to Kate Patterson, Brigade Marketing, and Kim Parker Gordon, Netflix, for arranging a screening.

Chasing Coral. A healthy reef.

Chasing Coral. A healthy reef.

To most of us, the oceans are alien worlds, populated by strange creatures who live  in unknowable depths. Yet oceans are the source of all life on earth. They control our weather and air. They provide us with pleasure, food, raw materials to make cancer-fighting drugs. They inspire love.

For all that, we’re killing the oceans and the remarkable creatures who live there. It’s a simple but tragic process: The carbon dioxide we pour into the air traps heat; 93 percent of that heat is absorbed by the oceans. (Without them, the average land temperature would be 122 degrees.) In the process, the temperature of the oceans has risen to such an extent that they’re becoming inhospitable to marine life.

Chasing Coral. Shooting dead coral.

Chasing Coral. Shooting dead coral.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the coral reefs, living superstructures that create their own habitats, much like cities aboveground. The reefs support vast quantities of fish, which many human communities depend on for survival. But in the last thirty years alone, 50 percent of the world’s coral has died, affecting a quarter of the life in the oceans.  In twenty-five years, the oceans may be too warm for coral reefs to survive at all.  According to a March 15, 2017 article in the New York Times, “Hundreds of millions of people get their protein primarily from reef fish, and the loss of that food supply could become a humanitarian crisis.”

Richard Vevers, founder and CEO of The Ocean Agency, knew he wanted to address the calamity unfolding below, but he didn’t quite know how. Before entering the field of ocean conversation, Vevers had spent ten years as a top London ad exec, and he’d brought this advertising mentality to The Ocean Agency. The advertising problem with oceans, he discovered, was that they’re largely out of sight—and therefore out of mind. So he formulated an ambitious goal: revealing the oceans to the world.

Chasing Coral. Coral bleaching.

Chasing Coral. Coral bleaching.

But how best to alert a largely uncaring world to a problem they couldn’t see?  As it turns out, corals respond to rising temperatures by bleaching, or turning stark white. For an ad exec seeking to communicate the dire state of ocean affairs, that was an unfortunate response, because the white looked beautiful, not stressed. Vevers realized he needed to communicate the problem in a different way. One night, after watching Chasing Ice, the Emmy-winning documentary about the effects of climate change on the world’s glaciers, Vevers realized that the answer to his ocean problem was change: in order to move people to action, he had to show them what they were losing.

And so Chasing Coral was born. Vevers brought Jeff Orlowski, director of Chasing Ice, onboard, along with an amazing crew, who would use remote-controlled underwater time-lapse photography to document the ongoing death of coral reefs. They designed and created a revolutionary photography system, in which underwater cameras manufactured with 3D printers would be placed inside transparent bubbles and situated on the ocean floor, where they would communicate wirelessly with an operator sitting in a boat. There was only one problem: the system didn’t work. Under pressure to catch the corals before they died completely, they switched to the old-fashioned method: documenting the change by hand, making twenty-five dives per day along the Great Barrier Reef.

In the process, they discovered that stressed corals did more than turn a beautiful white: In their second stress response, the corals glowed, producing the equivalent of a chemical sunscreen to ward off the heat. It was as if they were screaming, in their final phase of death, Look at me. Please notice.

Chasing Coral. The final death phase.

Chasing Coral. The final death phase.

Shooting manually, the crew developed emotional ties to the reefs. Besides the utter beauty of the corals themselves and the astonishing creatures who live there, the crew’s love for the coral humanizes the reefs, giving Chasing Coral a stirring resonance.

Corals, when alive, are breathtakingly beautiful. They’re enchanting, and mysterious, and life-giving. We see all of that in Chasing Coral. But they are not only objects of beauty to be admired from a distance; they’re also valued neighbors in this ecological web we share with other lifeforms. That’s in Chasing Coral, too. And that’s the part we really need to see.

Go to chasingcoral.com to learn about how you can get involved.

