Let a thousand eco-documentaries bloom!

A guide to help you choose between "Earth" and "Earth Days," and "War, Inc." and "Food, Inc."

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published September 17, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)
Stills from Fuel, Crude, Food Inc and The End of the Line
Stills from Fuel, Crude, Food Inc and The End of the Line

Clockwise from top left, images from "Fuel," "Crude," "Food Inc." and "The End of the Line"

I say this from the bottom of my heart, with deep conviction: "An Inconvenient Truth" changed the world. Did the Davis Guggenheim-Al Gore PowerPoint-based Oscar winner mark a turning point in global climate change, and the beginning of a carbon-neutral future? Oh, that. I have no idea about that. But it sure changed the world of movies. As any successful film is likely to do, "Inconvenient Truth" established a template for other eco-catastrophe documentaries to follow, and inspired a legion of well-intentioned emulators, wannabes and copycats.

Across the filmland economy, funding dried up for zombie-stripper flicks and Iraq war docs alike, and this year the eco-doc floodgates opened. Filmgoers in 2009 have been barraged with feel-bad flicks, each of them assuring us that the dire plight of the endangered blue-tailed skink, e.g., is dooming our grandchildren to lives of poisoned, skink-free grimness and slavery, and that it is the Unique Responsibility of Our Generation to Do Something. (Cut to mid-level celebrity, say, Eliza Dushku, without much makeup on: "I always thought that skinks were, like, these pretty lizards who lived in my mom's flower pots. I was like everybody else: I didn't understand the ancient wisdom of a simpler time! When you're on the Hollywood Freeway with a triple latte, you're just not confronting the way skinks are bound with the future of our planet!")

I jest, but only sort of. The post-Gore wave of eco-docs has produced some fascinating, information-rich and occasionally beautiful filmmaking, but it also threatens to cancel itself out in a cacophonous roar of competing voices. Can you tell "Earth" apart from "Earth Days"? Is "Food Inc." a sequel to "War, Inc."? (And when is "Sex Inc." coming out?) Most of these movies bring life to the phrase "labor of love," resulting from years of dedicated work and sacrifice at starvation wages. Their directors and producers have defied the odds in getting them released at all, and most have gone on to defy conventional release patterns: They hopscotch from one film festival to the next, screen in church basements and community centers, self-distribute on DVD or online.

Some of these movies will never "succeed," according to the film industry's standards, and they vary enormously when it comes to coherence and cinematic quality. Some are genuine outsider projects, some are made by prestigious documentarians and some are corporate attempts to cash in on eco-chic. But they all represent the tip of an extremely large iceberg, and reflect the fact that environmentalism has become a mass-scale, grass-roots-based movement that can't be controlled by politicians, policy wonks or talking heads. In that sense, maybe these movies will change the world -- but only if you know which ones to catch and which ones to skip. Herewith, Salon's exclusive user's guide to the eco-docs of 2009.

"Fuel" Activist-cum-filmmaker Josh Tickell spent 11 years of his life on this film, but as he appears to have had a blast driving around the country in his goofball, biodiesel-powered van, I suppose it's all good. Pushing two hours in length and chaotically structured, "Fuel" is a high-spirited, pseudo-encyclopedic tour of everything that's wrong with America's energy policy and how it all could be made right through a combination of biodiesel, wind and solar power. Maybe his arguments aren't all as convincing as they look at first glance, but Tickell gets full marks for making an eco-doc designed to uplift and inspire -- it's the Viagra of green movies!

After taking his film (and his crunchy-power vehicles, including a new one fueled with algae) to innumerable film festivals -- and getting short-listed for the '08 documentary Oscar -- Tickell finally has a theatrical distribution deal. "Fuel" opens this week in New York, San Francisco and Washington; and Sept. 25 in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, with lots more cities to follow.

  • Hero: For better or worse this movie is about Tickell himself, and his quixotic, low-rent-Michael Moore quest to tell the world that we've already got all the darned alternative-energy technology we need, and all we lack now is the darned gumption, darn it.
  • Villain: All the usual suspects. The oil companies, the auto manufacturers, the government and to some extent the lazy-ass, narcotized American consumer. Hey, I'm not arguing the point.
  • Celebrity quotient: Pretty damn high. Woody Harrelson, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson and Larry David all appear, more or less gratuitously.
  • Film most likely to be confused with: I've already heard it referred to as "Fuel Inc." Any other movie with a short noun for a title.
  • Takeaway: I'd heard so many film-industry people moaning about this movie that I was pleasantly surprised. "Fuel" is pure agitprop, but audiences love it, and you come out convinced that our current energy policy is unbelievably dumb (no-brainer, granted) and that we at least ought to try some of Tickell's solutions.
  • Mainstream-media snark factor (MSMSF): Pretty minor so far; reviews have been decent. But documentary mavens kind of hate it, and with a New York opening this week, Tickell's about to have a can of gaseous, lethargic big-city ennui opened on his ass.

