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Categories: Features

Avery T. Phillips discusses the responsibility of tackling climate change through cinema and lays out a simple, three-step, plan for how to do it.

From the rise of natural disasters and their human toll to the film-worthy power of natural settings, climate change and other environmental subjects make for powerful viewing.

Yet the jury is still out whether these types of films really have the power to drive change. Filmmakers no doubt would argue their films have an impact on the way people think, feel and act, and they may even inspire viewers to change their habits. Documentary filmmakers are essentially social entrepreneurs who aim to inspire change by participating and taking action. Other people may disagree and say climate change films simply stir the pot and promote fear.

So, how do you tell good stories about climate change and environmental concerns? Here are a few points for consideration…

Don’t Scare the Heck Out of People

While destruction and chaos make for good drama, these qualities don’t necessarily leave people feeling hopeful about the future or compelled to help.

“Typically, if you really want to mobilize people to act, you don’t scare the hell out of them and convince them that the situation is hopeless,” Andrew Hoffman, author of “How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate,” said in a New York Times article.

Hollywood is ripe with these types of disaster films. The Day After Tomorrow and Geostorm come to mind. Not knocking them — it’s just that they are apocalyptic and meant to entertain. We aren’t expected to make personal changes after viewing these types of films.

But even with documentary-style films, doomsday scenarios don’t always inspire action. Remember the movie Reefer Madness? (A 1936, anti-marijuana, propaganda film.) Hysteria about a topic doesn’t always make the claims true. Anyway, most scientists say that climate change is real and damaging, and that we can fight it. But the best way to convey the message isn’t through an apocalyptic narrative, is it?

“Scare tactics can backfire when people put up their psychological defenses against threatening information, rather than defending against the threat itself,” according to The Verge. “These can include paying less attention to a frightening message, or straight up denial about the extent of the danger.”

People don’t want to think about scary information, so it tends to get ignored.

Tell a Good Story

Climate change is undeniably a crisis of our time, but it’s impersonal because there’s “no masked villain lurking behind the rise in temperature — we are all, to varying degrees, part of the problem,” writes Jeremy Deaton of Nexus Media.

Climate change doesn’t create moral outrage the way a “legion of space Nazis bent on galactic domination” would, Deaton explains. Where’s the outrage about real life environmental policies in the Trump era, such as lifting bans on big game trophy hunting, plans to repeal California emissions standards or the EPA allowing cancer-causing asbestos to be legally used in construction? Where’s the outrage about mining being one of the most polluting industries in the world because it contributes to global carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas) emissions.

There are tons of human stories that need to be told. A climate change documentary should be about people who have been directly impacted by climate change in one way or another. Facts are fine and movies about issues are great to make your point, but the movie is kind of boring if there’s no person or family behind those issues and facts. The story is the compelling part.

Offer Up a Solution to the Problem

After watching the 2017 documentary Chasing Coral, it’s admirable to watch those working so hard to save what’s left of the Great Barrier Reef. They are trying to solve problems — not just cast doom and gloom.

“That coral reefs are existentially threatened by the climate crisis is a truth near-universally acknowledged,” according to The Climate Reality Project. “But filmmaker Jeff Orlowski doesn’t simply telegraph a report on this impending ecological catastrophe. Instead, Orlowski infuses his film with such empathy and ardor for our world’s oceans and their vibrant ecosystems.”

But do you feel as though the film inspired you to change your behaviour and pollute less? Maybe you felt psyched and ready to go to battle for the planet after watching the film. After the dust settles, though, we usually go back to our old ways.

Documentaries and movies about climate change aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Film is a powerful tool to tell the truth and inspire change. The public has the power to walk away with new knowledge and take action if they really want to make a difference.


Posted on Sep 8, 2018

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