New Documentaries Shed Light on Global Environmental Crises


If you thought “Titantic” was a compelling disaster film, try wrapping your brain around the submersion of an entire nation – one of the most breathtaking and remote places on earth. This is the story currently being shot by award-winning documentary filmmaker Jon Shenk. He is trailing President Mohamed Nasheed to deliver this essential an message about how climate change can literally engulf us.

“If we get inundated with water from the effects of too much carbon in the atmosphere, then this planet is going to be a very unpleasant place to be,” says Shenk, who adds that the Maldives struggle packs a human message. “Hundreds of millions of refugees, famine – the U.S. and Europe will not be immune from this. Much of Florida will be underwater. So, I hope this film ends up being a story about people who are doing what they can to help the world.”


Shenk’s company, ActualFilms, has spent the past year interviewing the president who has been shopping for a new country to house the current inhabitants of nearly 1,200 islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean. Global warming causes the polar ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise, and the Maldives is only eight feet above sea level at its highest point. Nasheed isn’t waiting around to sink or swim, and his plight promises to be a fascinating one to observe on the screen.

“I’m not interested in scaring people or overwhelming viewers with science and other information, but I hope people watch the film and see a group of people who are frightened about their future and who are using whatever tools they have at their disposal to prepare themselves,” says Shenk. “Nasheed and Maldivians are an example of people whose nation, way of life, and identity will very likely be erased by climate change.”


Slated for release in May 2010, Dirty Business uncovers the true social and environmental costs of coal power, following visionaries leading the path to an alternative energy future. The series of stories are shot in China, Saskatchewan, Kansas, West Virgina, Nevada and New York, with Rolling Stone reporter Jeff Goodell examining the pitfalls of a continued dependency on 19th century technology linked as the largest single source of greenhouse gases. Along with the families battling the devastation on the front lines, the documentary features industry reps, political leaders, civil servants and environmental experts – all trying to piece the conflict together.


Split Estate warns, “What you don’t know CAN hurt you” and maps a tragedy in the making as citizens in the path of a new drilling boom in the Rocky Mountain West, deal with their rural homes being threatened by polluted waters left unprotected by the oil and gas industry. The citizens frustrated by the erosion of their civil liberties, communities and health, share their struggle of clashing with interest of an industry that assures residents it is a “good neighbor.” In additional to meeting victims like Laura Amos (the proverbial canary in the coalmine) the documentary features civil servants, industry reps, political leaders and environmental activists, all trying to piece together the difficult conflict of energy versus humanity.


Garbage Dreams, which first aired the end of April, is a coming of age tale of three teenage boys in the world’s largest garbage village of Mokkatam on the outskirts of Cairo – home to 60,000 Zaballeen (Arabic for garbage people). They survive by recycling 80 percent of their trash, and when faced with the threat of the globalization of their trade by disposal companies, the villagers must make hard choices about how to sustain their community. The trailer shows the enormous burden the teenagers “endure” while combing for waste amid crowded rooftops where as geese, chickens and goats grazed on remnants of waste.

As Dreams director Mai Iskander so eloquently describes the children at work: “I filmed them day after day, scavenging for tiny bits of cardboard and plastic, the hard, dangerous and dreary work of carrying and sorting garbage with their bare hands, breathing in the dust of the plastic granulators and fabric grinders, making a tiny living from tiny bits of trash.” Iskander says he hopes the world will realize that it is these dreamers who will become world leaders as they save the Earth while lifting themselves out of poverty. The film has scored 21 awards including Al Gore Reel Current and Humanitas winner of the IDA (International Documentary Association).


“Why didn’t we save ourselves when we had the chance?” Is the haunting question aptly posed in the film, The Age of Stupid, which started out as a documentary but was morphed into a futuristic drama following seven characters and narrated by  Pete Postlethwaite. The award-winning actor plays a shell-shocked lone survivor in the devastated future world of 2055 – reflecting on footage from 2008 and questioning why we sat back instead of moving on climate change.

A co-production between Franny Armstrong, first-time producer Lizzie Gillett and John Battsek’s company, Passion Pictures, was first released in 2009 to rave reviews. The New York Times wrote: “The film is a scorching appeal for humans to avoid knowingly up-ending the earth’s climate, delivered form the vantage point of 2055, when the giant London Eye Ferris wheel looks more like a waterwheel,with its bottom immersed in the Thames, along with much of central London.”

Unlike other green docs in recent years, Stupid uses dramatization to heighten emotions in prompting us to take action while we can. Filmmakers like Shenk believe that going this extra mile works better in getting people – especially Americans consumed with jobs and kids and busy lives – to care about the cause.

“I think if people saw this has a human problem they would be more likely to prioritize the issue,” Shenk finds. “I think much of the written material and documentaries about climate have focused on the facts – and the message communicated is not quite working. Movies can be great for moving hearts. Once you have the heart, the mind follows.”

To learn more about where to view these films and how to host community screenings and events, visit Working Films.

Images: Chi King, Mnn, Age of Stupid, Dirty Business, Split Estate, Haumaldives

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.