"Crude" Not an eco-doc in the classic sense, Joe Berlinger's fascinating cinéma-vérité exploration of the $27 billion pollution lawsuit filed against Chevron by indigenous groups in Ecuador shares the same consciousness-raising goals and aims at the same audience. Berlinger's fly-on-the-wall methodology ensures that there's plenty of ambiguity here, and he goes to great lengths to include Chevron's point of view (legalistic and inane as it may be). A meaty process film that captures the intersection of global petro-politics, law, inequality and celebrity, "Crude" is thought-provoking and profoundly unsettling. It most definitely does not leave you thinking that everything will be OK if you make your own diesel fuel out of corn husks scavenged from Dumpsters.

  • Hero: Up-by-the-bootstraps Ecuadoran lawyer Pablo Fajardo, a one-time oil-field worker turned indigenous-rights crusader. Secondarily and more ambiguously, Steven Donziger, the alternately appealing and offputting New York lawyer who is Fajardo's main advisor.
  • Villain: I can appreciate that Chevron is in a no-win position here. It inherited the toxic nightmare in Ecuador when it bought Texaco in 2001, and now must battle an enormous potential judgment in a country that has swung sharply toward the anti-American left. Well, cry me a river. And don't their corporate communications people understand that the more they attack Berlinger's film, the more people will want to see it?
  • Celebrity quotient: London socialite Trudie Styler swans through the poisoned indigenous communities in one awkward sequence. In fairness, Styler and her husband, Sting, have done a great deal to help the afflicted villages, and have put the Chevron case on the international cause-of-the-month calendar.
  • Film most likely to be confused with: "Fuel"
  • Takeaway: It's a grim and engaging yarn leavened by flashes of possibility, something like the legal case from Dickens' "Bleak House" transplanted into "Heart of Darkness." Opening-week audiences at New York's IFC Center have been tremendous.
  • MSMSF: None. Even the members of the entertainment media, who bow to no one in their jadedness, aren't going to side with Chevron against a well-respected documentary filmmaker and a bunch of dirt-poor Amazonian Indians living in a poisonous cancer cluster.

"No Impact Man" New York couple Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin, both writers, decide almost on impulse to transform their lifestyle such that they have near-zero environmental impact, meaning no TV, no air conditioning, no product packaging, no food grown outside their home region, etc. (Yeah, yeah -- no toilet paper either.) The result was Beavan's fascinating blog and just-published book, along with this highly entertaining documentary by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, which captures both the problems attendant on worm-composting and lack of refrigeration in the Manhattan summer (more maggots than a Dario Argento movie!) and also the reality-TV-style psychodrama of the Beavan-Conlin marriage. Beavan tends to drive people nuts, while the self-effacing shopaholic Conlin is irresistible.

  • Hero: Husband and wife both have their followers -- Beavan has become a highly in-demand environmental speaker and fundraiser -- but Conlin is the undisputed movie star. She's the one who buys a $975 pair of boots just before the project starts, and then must walk up and down nine flights of stairs in them. She's the one whose conversion experience is both dramatically and personally effective.
  • Villain: For perhaps a third of the audience, that's going to be Beavan, who can come off as a cloaked, judgmental persona. The intended villain, of course, is the mixture of apathy, complacency and conventional wisdom that makes most of us feel completely powerless in the face of impending global doom.
  • Celebrity quotient: Well, much of the problem with "No Impact Man" comes from its resemblance to reality TV, and from the fact that Beavan and Conlin have now reinvented themselves as ambiguous public figures. I like their irascible friend Mayer, who teaches Beavan how to grow vegetables and strives to indoctrinate him with leftover '60s anarchism at the same time.
  • Film most likely to be confused with: No problem here! Comparisons to "Super Size Me" aside, this movie is instantly identifiable as itself.
  • Takeaway: This couple's naive struggle to save the planet single-handed will either suck you in or drive you batshit. There's not a lot of middle ground here. But love 'em or hate 'em, it's a damned entertaining spectacle.
  • MSMSF: Over the moon. The Beavan-Conlin household has been the target of an extended takedown by the New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert, and reviews have tended to dismiss the environmental message and describe the film as if it were a Henry James novel: It "unsparingly exposes the confused power dynamics of a certain kind of modern middle-class marriage," wrote A.O. Scott of the New York Times. That's not entirely off base, but it also speaks to how uncomfortable most lardass journalists are when confronted with anything that might require them to reflect on the world of power and privilege they inhabit and their own ideological preconceptions about it. (Allow me to clarify that I don't mean that Tony Scott is a lardass, specifically -- he looks pretty good on TV!)