 

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Power to Change/Carl Fechner

In Power to Change, German filmmaker and journalist Carl Fechner issues an open invitation to people around the world: Join the energy rebellion.  Fechner speaks with members of Parliament, students, inventors, investors, and ordinary folks who understand the crisis of climate change and implement solutions in their own lives, from fighting for energy independence to reducing their personal carbon footprint through simple energy-saving techniques at home. Come: Join the energy rebellion. It’s an invitation we can’t afford to refuse. To learn how you can join the energy rebellion, visit the film’s website  •Availability: Sunshine Cinema, New York City, April 5 and 6. Thanks to Thessa Mooij and Laura Schwab, Silversalt PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: What do you mean by “energy rebellion”?

power to change_windmillCF: It means that people take power in their own hands. They make their own decisions to change to 100 percent renewable energy. They don’t wait for big companies with lots of money to do it—they decide to produce energy efficiently on their own. They decide to heat with solar collectors. All of these things, which everybody can do without the government, without laws: That’s what I call energy revolution, or energy rebellion.

 

 

DT: In the film, you present a selection of people who are participating in the energy rebellion, as well as the solutions they’re choosing, such as collective battery storage facilities, transport mobility, skysails, energy efficiency training.

CF: People know more about the problems than about the solutions. We know about all those catastrophes, but we don’t focus on the fact that there are lots of possibilities for everybody to solve the problem. We have this climate catastrophe coming up—the water level is rising, we already have more than twenty million refugees in Europe because of climate change. I don’t want to deny that, but the most important part is that people get the idea in their hearts, in their heads, that they can solve the problem, that they are responsible for their lives. Those are the prototypes of people we chose to be in the film, out of more than a thousand examples we found during our year of research. Our subjects all had ideas focusing on fighting for justice and fighting for nature. We chose people you could recognize anywhere. When we showed the film in Iran, people came up to me after the Q&A and said, “The guy in your film is like my brother” or “I am like him” or “He is like me.” It was very touching for me because we saw that this idea was starting to take hold. We showed this film in 350 cities in Germany, and you could see the people reacting.

To answer your question about solutions, you see a broad range in the film. In Berlin you see a man working as an energy efficiency expert [going to people’s apartments and analyzing how they can save money by using energy more efficiently]. He’s living on 380 euros a month, he’s very poor, but he’s fully engaged in this energy efficiency job because it gives him new courage and new ideas. For me, he was one of the most important.

 

DT: One of the solutions I found the most interesting was in Bordesholm, where they’re making their town completely energy independent, which seems to be the essence of what you’re talking about—people taking energy independence into their own hands, which is actually happening in Germany.

CF: It is happening. We’ve already changed our energy production, so that 33 percent of the electricity is coming out of renewable energy. This is only working because of the engagement of private people and small companies. The big international companies we have here in Germany, RWE or ENVW, have only 7 percent investment in renewables. Seven. So more than 2.5 billion euros in the past eight or ten years is coming out of normal people, with a little bit from the investment sector. That means a lot of people are changing their behavior, for example, not eating so much meat or flying less. It’s a movement in general society. In my company, for example, we don’t fly in the country anymore. Tomorrow I’m giving a keynote speech in Berlin. I’ll drive my electric car to the station in Stuttgart, where I’ll take the train, which gets me to Berlin in six hours. Before I always flew.

 

DT: In the United States, Germany, and the Ukraine, fossil fuel industries have been the major source of funding for totalitarian regimes, but energy independence would completely change international geopolitics. Can you talk about the effect of energy independence on global relations, as it was presented in the film?

Power To Change_nuclear plant

CF: That’s why we selected Ukraine. Most people don’t know very much about the background of that war.  In the east of Ukraine they have very big coal mines; nearly 90 percent of the energy used in Ukraine, which is a rather big country, comes out of that region. The war is about that, among other things. Their movement for energy independence is growing bigger and bigger; the minister of the environment says they could be energy independent [from Russia].

At the moment they are codependent not only on Russia but on other countries too. There are lots of American companies, for example, that are already involved in fracking there. That’s what it means to be dependent. For example, Germany at the moment is dependent on Turkey, that’s why we are so soft on Erdogan. Dependence is always a problem, especially if you are dependent on power for electricity and heating. Years ago people were dying in Ukraine because of lack of gas when Russia stopped gas imports into the country. Energy autonomy would have a very big role in the war, and that’s why we say in the film that it’s a very important subject for peacemaking.

 

DT: One of the people you profile in your film is Mr. Roughani, a wealthy businessman who’s considering joining the energy rebellion by remodeling his company.

