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By JOANN M. VALENTI
Without a doubt, Everything's Cool, a documentary on climate change, most aptly defined the 25th Annual Sundance Film Festival goers' experience in Utah's below freezing January weather. Record-setting temperatures dropped into negative double digits, an especially challenging experience for the usual hoards of film industry representatives and celebrities from Los Angeles.
With last year's surprise success "An Inconvenient Truth" bringing Al Gore to the Academy Awards with a nomination for best documentary, "Everything's Cool" follows with a touch of humor to nail the fossil-fuel industry for their PR campaign to suggest scientists are still debating global warming. The film features familiar sources – Bill McKibben, Ross Gelbspan (formerly of The Boston Globe), The Weather Channel's Heidi Cullen, whistleblower Rick Piltz and others – to consider what it will take to move the United States from laggard nation to world leader on global warming.
It really is a shame there remains no award specifically for quality in filmmaking focused on an environmental theme, documentary or drama. The Sundance press office hands out lists of films by genre and interest area. None includes "environment." The closest is "nature, science and sports." Go figure that one.
For the fifth year The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation presented a $20,000 cash award to a film for the quality of its thematic presentation of science and technology. "Dark Matter," starring an impressive newcomer from China, Liu Ye, Aidan Quinn and multiple award-winning actress Meryl Streep, was selected from among the 123 feature films representing 25 countries. The film's storyline, ripped from real news reports, shows the dark side of science and academe, especially for international graduate students. Only three screenings seemed to meet the Sloan Award criteria, and they will likely be hard to find ("Bugmaster" from Japan and "Expired," a U.S. product with Terri Garr in a strong supporting role). Sloan does not consider documentaries, although the award was given one year to "Grizzly Man."
Had documentary films been included, the roster may have swelled, although the emphasis often leaned more toward environmental advocacy than underlying science/technology issues. Canadian/Ukrainian photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose work is featured in the documentary "Manufactured Landscapes," claims his is a neutral stance. His images do manage to make mountains of e-waste in China and shipbreaking in Bangladesh somehow beautiful. At a time when the Bush Administration has chased the Toxics Release Inventory into hiding, Burtynsky focuses on industry's transformation of nature. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries, refineries and resource assaults replace natural beauty in what filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal depicts as the dilemma of modern society.
Other environmental- or science-inspired possible sleeperhits include: "Manda Bala" ("Send a Bullet") from Brazil, winner of the Grand Jury documentary prize and a cinematography award, exposing corruption in Brazil (there's a frog farm involved); "In the Shadow of the Moon," World Cinema Documentary prize winner retelling the Apollo landings story from a British filmmaker's point of view; two documentaries on historical nuclear issues ("White Light/Black Rain" from HBO and "Wonders Are Many" about the making of the opera "Dr. Atomic"); and "The Unforeseen," a documentary on development in Austin from the Sundance Channel, featuring festival founder, actor/director Robert Redford, who is also the film's executive producer.
"How do young people get a grip without the truth of documentaries?" Redford asked at the opening press conference. Sundance films often stress activism and this year seemed to indicate a new maturity in themes. Redford said he was "taken with how entertaining a sharp edged truth can be." Myriad social issues spiraled through the majority of Sundance films this year. Human rights, politics and environmentalism deep-sixed the usual Hollywood fare of glamour, romance and fantasy. The festival opened with a call to action in a documentary using animation and archival footage to reenact the trial of the Chicago 10. An anti-war theme was also evident in the audience award winner "Grace Is Gone." The film, starring John Cusack in a story about a military fatality in Iraq, sold for $4 million. Sloan Award Director Doren Weber, who hailed "Dark Matter" for showing that science is not all about heroes, some "go off the rails," called film "a delivery system for ideas."
It is encouraging to these emerging filmmakers when last year's Sundance hit "Little Miss Sunshine," made for a mere $8 million, gets sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $10.5 million, then grosses $83 million worldwide and goes on to be nominated for an Oscar. The film is now available on DVD. The medium does indeed sell the message if not at least raise awareness. An editorial in the local Park Record called Sundance 2007 "a crash course in global citizenship." Along with the Sundance crowd, more celebrities do seem to be rising to the consciousness and understanding occasion. Popular music group Green Day recently signed on with Natural Resources Defense Council to create Move America Beyond Oil (www.greendaynrdc.com) to "encourage people to become educated on environmental issues." The collaboration was announced in the Dec. 28-Jan. 11 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine. Redford sits on NRDC's board.
This year's jurors for the science award were: Darren Aronofsky, an award-winning writer/director whose films include "Supermarket Sweep" (his senior thesis film), "PI," "Requiem for a Dream" and "The Fountain;" Ann Druyan, co-author of the "Cosmos" television series, co-creator of CONTACT, and creative director of NASA's Voyager interstellar message system; Brian Greene, Columbia University Professor of Physics/Mathematics and author of "The Elegant Universe" and "The Fabric of the Cosmos;" Howard Suber from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television and author of "The Power of Film;" and John Underkoffler, science consultant from "Minority Report," "The Hulk" and other productions.
See www.sundance.org for more information on the festival and specific films.
JoAnn M. Valenti, SEJournal Editorial Board member and emerita professor, has attended Sundance since 1992.
** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2007 issue.