By Jason MacLean
The holiday season is, for many, a time for cherished rituals and down time, including watching movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf or Die Hard.
But this season is also a time for reflection on our lives and the world around us beset by conflict — and the worsening climate crisis.
Here are five film recommendations to help combine ritual and reflection. These films are analyzed in a forthcoming special issue of the Canadian Journal of Film Studies on “Climate Change and Cinema” that I co-edited with my colleague André Loiselle, a professor of film studies at St. Thomas University.
1. First Reformed (2017)
This film, chronicling the spiritual troubles of Rev. Ernst Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, supports understanding and communion with others in responding to the climate crisis.
So explains Anders Bergstrom, a University of Waterloo film and media scholar, in his article “Well Somebody Has to Do Something! First Reformed and Conceptualizing the Climate Crisis.”
In the transcendental film style used by writer and director Paul Schrader, unadorned dialogue, slow pacing and plain images are used, not to convey realism, but to present a heightened, unified and spiritual picture of existence. This style prompts viewers to rethink what they assume they already know, from politics to religion to the climate crisis.
First Reformed sees Toller, in a small congregation in upstate New York, grappling with mounting self-pity brought on partly by a tormented past. Early in the film, he counsels a young — and possibly violent — environmental activist in despair.
“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”
Later, Toller confronts a church philanthropist whose wealth derives from his company, a major polluter. Toller asks him: “Will God forgive us for what we’re doing to His creation?”
But the corporate philanthropist dismisses this. He turns the conversation back to the fact that the environmentalist whom Toller counselled killed himself. “You need to look at yourself before counselling others,” he warns the minister.
Bergstrom explains how, for the rest of the film, the directness of its slow and spare style compels us to imagine for ourselves, not only how Toller will respond, but also our own responses.
As the film builds toward its shocking denouement, the minister rejects despair and puts his faith in gathering up what he has and perhaps starting again. His choice recalls the teaching of St. Augustine: “Love, and do as you will.” No spoilers here: you’ll have to watch to see what happens.
2. Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018)
There is a scene in First Reformed where the camera slowly pans up and over funeral mourners to an endless sea of rubber tires. It then cuts to factory smokestacks, piles of plastic bottles, burning landscapes and barges polluting lifeless waterways.
This scene is remarkably similar to the Canadian documentary film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, featuring the work of renowned landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky.
In Anthropocene, we see static forms, slow-tracking shots, little-to-no dialogue and repeated compositions. Christie Milliken, a film studies professor at Brock University, writes in “Documenting the Anthropocene: Scale, Magnitude and Obfuscation in the Burtynsky Trilogy” that the film’s images “have had a haunting, mobilizing and protracted impact on me as a viewer, as a critic, and as a scholar.”
Anthropocene’s creators sought to make climate-change research accessible by weaving together iconic examples. They travelled to six continents to document humans’ impact on the planet.
Anthropocene challenges viewers to confront the uncomfortable fact that as a species on this earth, “we’ve been terraforming since the dawn of civilization … but this doesn’t make us all equally implicated.”
3. Demain (Tomorrow) (2015)
Demain (Tomorrow) is a French documentary that begins with a group of the filmmakers’ friends in a lively discussion. “We weren’t green freaks or activists,” one explains, “but most of us had kids, and none of us could just stand by after hearing this terrifying news.”
The group decides to make a film about solutions to the climate crisis. The filmmakers embody the behaviour they seek to inspire in viewers, explains Sabine von Mering, a professor of German and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Brandeis University, in “Promise Motivation: Films with Good News About Climate Change.” These behaviours include educating oneself about climate science, talking about it, joining with others and getting active.
Von Mering argues the film succeeds by providing a glimpse into climate solutions from several angles, including agriculture, energy, the economy, education and democracy.
She calls this “promise motivation,” contrasted with “risk motivation.” Of the film’s 116 minutes, 96 minutes (83 per cent) are devoted to climate solutions.
4. The Man Who Planted Trees (1987)
The Man Who Planted Trees is a Canadian, Academy Award-winning 30-minute animated film about a fictional shepherd’s single-handed quest to re-forest a barren valley.
This film illustrates the causes and misery of climate change, but also how humans can change the climate for the better, explains Susan Kevra, a lecturer in French and American studies at Vanderbilt University, in her article “The Man Who Changed the Climate: Frederic Back’s Film Adaption of The Man Who Planted Trees.”
Kevra cautions us not to scoff at the achievement of this deceptively simple film and its single-minded fictional shepherd. She shares the words of Wangarĩ Muta Maathai, the Kenyan founder of the Green Belt movement and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize:
“Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount of time … So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees to provide fuel, food, shelter and income to support their children’s education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds.”
5. Angry Inuk (2016)
Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril examines the central role of seal hunting in the lives of the Inuit, the importance of the revenue earned from sale of seal skins — and the negative impacts international campaigns against the seal hunt have had on their lives.
In “Angry Inuk, Listening to Science, and the Perpetuation of Climate Crisis in Film,” Carleton University film studies professor Kester Dyer explains the film’s argument for the right to trade seal products for consumption beyond local subsistence. This “simultaneously exposes viewers to the ecological logic of Indigenous value systems” and the need for non-Indigenous people to accept these.
The film, Dyer explains, initiates a dialogue with animal-protection groups through depicting how the Inuit have learned to understand the “language of anti-sealers and southern lawmakers,” and have “started to co-opt some of their visual strategies” in their own counter-protests, including through creative use of social media and YouTube.
Arnaquq-Baril summarizes her film as “a call for westerners to listen a little harder, and a call for Inuit to speak a little louder.”
When it comes to the climate crisis, many of us, especially non-Indigenous audiences in the Global North, need to listen and look a little harder. These five films are a good place to start.
Jason MacLean is Adjunct professor in Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan.
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