Green Screen A film series in Washington, D.C. explores environmental issues.

Michael Gottwald, Wesleyan University

Wednesday April 4, 2007

Last week, from March 15-25, Washington, D.C. played host to the 15th annual Environmental Film Festival, featuring 115 films from 27 different countries. Most were documentaries, including a mini-retrospective by George Butler (the director of The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition and Pumping Iron, among others), nature films about subjects like the tulip and the American Buffalo, arts and architecture pieces like Building the Gherkin, and obligatory multiple screenings of An Inconvenient Truth. There were features as well, such as a just-released environmental horror film called The Last Winter, the French modernist classic Playtime, and, of course, the token movie about a boy and a cheetah, this one entitled Duma. In addition there were animated series, student films, and movies for kids–all of this held at venues all over the city, from the Embassy of the Czech Republic to the National Geographic Society to the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Any and all information on the films and the festival can be found at Most events were free, and many were accompanied by discussions with filmmakers or experts on the subject. In fact, I attempted to kick off my own green cinema weekend by attending a screening of Addicted to Oil: Thomas L. Friedman Reporting at the Carnegie Institute, followed by a panel discussion with the man himself, but when I arrived with fifteen minutes to spare, the place was filled to the brim. I did spot The Moustache of Understanding himself though, and he’s shorter than you probably think he is.

In any case, here are summaries and mini-critiques of some of the more interesting films you may want to check out for yourself.

Manufactured Landscapes

This film takes as its premise that the wide expanses of huge manufacturing centers, toxic waste dumps, and grimy shipyards are our modern-day landscapes, replacing our idyllic notions of snow-capped mountains and rolling hills with images of decimated Bangladeshi villages, sprawling dam construction sites, and heaps of discarded computer junk. This idea is inherited from Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian photographer whose countless images of the aforementioned subjects comprise most of the movie. The photographs are truly amazing, both in the sheer vastness of the industrial sites they contain, and the little bits of humanity they find within.

Indeed, much of the film felt like a slideshow, and an exhausting amount of time is spent zooming out from the face of a confused Chinese child to the jarring rubble that surrounds him or her. But the film animates Burtynsky’s work in ways that pictures can’t–its first image is a ten-minute-long tracking shot that peers down the endless rows of yellow-suited Chinese workers as they toil–cutting, drilling, packaging–in a plastics plant. The film is also unafraid to show the seams of its own production, letting the audience in on the creative and bureaucratic obstacles that Burtynsky faces. Though the movie purports to cast an objective eye on our new landscapes, when it focuses on China’s frantic urbanization, the real message become clear: it is our own self-obsessed delirium that has allowed the disintegration of our natural environments to be overcome by the construction of artificial ones.


One part animal advocacy documentary, one part renegades-on-the-lam action flick, Sharkwater manages to present a convincing case for the protection of the shark, and entertain us while doing it. Rob Stewart set out to make a simple nature doc, one whose stunning underwater photography would illuminate the beauty of these misunderstood animals, who he frequently describes as “perfect.” That’s all in there anyway, along with some wonderful old, black-and-white footage offering paranoid anti-shark warnings, as Stewart makes the argument that these creatures are given an undeserved bad rap (did you know that every year more people get killed by soda machines than by shark attacks?)

The film takes a turn for the adventurous when Stewart teams up with Paul Watson, a kind of environmental guerrilla who crusades against illegal predatory practices on sea animals, captaining a ship tricked out with power-hoses and Batmobile-like metal saws on its sides to combat unsuspecting fishermen. Stewart and Watson take on a crew of long-liners trolling the ocean off Costa Rica for shark fin (much-coveted in certain Asian markets). Despite the fact that such long-lining is illegal, the environmentalists are the ones arrested. Something slightly short of an international incident follows, including a chase with the Costa Rican Coast Guard and an undercover sting investigation into the shark-finning industry, as Stewart parallels his own quest to make the movie with that of the shark for survival (one of them has a happy ending–I’ll let you guess which one). Despite his frequently self-righteous voiceover, moral outrage that goes a bit too far (no need to compare shark-finning to the slave trade), and a distinct lack of science (he doesn’t explain what would happen if the shark’s ecological role of predator is eliminated), Stewart spins a compelling tale of a creature in need of salvation.

Black Gold

Fifteen million Ethiopians depend on the coffee trade for work, and the bean comprises 67% of the country’s exports. This film follows one of those Ethiopians as he campaigns for a fair price for the coffee that his union harvests, using as the background all aspects of our international obsession with the steamy dark drink. What results is a disconnected pastiche of vignettes, brilliantly juxtaposed, that in sum portrays a jarring imbalance in the production and marketing of coffee around the world. Bean pickers in Ethiopia get paid half a dollar a day; in contrast, there’s a truly disheartening scene where the union rep asks the workers how much they think a cup of coffee would cost in the U.S.; (not knowing, one guesses the same price as in Ethiopia–12 cents). Scenes like this are crosscut with international barista competitions, old men in Italy praising the religion of coffee, and a bubbly Starbucks worker gushing about how “special” it is to be manager of a store. Back in Ethiopia, the elderly farmers pray for a good coffee price, and a warehouse manager bemoans the pitfalls of “fair trade”: in waiting for a decent price, you have less work for employees to do. The film never explains how exactly the price for coffee in Ethiopia came to be so low, but apparently it has become such an issue that farmers there are abandoning it in favor of growing chat, a narcotic that yields a better price than coffee.

Black Gold

is a disconcerting but enlightening exercise in the grand tradition of industrial muckraking.