Power to Change_Roughani

CF: In 2015, we had more than a million refugees in Germany. Chancellor Merkel said, “OK, we got it, no problem,” and she’s right. For all the trouble that causes, we’re very happy about people like Mr. Roughani, who’s a refugee from Iran, and Anya, from the Ukraine, who have come to us and are now part of the solution. Mr. Roughani is a rich young man who’s decided to take his business more and more down a renewable energy path. He’s changing not only his company but his personal behavior as well.

 

DT: In order to get people on board the energy rebellion, they have to understand the problem of climate change, but many people say it’s simply too big to grasp. As I was watching your film, I was struck by an analogy that might be useful: we’re like a person who has a heart attack, who’s told that he must change his diet if he wants to survive.  It seems like a useful image because everyone can understand it. And the fact of the matter is that  unless we change our energy diet, we’re not going to survive as a species.

CF: The image of a heart attack is right, and there are many good reasons to change. Unfortunately there are many very powerful people, rich people, who are fighting against that. They’re fighting against their personal health, if you stay with your image.

This struggle  is not over at all—it’s getting even more difficult. In my previous film, The Fourth Revolution: Energy (2010), we interviewed Hermann Scheer [Member of the German Parliament, President of the European Association for Renewable Energy EUROSOLAR, Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy WCRE]. Ten years ago, he said, “We have 5 percent renewable energy, we want to take it up to 10 percent.” Today we’re starting at 33 percent. The big companies, as well as the part of the government that is dependent on these big companies, are really losing money. That’s why this fight is harder, that’s why we speak now about resistance: we really have to fight for all that. Perhaps it is a final fight.

We would like to leave atomic power in Germany, but in France they have more than 80 percent of their energy produced by atomic power. We have a long way to go, but we don’t have the time for that. In Germany and other industrial countries we have to go down to 0 carbonization, 0 production, by 2040. If not, the planet will heat by two degrees. That means we have only 23 years. That’s very close. That’s why we say it requires a big change in people’s minds, in their self-definitions. That’s why we speak about a revolution—an energy rebellion.

 

DT: You’re truly talking about a worldwide revolution of values, of lifestyles, of a way of relating to each other.

CF: Yes. That is what we’re thinking about, and that means that we have to change our focus. These are personal decisions.  I wanted to stop making films after making The Fourth Revolution, but there was a lot of interest in this film. People say that the energy revolution is working.

We need to make personal decisions in our hearts. That’s why we made this film. We didn’t just share optimistic people with good solutions—we issued an invitation to everybody to be part of this movement, because I think it’s better to invite people than to shock them.

 

DT: The United States has a president who wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, which is headed by Scott Pruitt, who doesn’t even believe that climate change is man-made. How big a threat is that to the global situation, and also to the energy revolution?

CF: In the beginning, many people were really frustrated about the election in America, especially when we saw that he’s not only talking about what he calls change but doing it.  But now we see here that people are beginning to realize they have to fight for their ideas. If they don’t, they’ll get a situation like America. So there’s increased resistance, and perhaps that’s a good message that we have from this man. Never again, an election like that. However, in Switzerland, for example, people had a referendum about stopping atomic power at once or in ten years, and they voted for ten years, so we don’t have to look as far away as America to see people deciding something strange. But never give up, never give up the movement, especially when you’re tired.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

 

The Age of Consequences/Jared Scott

In The Age of Consequences, generals, admirals, Pentagon officials, climate scientists, and military veterans analyze the impact of climate change on global stability and national security. Director Jared Scott illuminates the connections between drought, the conflict in Syria, and the rise of ISIS; extreme weather and the Arab Spring; desertification and the refugee crisis in Europe.  The message is clear: unless we make drastic changes in our attitudes toward climate change, its sociopolitical consequences–failed states, terrorism, refugees–will threaten our security as much as rising sea levels, intense storms, and heat waves will. To view the trailer, click here•Availability: Opens January 27, New York City, Cinema Village, with international rollout to follow. Click here for screenings. Thanks to Weiman Seid, FAT DOT, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: The thesis of your film is climate change presents a challenge to national security. Let’s talk about the mechanisms that make that work—humanitarian crises, failed states, radicalization—as they were presented in the film.

Climate change is an accelerant of geopolitical instability.

Climate change is an accelerant of geopolitical instability.

