Docutopia #22: The Day After Tomorrow—Climate Change Docs We Should Watch Today

For all the global warming skeptics out there, I give you Hurricane Sandy.

The largest tropical weather system ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, Sandy offers the latest evidence for the earth’s increasing weather instability. In light of the catastrophic impact of the fall storm, along with record-busting temperatures and widespread droughts over the summer, you’d think it might finally be time to acknowledge that the world’s weather systems have become increasingly out of whack.

Say what you will about 2006′s An Inconvenient Truth—Davis Guggenheim’s Al Gore infotainment and box-office success—but it instructed Americans about a crucial issue in a convincing way. It did what many believe documentaries are supposed to do: help usher in a transformation, specifically making “climate change” a household word and single-handedly boosting the sales of fluorescent light bulbs in the United States. (Alas, after peaking in 2007, reports suggest fluorescent bulb shipments have not steadily improved since then.)

But An Inconvenient Truth was not a great film. Literally a lecture punctuated with punchy graphics, a few animated sections, and some borderline intimate on-the-road moments with the former Vice President, the landmark documentary will not go down in cinema history books as a highlight of the nonfiction form. Hence, not only does the United States need better energy policies—such as improved environmental protections, increasing limits on mercury emissions and smog-forming pollutants that contribute to greenhouse gases—but it also needs a better eco-doc.

In the last few years, a number of films have tackled issues of climate change and our precarious planet. But here are five (plus one) that do more than sermonize to the choir: they offer compelling stories and beautifully harrowing visions that make climate change less of a hot-button political talking-point and more of a universal human concern.


Lessons of Darkness
Werner Herzog, 1992

In this harrowing entry from the famed German filmmaker, the burning oil fields of Kuwait in the aftermath of the Gulf War become an epic metaphor for man’s apocalyptic destruction of the land. For much of the film, an airborne camera hovers over endless miles of blackened landscapes that are littered with towers of fire and vast plumes of smoke. No matter that at certain points Herzog is actually filming heroic American fire crews hired to plug the oil wells and control the blazes; in this nightmare vision—scored to the ominous operatic elegies of Wagner—we are witnessing the fiery depths of hell on earth. Upon the documentary’s release, the filmmaker was criticized for both aestheticizing war and overlaying his somber phantasmal voiceover onto a real geopolitical event. But looking back at the film today, Lessons of Darkness endures as an eerie reminder of man-made environmental cataclysm.


When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Spike Lee, 2006
Trouble the Water
Tia Lessin, Carl Deal, 2008

If Americans needed an opening salvo about the dangers of rising sea levels, Hurricane Katrina was it. These two powerful documentaries—one expansive, one intimate—offer definitive takes on the environmental catastrophe that took the lives of an estimated 2,000 people. Spike Lee’s moving and monumental four-part opus chronicles everything from the hurricane’s impact and the levees’ bursting to the harrowing accounts of survivors stranded and awaiting rescue on empty lots where their homes once stood. Layered with the mournful jazz compositions of New Orleans native Terence Blanchard, the film, true to its title, is a powerful requiem—not only for Katrina’s storm-struck weary victims and the city of New Orleans, but also for any rose-colored views we may have had about racism and poverty in the U.S. By contrast, Trouble the Water zeroes in one of the victims, by utilizing the eyewitness camcorder recordings of Kimberly Roberts, a would-be rapper who experienced the horrors of Katrina first-hand. The film uniquely positions the viewer right alongside Roberts as she experiences rising waters that force her up to the second story of her home and learns that family members were left behind to watery graves.


Manufactured Landscapes
Jennifer Baichwal, 2007

This stunning portrait of Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky, famous for his large-scale photographs of industrial landscapes, exposes the vast project of modern civilization and its devastating impact on the earth. Everything depicted in the film stretches farther, longer, and larger than expected, from immense Chinese landfills that evoke abstract expressionist paintings to endless Bangladeshi shipyards that resemble Dali-esque wastelands. Like Burtynsky’s work, the film is gorgeous and haunting as it follows the photographer’s journey through these giant industrial spaces. The film raises the question: How long can humankind’s all-consuming path of destruction continue? As Burtynsky says, “If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.”


The Island President
Jon Shenk, 2011

One of the best reviewed movies of the last year, filmmaker Jon Shenk finds in the story of Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed a compelling personal hook with which to communicate some of the urgent environmental challenges facing the planet. Both a political thriller and a compelling character portrait, the film chronicles Nasheed’s high-stakes quest to fight global warming. As the leader of the lowest country on earth, Nasheed makes clear that if sea levels continue to rise, “We will die.” The film boasts both beautiful cinematography of the Maldives as well as astonishing access to the charismatic leader as he travels around the world to go head to head with major polluters like India, China, and the U.S.


Chasing Ice
Jeff Orlowski, 2012

Another stunning cinematic vision of a natural tragedy, Chasing Ice (which opens in theaters next month and won a Sundance Best cinematography prize) follows National Geographic photographer James Balog on a quest to gather concrete evidence of climate change. Not unlike one of Werner Herzog’s own extreme characters, Balon risks his life to pursue proof in the form of vivid time-lapse photos of melting glaciers, which when they are finally compiled after years of effort, are the movie’s most memorable and convincing sequences. If the recent pictures of New York’s East Village aren’t persuasive enough, Balog finally attains the truth he long sought: the incontrovertible “canary in the climate coal mine.”


Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for

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