By Erin Donovan
Yeah yeah yeah, we all love Al Gore and his jaunty powerpoint presentation but Inconvenient Truth is not the only fruit, dear viewers. Here I suggest a few other environmentally-focused documentaries to make you laugh, cry, act - and seethe with anger.
1. Rivers and Tides - My personal favorite of the whole list, Rivers and Tides is a documentary about artist Andy Goldsworthy who creates large-scale sculptures out of ice, wood, creeks, fields and forests. The film is an absorbing look at the ethereal possibilities in art and nature. Goldsworthy's charm and his work's beauty (and occasional absurdity) is keenly documented by German film-maker Thomas Riedelsheimer (Touch the Sound).
2. Radiant City/The Unforeseen - Two docs that examines the clash of economic growth with environmental protection in two very different ways. Radiant City, a Canadian docudrama looks at the psychological toll living in a ceaseless suburban wasteland has on one family intercut with a series of community designers, philosophers, architects and economists to pontificate on the larger macro effects. The Unforeseen chronicles the battle over the development of a piece of land outside Austin, TX that could provide both a quick financial boon to a lagging local economy while ruining one of the area's most pristine natural playlands Barton Springs. Both films find extremely inventive methods to visualize these concepts as well. Radiant City forces its talking head experts to deliver their lectures from the back rows of a city bus, Unforeseen uses extraordinary underwater and aerial photography to illustrate both the immediate human connection and transformative awe of nature.
3. Blue Vinyl - A tongue-in-cheek but informative piece of modern yellow journalism, co-directors Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold (who would later collaborate on another worthy enviro doc, Everything's Cool) examine the toxicity of home building materials that culminates in a trek to Italy where the largest world's largest PVC vinyl siding manufacturer is on trial for manslaughter due to the toxic effects of their products.
4. Life and Debt - Stephanie Black's documentary examines the economic and environmental impacts of the IMF's mandate that Jamaica become an export economy. This decision forced the nation to grow crops that depleted their soil of all fertility, polluted the water systems and oh yeah, created even more poverty, which eventually led to outbreaks of disease due to malnourishment, which led to riots. In particular, scenes from a Chiquita banana plant raid where private security forces gun down workers will not soon be forgotten. Author Jamaica Kincaid narrates.
5. Cane Toads: An Unnatural History - A comedic short documentary that examines the disastrous results of interfering with an ecosytem. Farmers in Australia, frustrated with an infestation of beetles, imported cane toads from Hawaii who wound up not eating the beetles, poisoning all their natural predators and multiplying to the point of becoming a larger nuisance than the beetles ever were. Also holds the distinct honor of inspiring a gag in an episode of The Simpsons.
6. Manufactured Landscapes - Jennifer Baichwal used the premise of making a documentary about the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky to gain access factories, shipyards and the Three Rivers dam construction sites that the Chinese government strictly does not allow documentation of. In it we see the devastating effects of strip mining, the deplorable working conditions for shipbreakers and just where all those electronic parts go when we throw them away. The news is not good, but the cinematography is stunning and lends the subject matter a great, visceral horror.
7. Who Killed the Electric Car - A sardonic approach to the old school filmstrip style of documentary film-making. Who Killed the Electric Car? methodically examines all the suspects behind General Motor's mystifying decision in the early 90s to recall and destroy every electric car they created after having invested millions in the technology, production facilities and advertising to put them into the market. Particularly galling to see as gas now officially hits $4/gallon.
8. King Corn/The Future of Food - Two docs that examine the impact of genetic engineering and government subsidization of unhealthy, cheap foods and the effects it's having on the well-being of the planet and individual health. King Corn is an affable, hands-on approach to investigating the industrialization of food and the effect it has on one small farm town in Iowa. The Future of Food is an engaging look at the outrageous amount of influence the food industry has on government regulation and subsidies. Despite their heady subject matter both films are surprisingly entertaining without becoming preachy or dull.
9. Blue Planet: Seas of Life series - This magnificent 8-part series contains the most awe-inspiring underwater photography ever filmed from every end of the ocean. Host David Attenborough swims with blue whales; we see the habitats of coastal creatures like seals, turtles and crabs; the polar bears of the arctic and of course the amazing sharks. But the real winner here is the expedition into the open ocean, miles beneath the surface, to film sea creatures that live in complete darkness, many that have never been filmed before. They are pretty gnarly looking and prove that real life is far more bizarre than anything Hollywood could cook up.
10. Go Further - Not the most informative doc of the bunch but 90 minutes of Woody Harrelson tooling around the country in a van powered by tofu extolling the virtues of simple living and hemp cannot be missed. They also drop in on author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) who passed away shortly after.
Honorable mentions: Flow: For Love of Water (not on DVD yet but hopefully soon), Baraka, 11th Hour, Winged Migration, Darwin's Nightmare.
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