5 Transformative Environmental Documentaries
It’s said that humans are incapable of understanding facts, but they can understand emotions. These five environmentally motivated documentaries chronicle a series of activists, inspiration thought leaders, artists, journalists, animal rights activists, and various NGO agents in the pursuit of more meaningful, gut-resonating stories about various aspects of the global environment– from political dramas to personal narratives. Below, we spotlight some of the most insightful and often soul-stirring works about the beauty and tragedy that plays out every day in the natural world. Prepare to be inspired– or, at the very least, motivated to change.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
In case you haven’t already seen Al Gore’s watershed Academy Award winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, 2017 marks the 10-year anniversary of that film and the debut of Gore’s latest reveal, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power— a sobering and at-times bone chilling reflection on the state of global warming and society’s fraught attempts to address it. In the 10 years since society came to acknowledge the global threat that Climate Change poses to our economy, health, and wellbeing, little has been done to address the problem– and yet, many new, positive changes have been put into place.
Featuring first hand accounts from scientists, politicians, and other stakeholders, An Inconvenient Sequel is just as illuminating as its predecessor, with the notable exception of some positive news: “Despair can be paralyzing,” says Gore in one of the documentary’s more poignant voiceovers, “but this, to me, is the most exciting new development: we’re seeing a tremendous amount of positive change.” If you’re looking for a surprisingly uplifting film about Climate Change and what you can do to prevent it, this is the film for you.
Brazilian Artist Viz Muniz made a name for himself by making incredible, transformative works of art out of garbage– like Jackson Pollack in chocolate syrup or the Mona Lisa rendered in peanut butter and jelly. In Waste Land, an award winning documentary by director Lucy Walker, viewers glean insight into the back story and processes that when into one of Muniz’ most incredible, heart-warming works of art: his Pictures of Garbage series.
Highlighting the transformative power of art and the beauty of the human spirit, Muniz takes viewers on an emotional journey from Jardim Gramacho– the world’s largest landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro– to the heights of international art stardom. Collaborating with local catadores (those who pick recyclable materials out of landfills for a living), Muniz photographs and then recreates the likenesses of these impoverished workers as a meditation and how society “throws way” certain people– a strong thread that harkens back to his iconic “Sugar Children” photo series, whose subjects were child laborers whom the artist befriended in the Caribbean.
The portraits launched his career and were shown as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s esteemed New Photography series, and in Waste Land, this social consciousness that subsumes his incredible photographic art concepts are played out in masterful form. (We cried when we first saw this documentary.)
Waste Land won the audience award at Sundance Film Festival in 2010, as well as the Audience Award and the Amnesty International Award at Berlinale that year.
Before The Flood
Leonardo DiCaprio’s soul-stirring documentary about Climate Change features everyone from then-President Obama (we miss you, Barack!) to Pope Francis, Elon Musk, Ban Ki-Moon, John Kerry and Enric Sala (among many others). In Before the Flood, DiCaprio journeyed around the world as a United Nations Ambassador of Peace to witness Climate Change firsthand– many of the events of which were captured on film.
Presented by National Geographic, the documentary takes a global approach to the causes of Climate Change and its effects while documenting the “calculated disinformation campaign orchestrated by powerful special interests working to confuse the public about the urgency of the growing climate crisis.” From moving speeches in front of global diplomats to intimate heart-to-heart conversations, the film captures a narrative about just how much destruction has been done to the global environment, and what, if anything, can be done to reverse the damage. (It’s not that much of a downer, we promise!)
“There’s no perfect democracy or economic model, but what seemed to emerge from our journey was a new vision for the world, one where its community was more autonomous, and therefore more free”– so goes the introduction to Tomorrow, Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent’s moving film about what families, small businesses, people, and communities around the world are doing to combat Climate Change. While most documentaries take a large-scale political approach to their discussion of global warming and its associated economic problems, the characters chronicled in this delightful documentary are acting in the here and now– and in infinitely meaningful ways– to affect change.
The Islands and The Whales
Set in the North Atlantic Faroe Islands, The Islands and The Whales explores the politically charged world of sustainable whale fishing– a controversial aspect of indigenous life in Denmark. In many parts of the world, whale meat is no longer considered fit for human consumption because of concerns over mercury contamination, and elsewhere in the world, fishing of these large mammals is prohibited for humanitarian reasons (many of the world’s major whale populations are now endangered as a result of past abuses, and this film makes a bloody display of “hunting” as it is still practiced).
This, combined with the arrival of animal rights protestors on the islands, has made for a complicated (and often sad) political situation. Why is it that whale fishing endures in this secluded– if ruggedly beautiful– part of the world? “There are no industrial countries nearby, so if our food is so contaminated by them, it must be really bad elsewhere,” one man interviewed in the documentary says. “Maybe we should be a barometer for the rest of the planet.”
Looking for something a little more light-hearted? Check out our run down of the best botanical music videos.