"The End of the Line" Traveling from the tuna markets of Tokyo -- where some wholesalers reportedly have tons of that delicious red meat frozen against future shortages -- to the streets of London, the straits of Gibraltar and the coast of Senegal, British director Rupert Murray paints a dire but colorful portrait of the global overfishing crisis. A thoroughly depressing catalog of how completely we have devastated the world's oceans, "The End of the Line" argues that many factors have combined to cause a near-catastrophe: rising populations and widespread poverty in the developing world, coupled with the rising popularity of seafood in the metropolitan West and the explosion of high-tech methods for finding and catching ever more fish. Late in the film, some hope is offered: If we can limit our appetite for seafood, especially the large and delicious ocean fish, most species can still recover.

  • Hero: Charming, laconic English reporter and author Charles Clover, who delights in tormenting high-end chefs, dysfunctional Euro-bureaucrats and trawler operators who flout the rules.
  • Villain: Well, the global fishing industry has operated with no rules -- or broken them, where they existed -- for generations. But the real culprits, I am afraid, are you and me. Sushi, anyone?
  • Celebrity quotient: None, unless you take sides in the intra-professional warfare between fisheries biologists.
  • Film most likely to be confused with: There are at least four other movies with this title, two of them made in this decade. Also sounds like "At the Edge of the World" and "Encounters at the End of the World." Enough with the bland and generic phrase-titles, people!
  • Takeaway: The mixture of rage and hope in this one is tough to take, frankly. Fixing the overfishing problem would be relatively easy, compared to, say, global warming. No new technology is required and the solution is well understood. But political will, changes in the global marketplace and adjustment of human appetites would all be required, and I'm not too sanguine about those.
  • MSMSF: Not much, except for the fact that the film went almost unnoticed. This is an urbane, professional, impressively constructed documentary, although its subject strikes people as a little abstract and unsexy.

"Food Inc." This eye-opening agitprop doc about the true costs of cheap, corporate food, a collaboration between director Robert Kenner and writers Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") and Michael Pollan ("In Defense of Food"), is one of the signal cinematic moments of 2009. Although compared often to "Inconvenient Truth," "Food Inc." represents a much earlier phase of activism. As Pollan said when I interviewed him, the local and organic food movement is about where environmentalism was 40 years ago, just before the first Earth Day. A complex and layered attack on agribusiness and its transformation of America's food economy, Kenner's film both recognizes that corporate food production has had obvious benefits for consumers and argues that in the long run it's unhealthy for everybody. Alternately horrific, humorous and inspiring, "Food Inc." continues to play around the country as an organizing tool for locavores and organic-food mavens.

  • Hero: Of course Michael Pollan is an eloquent speaker with a huge following, but it's Joel Salatin, a western Virginia farmer and rancher who raises organic livestock, who steals the show with his Will Rogers-flavored folk philosophy.
  • Villain: Nobody from Smithfield, Perdue, Tyson or Monsanto would comment on camera for the film. Suffice it to say their hard work on behalf of the American consumer is depicted harshly herein.
  • Celebrity quotient: Near-zero, although in some overeducated quadrants Pollan may qualify.
  • Film most likely to be confused with: Is it a sequel to "War, Inc." or a companion piece to "Fuel"?
  • Takeaway: Unabashedly partial but thoroughly nonpartisan, this is terrific muckraking journalism.
  • MSMSF: Absolutely none. Reviews have been universally glowing.

"At the Edge of the World" This odd, breathtaking high-seas adventure follows the eco-pirates of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (originally a Greenpeace splinter group) as they pursue the Japanese whaling fleet in the ocean off Antarctica. Deliberately controversial, and likely to alienate at least as many viewers as it delights, Dan Stone's doc makes an intriguing companion piece to Louie Psihoyos' vastly more respectable dolphin doc, "The Cove" (see below).

  • Hero: Very much depends on your perspective, but Alex Cornelissen, the laconic young Dutchman who captains one Sea Shepherd vessel, comes off as a high-integrity action-movie protagonist who steers by his own compass but is no zealot. Vin Diesel could play him in the fictional version -- for that matter, so could Adrien Brody.
  • Villain: You can debate the semantics, but the Japanese have found a loophole in the international whaling moratorium that permits them to flout the law's spirit, if not its letter, and stock the sushi bars of Tokyo with whale meat.
  • Celebrity quotient: Nah. Greenpeace renegade Paul Watson, who founded Sea Shepherd, is as close as we get.
  • Film most likely to be confused with: Werner Herzog's "Encounters at the End of the World." That's a terrible title too (although a terrific movie).
  • Takeaway: Watson is a divisive figure, seen as an ineffective bombast even by many people within the environmental movement. As to the bigger picture, you're free to debate the morality of Sea Shepherd's tactics, call them terrorists, etc. They're fearless, they believe in what they're doing, they have indeed saved some whales, and it looks like they're having a blast.
  • MSMSF: Surprisingly, not that high. One prominent critic, says Rotten Tomatoes, actually called this "the summer season's most surprising and thought-provoking documentary." Oh, wait -- that was me. Seriously, though, there's been considerable Internet chatter directed against Watson and the Sea Shepherds, but critics have been gentle.

