Sunday, October 30, 2016

How to Let Go of the World

I was really looking forward to seeing the latest Josh Fox film on fracking. I loved Gasland (for which Mark Ruffalo was just added to the US Terror Advisory List for promoting), and then Chris Hedges gave this film a nod, which means a lot to me. And then one reviewer wrote that the film will "restore your faith that we, as a people, have the power to save ourselves." Exactly what I need. So I bought it on iTunes and settled in for some enlightenment.

Maybe my expectations were a smidge too high.

It fell into the same problems that made Rob Stewart's films less than stellar. In Sharkwater, Stewart had long dramatic interludes focusing on himself and the problems he experienced being unwittingly thrust into activism. And then in Revolution, he spoke at length about beginning to learn about the environment. At least Stewart, near the end, seemed to recognize the part he himself was playing in exacerbating climate change with all the air travel the film required. Did it really require it, is the question. Stewart starts asking himself some really hard questions, which I respect. Fox doesn't go there.

Like Stewart, Fox is just learning - or, at least, he presents the appearance of just learning about climate change. He's been in this a while, so I can't imagine he doesn't get the big picture yet, and I'm really not a fan of the technique of feigning ignorance to get people on board. It feels like he hadn't done any research before the shoot so we could watch him discover what it is to "eat from the tree of knowledge, and now there's no going back." I want a documentary to tell me something I don't know, and tell me with confidence. I want a climate change doc, especially, to tell the world everything they need to know to get with the program. There were too many shots of Fox walking through forests in awe of nature - look at that spider! and that tree! and that bird! Even worse, most of those shots weren't of the forest, but of Fox looking at the forest. We were to be enthralled by his wonder at nature, not by nature itself. If he were my son, this would be my favourite movie ever. But he's not.

That gets to the bigger problem here: that this film is way too focused on Fox to be compelling to anyone who isn't related to him or doesn't have a crush on him. It starts with a painfully awkward dance to show how happy he is that a river nearby won't be polluted with oil. It was a hard-won victory, and I get the celebratory tone, but there are other ways to show joyfulness without forcing us to watch a guy dance in his living room for the entire opening credits. He finds it helpful to cope with tragedy by playing the banjo. That's really nice for him, but it's doesn't necessarily translate to helping us cope by listening to him play.

Like Stewart, Fox does it all, and sometimes it's better to spread the jobs around a more talented pool. His narration is stilted, with long dramatic pauses mid-sentence throughout. There aren't rises and lulls in the intensity of his tone; it's all drama all the way through: "Just a few months later.  New York City.  Was about to get.  A wake-up call."  Couple that with a really quiet voice juxtaposed with sudden bursts of loud extended musical interludes meant my finger hovered on the volume the whole time. He had some great footage from a camera strapped to a drone, and he had the cash to film in twelve different countries, but he didn't spring for a steadicam, so much of the tromping through the forest had a Blair Witch effect.

He collected the usual litany of talking heads: Bill McKibben, Michael Mann, Elizabeth Kolbert...  but only for a few minutes each. If I had the chance to chat with Elizabeth Kolbert, I'd have so many more questions to ask. She's got a wealth of knowledge that was largely ignored. And the McKibben interview was in a food court, and they decided to include their argument with mall security about filming in the mall. I struggle to see the purpose of that clip - why they'd choose a food court to film in, and why they'd choose to highlight the conflict. Is it to mirror the pipeline protests? A corporation vs citizen struggle? He was just a security guard doing his job. Weird.

He threw in some stats about increasing weather events, rising sea levels, endangered animals, factory farms, ocean acidity, threatened protesters, that the window to slow the expected 2° rise by 2036 closes within a year from now (NASA thinks we may have already hit 2°), and that all our 40-year-old pipelines are going to break. He referred to the Amazon rainforest as the lungs of the world even though the oceans create significantly more oxygen. Standard stuff. But a few of his poignant pieces of information were learned by most of us in grade three: "People. And animals. Exhale carbon dioxide. Trees. Take in. Carbon dioxide."

What I learned? To make a good documentary, you really have to get over yourself and your personal learning experience and make the subject matter the star of the show. Read some Monbiot before you start shooting so you don't sound like you've never heard of any of this before, and so you can temper your amazement at what's being shared. A lot of it is old news to anyone remotely familiar with the issues, like that Republicans don't think climate change is caused by human activity. Even better, read the IPCC reports that came out in 2014.

As far as learning basic information about climate change, there are better films to watch to understand all the meetings leading up to Paris. Like this one at only 4 minutes:

And then Grist also explained what happened in Paris, but in much more positive terms than Fox:

So his big question, the big draw to the film, is the focus on what won't be destroyed by climate change. His thesis is that we'll still have courage and creativity and resilience and all sorts of other wonderful human attributes that should be celebrated. But, I think we won't have any of those if we don't have any humans left. This is where some knowledge of Naomi Klein's and Gordon Laxer's plans for change would have helped add some substance to his song and dance. He's struggling with how to cope with all the knowledge, but he hasn't gotten far enough in depth in his own journey to have us walk with him. He seems to want to escape rather than actually cope with the reality of it all - to actually feel that reality.

By comparison, a much better film on the complexity of coping with the environmental destruction in our own backyard is Fractured Land with Caleb Behn. Both Behn and Stewart were willing to question their own motives and involvement in a way that Fox skirts around, refusing to acknowledge, which leaves his film feeling superficial at best. And of the three filmmakers, Behn's film offers the most complex understanding of the situation and leaves you with the most hopeful spirit. We can't have real hope if we distract ourselves with music in the face of significant loss. We have to have a clear path to walk to help make it okay.

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