JS: The important thing to note is that climate change is always one factor in a confluence of many sociopolitical factors. It can help spark, perpetuate, aid and assist in conflict, unrest, migration, security issues, humanitarian crises; all these issues are intertwined. In the film we try to make the point that when climate change impacts occur—resource scarcity, drought, desertification, competition of resources, sea level rise—they interact with other factors. That’s what the military establishment calls a threat multiplier or an accelerant of instability or conflict. It’s not that climate change causes these directly, it’s that there’s systemic risk. Climate change exacerbates everything else.

 

DT: In the film climate change is presented as a stimulus that agitates underlying conditions of instability into conflict.

JS: Exactly. There are a number of different ways to say the same thing. As you quote Sharon Burke [Senior Adviser, New America, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy] in the film, it’s always about how climate change interacts with other preexisting problems.

 

DT: You include a number of case studies in the film. Let’s talk about the sequence on Syria and how climate change impacted the political situation there.

JS: You look at the Arab Spring, you look at the Fertile Crescent area, you look at Syria specifically; in a lot of these instances there have been studies that try to do an autopsy on how climate change has effected a certain kind of environmental impact. We know this is a difficult thing to do. There’s a baseball steroid analogy: baseball players have always hit home runs. After they started taking steroids, they still hit home runs, but now they’re hitting them farther and more frequently. It’s hard to say, “That home run is because of steroids and that one isn’t,” but we know the whole game has changed. You can use the same idea with climate change. With every storm surge, it’s not that this storm is there because of climate change—it’s more likely that we’re going to have more storms and they’re going to be more intensified.

A climate refugee.

A climate refugee.

When we referenced Syria in the film, we referenced a quantitative study that looked at the drought over a period of years. What Colin P. Kelley and Richard Seager and a number of others set forth in that study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, was that in this particular instance, climate change made the drought in Syria two to three times more likely. In the film, we point to that study to confirm the idea that climate change was at play in the Syrian civil war. To what degree? I don’t know; this report was their attempt to quantify it. You see that and say, climate change played a role in the drought, the drought played a role in migration and destabilizing parts of the country, and then you have to see how all that stuff snowballs and interacts.

You have the Assad regime, which isn’t subsidizing farmers’ losses. You have well drilling that’s inadequate and bureaucratic. You have people that are then on the move. You have prices going up. You have unemployment. You have lots of poor governance. You have a lot of unrest.  All of this stuff comes together and combines and creates this issue. You also have to realize we had a lot of people on the move from the conflict in Iraq going all the way back to 2001. I had a Syrian sit down with me and map out the demographics of Syria. It’s incredibly complex—different types of people from different types of places who have settled here, who have settled there, who belong to this, who belong to that. Clearly that extends into Iraq. The borders around some of these countries in the Fertile Crescent aren’t always clear-cut; there are all sorts of other societal tensions that you have to consider. Once you uncover all of that, you see that how everything interacts is quite complex. But the basic concept is pretty simple: climate change can take something like a drought and make it worse; that environmental factor can then play a role in other sociopolitical factors. The whole thing ultimately comes to a head, like the conflict in the Syrian civil war.

DT: One of the factors you cited was that climate change can lead to variability in rainfall. Controlling water then becomes critical, and ISIS used this as an instrument of war.

JS: The idea of controlling water and food in conflict goes way back. People have always used resources to subjugate and control other populations, and harm other people. What we’re trying to show in the film is that you have to consider the use of water scarcity not just as a weapon of war but as an issue that can lead to all sorts of unrest, competition, conflict. You have to realize that every case is different, but it’s always going to play a factor in a number of different ways.

 

DT: Let’s talk about another issue brought up in the film: globally interconnected systems—in this case, food. Can you talk about what happened when fire destroyed the wheat crops in Russia and destabilized the Middle East in 2010?

JS: As I mentioned, there are a number of factors at play here, but what we tried to do in the film was lay out a few key factors in how they connect. We make those connections in what we call the nexus, which is a graphic treatment that shows this constellation of factors. In the particular case that you’re referring to, heat waves led to drought, which led to the destruction of the wheat crop in several countries, including Ukraine and China and Russia. Wheat is a commodity traded on the global market, but when the Russian crops failed, they banned the export of wheat. A number of dynamics then took place on the international stage. China started to panic-buy, while in North Africa and the Middle East, where a lot of countries import their wheat, you saw a price hike. In Tunisia and Jordan people were holding baguettes in the street, chanting, “Bread and freedom,” and the same chant was heard in Egypt.