"The Cove" This blend of James Bond-style adventure and Jacques Cousteau-style underwater discovery is beautifully photographed, thematically explosive and often surprisingly funny. It's a smashing filmmaking debut from longtime nature photographer Louie Psihoyos, so why has it underperformed at the box office? Could be that scene where we watch hundreds of dolphins slaughtered in a secret Japanese cove, but I'm just guessing. Still, Psihoyos and his collaborator and star, longtime dolphin activist and former "Flipper" trainer Ric O'Barry, have accomplished at least some of their goals -- this year there was no dolphin massacre in Taiji, Japan, and dolphin meat is off the local school-lunch menu. Definitely a contender in this year's docu-Oscar race.

  • Hero: O'Barry has spent most of his life campaigning to free dolphins from captivity, using legal and extra-legal means. This stems from an electrifying story he tells in the film, about watching one of the "Flipper" stars, in his words, commit suicide as a result of life in captivity.
  • Villain: As with the whaling issue, it's easy to blame the Japanese. But there wouldn't be a dolphin roundup at Taiji if there weren't an international dolphinarium trade, eager to pay prices as high as $250,000 for the most desirable young-adult dolphins. (It's the rejects who get turned into meat, which is often mislabeled and contains near-toxic levels of mercury and other heavy metals.)
  • Celebrity quotient: Well, O'Barry might have turned himself into a celebrity in this movie. He's great on talk shows!
  • Film most likely to be confused with: Actually, none. A title that's simple, that works and that everybody can remember -- what a concept!
  • Takeaway: A tough sell to audiences, apparently, but a movie you'll never forget and also one that's likely to create widespread enforced changes in the dolphin trade.
  • MSMSF: Some of the usual comments about how a movie can't possibly change anything. But the response has been glowing overall.

"Earth Days" A fascinating film with a concept that's difficult to summarize, ace documentarian Robert Stone's latest offering feels like a voyage into a Thomas Pynchon-style alternate reality: One-tenth of the American population demonstrated against pollution and environmental destruction; a 36-year-old ex-Jesuit seminarian whose platform included "exploring the universe" was elected governor of California and appointed an astronaut-turned-hippie as his science advisor; a female college student became an overnight celebrity with an anti-childbirth commencement address titled "The Future Is a Cruel Hoax"; a Republican congressman became the leading environmental exponent in Washington; and the president ordered solar panels installed on the White House roof. Of course it all actually happened, during the now-forgotten historical period before and after the first Earth Day, in 1970. In telling the stories of those people and their era, Stone simultaneously laments the road not taken and suggests we can still learn from it.

  • Hero: This movie's awash with 'em, from Whole Earth impresario Stewart Brand to one-time Interior Secretary Stewart Udall to longtime GOP congressman Pete McCloskey to "hippie astronaut" Rusty Schweickart to Stephanie Mills, the aforementioned anti-breeding coed. (Who was actually a student of my mom's!)
  • Villain: Once again, friends, that would be all of us. We don't really have someone else to blame for allowing the historical moment, pregnant with exciting changes, to slip away amid the Reagan revolution and the flow of cheap Saudi oil.
  • Celebrity quotient: It's loaded -- if you're a longtime Sierra Club member who's followed the history of American environmentalism closely. Otherwise, there's Jerry Brown and Jimmy Carter.
  • Film most likely to be confused with: "Earth," an assemblage of pretty nature footage released by Disney at almost the same time. "Earth Days" was never such a great title, but that unhappy coincidence killed any chance this picture had at the box office.
  • Takeaway: Kind of a downer, and isn't it always like that with American history? Sometimes I feel like the entire story of this country goes from periods of overweening arrogance to a series of heartbreaking missed opportunities, and then back again.
  • MSMSF: Kind of a problem. Reviews were OK, but you can't expect people who write about movies to think about historical issues, or to understand social and political questions in anything beyond the most canned, received-wisdom terms.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'HehirFOLLOW andohehirLIKE Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Beyond The Multiplex Bolivia Documentaries Environment Global Warming Movies Valentines Day