At Sundance, Filmakers Tackle Everthing from Cane Toads to Climate-Change Victims

April 15, 2010

 By JOANN M. VALENTI

The odds at Sundance seem overwhelming. When 9,816 films are submitted and only 186 accepted for screening, it's no wonder the chosen filmmakers so easily ignore the thin mountain air, tenfoot snow drifts, 20 degree F. highs, and knee-deep slush between venues in Park City, Utah. With this year's mantra to "rebel", "dare to grow from underground," finding films with an environmental theme was not too difficult. That is, in the documentary or shorts categories.

None of the feature-length dramas, those films you're most likely to find in local theaters, addressed environment issues. Award winners in the feature category and films picked up by major distributors focused more often on bad behavior, sex, crime, betrayal, torture, war or drugs. Evidence perhaps of Redford's worry that "we [are] sliding…flatlining" from the founding principle to create and nurture alternatives to Hollywood fare.

Eight environmentally focused documentaries screened: Cane Toads: The Conquest, Climate Refugees, Gasland, Waste Land, Countdown to Zero, Pumzi, Vegetarian and Obselidia, the winner of the Alfred. P. Sloan Award for science content. Seven short films covered environment topics: Born Sweet (an honorable mention award winner telling a story of arsenic leaks in UNICEF dug wells in Cambodia), Plastic and Glass, Rains, Vostok Station, Drunk History: Tesla & Edison, Tungijuq and Mr. Okra.

Robert Redford's annual independent film event, held the last ten days in January, brought out the usual crowds from industry in search of audience pleasers for distribution, mostly young/struggling indie filmmakers, people who just love movies, a bevy of Hollywood stars and 1,600 volunteers directing traffic, collecting tickets and doing the general grunt work.

Also on hand were Bill Gates (there to see Waiting for Superman, a doc critical of the U.S. education system, winner of an audience award and acquired for U.S. release this fall), Koko Warner from the U.N.'s University Institute for Environment and Human Security and long-time environmental advocate Lester Brown, who appeared with Warner in Climate Refugees and participated in a panel discussion on climate change. Environment issues also featured prominently in several high tech, interactive art installations.

A fact sheet listed the festival's sustainability commitment and activities to lower energy consumption, reduce waste streams, conserve natural resources and eliminate disposable shopping bags. A baseline assessment of the festival's environmental impacts is under way.

The Sundance Festival's 2010 oft-repeated theme made Redford's intent clear: This is the Renewed Rebellion Against the Establishment of the Expected. On day one, Redford admonished the audience to "get back to our roots" and again emphasized the importance of documentaries and diversity. The festival's categories listed first-time, female, native or indigenous and international filmmakers. Forty-one countries were represented.

Although not an award winner, Climate Refugees aims to heighten concern about climate change. Director Michael Nash wants to "put a human face" on the consequences of disastrous changes already taking place around the planet. Interviews with experts, including Stanford's Stephen Schneider, Paul Ehrlich and global security leaders, predict that "climate wars" will come in the wake of millions of poor displaced by the ravages of floods, storms, disappearing land mass and massive water issues. Artificial political borders are being breeched. The documentary argues that Bangladesh, ground zero for climate change's impact, will soon be uninhabitable, along with other island states. "Nature is at war with us," one of the many featured refugees cries. Migrations into other countries have led to national crises. The Malthusian prediction is evident. "It's a moral issue," the film warns, "a last call for humanity." Katrina and Haiti loomed large in postscreening discussions.

Attacking a lesser known environmental issue is John Fox's Gasland. Fox, who owns acreage in Pa. where toxic spills from natural gas drilling is ongoing, follows the trail of the Halliburton developed drilling technology called hydraulic "fracking" across the country and interviews those impacted. Homeowners relying on well water easily ignite the stream flowing from kitchen faucets. Fox attempts to interview dozens of government sources only to be blown off. He lists the no-return calls, refusals and failed interviews at the end of the film. A nice touch. It will look familiar to any environmental journalist.

Fox reports that the industry knew of problems but opted to pay for any resulting fines rather than bother to get permits or go through a public hearing process. So far that seems to be working. It's hard for homeowners to prove effects, Fox said, because there is no science. The EPA failed to make decisions based on science, he told me in an interview during the festival. His film documents the dismantling of the needed science. Only whistleblowers and noted scientist Theo Colborn provide data, independent science to show that leaking chemicals contaminate groundwater wherever drilling occurs.

"You can't switch the burden of expertise onto the citizenry," the obviously frustrated Fox told me. He's encouraged recently with changes at EPA and the agency's open online tip line, but wonders still about the agency's enforcement efforts. These gas companies are running afoul of the Clean Water Act through a buried legal exemption, he said. He wants more media attention to those insider scientists who are aware of industry projections versus the reality of the drilling operations' design and operation.

So bottom line, according to this year's indies, the cane toads have not left Australia. No conquest in sight for this "epitode". Brazil's Jardin Gramacho in Rio, the world's largest landfill, affords a miserable existence for recyclables pickers but world class art for Vik Muniz. Lots of techno stuff becomes obsolete way too fast and bee keepers know that to save ourselves we need to save the bees. Nuclear weapons security is an oxymoron. Climate wars are coming. We have either too much, too little or too polluted water. And indie filmmakers are trying their best to get their messages across, growing from the underground, rebelling against the expected.

Go to www.sundance.org or websites for individual films for more information.

JoAnn Valenti, Emerita Professor and a member of SEJournal's Editorial Board, has attended Sundance with students and to cover science and environment in films for over a dozen years. It's always too cold, but the event is worth trudging through snow drifts.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2010 issue.