In certain regions of Egypt, the price of wheat shot up 300 percent. When the majority of the population is dependent on these imports for food and that price hikes significantly, where you either have food and you’re paying a lot more for it or you don’t have food and can’t pay for it, people are going to get unhappy, and they’re probably going to do something about it. That can then aid and abet smoldering embers that already exist from other injustices, other problems, other societal tensions and factors. This can be a spark, as we saw in the film.  In Tahrir Square in Cairo there were many other political points they were upset about,  but in the rural areas in Egypt, where people were more affected by the price hikes, you saw a sense of solidarity around the movement.

If you look at the Arab Spring, there’s a conflagration of different people coming together to create this wildfire that swept the nation, and this was clearly one of those factors. There was another study, which we don’t reference in the movie, that says that climate change is estimated to have made the extreme heat wave in Russia in the summer of 2010 approximately three times more likely to occur than it would have otherwise.

The important thing to note is that you want to be careful. I try to be very clear that there are a number of caveats. I can’t just come out and say climate change is the biggest national security risk to the country: I can’t say that without an asterisk. That’s the advantage of a long-format documentary. We live in a very sound-byte-driven news world. A lot of people do skim news reading, just flipping through Facebook—we saw the problem with how fake news propagates there—so with a documentary the point is not to be as sound-bytey; not as pithy. Of course you still have to boil the essence down, but you also want to have a long-form discussion.  I think we paint a pretty clear picture in the film that is backed up by really respectable voices and facts. Nevertheless, we do want the audience to have a visceral experience that climate change is not just an esoteric issue that they can’t touch or see but is something that it is happening right now and is playing a role in conflict and will continue to play a role in conflict even moreso moving forward.

 

DT: At a symposium following one of the screenings, one of the audience members wondered if perhaps the film is a bit fear-mongering. What do you think?

JS:  I don’t think it is. With a climate change film—or any social issue film—people come with a lot of preconceived notions and ideas, even answers. Based on that availability heuristic, people are going to have different responses to the film. People who know all this stuff will just say, “I’ve heard all this before.” Our goal was to look at what’s called in organizing terms a spectrum of allies. The idea of the spectrum of allies is to try to target an audience—in this case, our passive allies or our neutral allies—and try to get them one step over on the pie chart to being more active allies.

Limits to growth.

Limits to growth.

I think that some of those people just don’t recognize that there’s a problem. I understand that. I empathize. I feel the same way. Sometimes it feels like a clear and present danger, and other times it feels like this faraway, esoteric slow burn. It’s not like a stampede of wild elephants, it’s not a gun to the head, so what we tried to lay out is that if people don’t recognize that there is a problem, then they’re going to be less inclined to find a solution. I see zero fear-mongering in what it is we lay out, but we do want to paint the picture that there’s a problem. It’s just like the scientists: It’s not that the scientists are alarmists; it’s that the science is alarming. It’s not that we’re trying to scare people; it’s that this information is scary. So yes, it’s grim, but we tried our best not to make it sensationalized. You don’t hear that reality TV drumming. We didn’t try to make it seem apocalyptic. We really tried to keep it cinematic and thoughtful and highbrow so people wouldn’t consider it over the top. I think we did a really good job of finding that balance, and I’m really proud of my whole team, who scrutinized every section and every shot and every fact to strike that balance. So in short, I say absolutely not, but everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.

 

DT: Climate change greatly affects the most vulnerable people on the planet. In your view, is it possible to separate climate change from climate justice or social justice issues?

JS: Just as I’ve been unable to talk about how climate change impacts conflict without mentioning other sociopolitical factors, I think it’s really hard to talk about climate change without discussing justice issues and equality issues. It’s all of these issues. For so long we’ve thought of climate change as just an environmental issue, but we’ve seen that change. Clearly it’s an issue of national security, it’s an economic issue, it’s a health issue, it’s a social justice issue, it’s an environmental justice issue. It’s a political issue. It’s an all-of-us issue. It’s an everything issue. It’s really hard to divorce the issue from all these overlapping issues. In many ways climate change is the lynchpin that weaves in and out of all this stuff. What we do know is that if we get climate change right, we get a lot of other things right as well.

 

DT:  In 2015, the National Security Council included climate change as one of the top eight strategic risks to this country, along with a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil and WMDs. Can you address this issue?

Wildfires brought on by climate-induced drought.

Wildfires brought on by drought.

JS: We’ve seen the issue of climate change as a national security risk appear not only in documents signed by the Secretary of Defense in the DOD’s quadrennial defense review, the bedrock strategic document  for the department, but we’ve also seen it in the intelligence community, in the security community, and we saw it in the national security strategy that was released in 2015, where it’s listed as one of the top eight risks. You see this in reports from the Department of Homeland Security, it’s in CIA assessments, a number of other intelligence assessments. There’s been a lot of research and work on the part of the powers that be to understand the threat of climate change. It’s also important to note that the military is looking at this as a risk assessment. Although we have these institutions—the DOD, the DOS, the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community—the job of these government groups is to understand the problem and how it all fits together. That doesn’t mean it’s their job to fix it.

You have to recognize that this is still a civil society issue because you have a civilian-run government; the commander in chief in power asks these departments to look at certain things. A new administration could come in and say, you know what? Stop looking at this. It doesn’t mean they’re going to scrub this from the records, but there could be different directives that come into play, because we do have a civilian-controlled military and certain directives could change that. As of right now, under the [Obama] administration, we see the issue of climate change as being a strategic risk in a number of different papers and reports in a number of different agencies.

 

DT: Most Americans don’t realize that the largest U.S. naval base in the world, at Norfolk, Virginia, will be inundated by 2040 due to sea level rise. Most Americans also don’t realize that the navy has a task force on climate change or that the navy plans to generate all their electricity through natural resources and biofuel. Trump is putting a lot of generals in his cabinet. Given the military’s interest in climate change, do you think they’ll have any effect on the new administration?

JS: It would all be supposition at this point. Clearly the Trump administration has vowed to dismantle the EPA and cancel the Paris Accords and roll back a lot of the executive orders put in place by the Obama administration. There might be some cognitive dissonance in there, but unfortunately what we’ve heard is that the trend is going to be against combating the issue of climate change. I mean, we just had Rex Tillerson, an oil executive, approved as Secretary of State, so it doesn’t look good. I don’t know what kind of influence there will be in the DOD.  It’s a giant agency, and there are a lot of different views within it. It is a command culture, so when the top brass decides this is what they’re going to focus on, people follow orders. We’ll see if climate change is on that agenda, but based on some other early indicators, it doesn’t look likely.

 

DT: In your film, someone said, “We are now in the age of consequences,” which is obviously where the film got its title. What does that mean?

JS: That’s actually on the floor of the Senate, in 2007, and she’s quoting a report called “The Age of Consequences,” which was released by The Center for Strategic and International Studies. The film is actually an homage to that report, which  came out early on in the conversation.

There are three kinds of buckets. One is mitigation, one is adaptation, and one is consequence management—these are the three things we’ve got to deal with when it comes to climate change. Mitigation is the best choice. Adaptation is necessary to build a resilient society, and of course we know that there are going to be consequences. We can just sit back and brace for the worst, which I don’t think is a very thoughtful approach to dealing with climate change. Clearly, as we say in the film, neither does the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, and the security community writ large—not just in the U.S. but globally as well. We know that we can’t stop climate change, but we can still prevent unmitigated cataclysmic disaster. We have a choice. Do we want to just run eyes wide open into an accelerated age of consequences, or do we want to try to shift that to the age of resilience? It’s truly something that keeps me up at night, because as Michael Breen [former captain, U.S. Army; president and CEO of the Truman Project; cofounder, Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project] says in the film, I believe it’s the most difficult collective action we’ll ever face, and time is not on our side.

 

DT: Why did you make the film?

JS: I’ve made other climate change films, and it’s been really important to my filmmaking life to be able to try to educate and inspire and move people to action around this issue. When we set out to make this film, we were trying to find a way to engage new constituencies around the issue, our lofty goal being to create a new kitchen table conversation about climate change as an issue of national security, something that might pique the interest of people who don’t consider themselves self-identified environmentalists, or people who still think it’s an esoteric issue. Clearly there are some people who are active antagonists. What the spectrum of allies says, going back to that organizing term, is leave those people alone. Fair enough. You’re not going to always get everybody. But I think that for the rest of the people out there, other segments of society who aren’t part of the “climate choir,” you might have other entry points to understanding the seriousness of this issue. Our goal was to try to make something that would spark a dialogue, conversation—and hopefully action—with a whole new group of people.

 

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