Environmentalism, in other Words

and Other Reflections from True/False


Gerald Sim

It is reasonable to assume that the annual crop of documentaries seeking mainstream distribution would include a few environmental activist films. There are good reasons for this. Topical, socially conscious and easily narrativized by opposing individuals against big business, the greater good against corporate polluters, these films remain attractive to programmers for public television, premium cable networks and independent theaters. The genre's social and political sensibilities fit the audiences that these outlets cultivate. We are also accustomed these days to see commercial films, even blockbusters like WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, US, 2008) and Avatar (James Cameron, US, 2009), adopting the message thematically or allegorically. It was therefore strange to find a relative dearth of straightforward environmentalist films at the True/False Film Festival this year. But although the genre as commonly understood seemed underrepresented at the event, the documentaries on offer continue to articulate a closely related ethical consciousness, one that becomes clear upon closer inspection.

Environmentalist documentaries have ossified into a distinctive genre that, broadly speaking, highlight specific hazards, empathize with victims and identify culprits. Moreover, their activist impulses inevitably require them to adopt urgent if not alarmist tones. GasLand (Josh Fox, US, 2010), which screened here last year, is a typical example; its images of flammable faucet water vividly project the notion of personal and domestic invasion by the natural gas industry. In that sense, these films still take their lead from Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring, the influential environmentalist bible pronouncing the mortal threats that chemical pesticides pose to human and animal life.1 Rhetorically, they confront audiences with doom and startle them into acting out of fear and self-defense. None of this is entirely indefensible, but there might be another way to craft the message.

These works often insist that we contemplate the complex relationship between humanity, modernity and nature. Calls to protect natural resources often indict modernity and its excesses, and implicitly push for retreat from modern life. For example, GasLand germinates from Fox's desire to protect his land from a natural gas company that sought to lease it, and embeds itself in the filmmaker's nostalgia for the natural playgrounds of his childhood. No Impact Man (Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, US, 2009; True/False 2009) portrayed one man's comically tortured quest to shun civilization's amenities while living in Manhattan, of all places. In contrast, many documentaries this year admit that there is no way back and are unafraid to admire modernity as a humanist achievement.

The theme was most explicit in multiple films that highlight architecture. They all find ways to emphasize the structures as expected results of human needs and social activity, but more importantly, they remind us of the debt that we incur after they are erected, and of our responsibility to be long-term custodians. For example, a pair of documentaries, Robin Hood Gardens (Or Every Brutalist Structure for Itself) (Martin Ginestie, UK, 2010) and The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Chad Freidrichs, US, 2011), understand those public housing developments as architectural accomplishments. The latter's socio-political thesis traces the degeneration of St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing project to when its custodial and maintenance services began to be defunded. Pruitt-Igoe was eventually demolished in the mid-seventies. The question of whether to tear down London's Robin Hood Gardens is a parliamentary controversy, but the estate remains eminently inhabitable. Opening shots of a maintenance worker tending to a malfunctioning but otherwise glistening new elevator underscore the reason for its continued viability in direct contrast to what happened with Pruitt-Igoe.

Environmentalism thus did not take the form of specific causes, but arguably expressed itself in considered reflections on inexorable relationships between humans and landscapes that are not necessarily natural. Many shorts curated under a coherent program titled, "Landmarks and Monoliths" which included Robin Hood Gardens, were similar in this regard, and conveyed that concern in ebulliently poetic ways. Minka (Davina Pardo, US/JP, 2011) displays intimate affection for the eponymous style of traditional Japanese buildings. The film tours a farmhouse as its owner recounts memories of how it was disassembled and re-erected. Its loving tribute to wood and light evokes them as magnificent elements able to retain their grandeur even when brought into service as a domestic space. An ocean away, Drea Cooper & Zackary Canepari fashioned a visual poem about recycling unwanted domiciles. Cannonball (US, 2010) follows a band of skateboarders trolling California's Central Valley for empty swimming pools in houses abandoned in the foreclosure crisis. Its montage of these improvised skate parks transform the despair of empty homes into the heroism of the skaters' soaring silhouettes. We see the vagabonds methodically pump out rancid water, sweep up debris and hear them declare that they never leave any trash behind. If only others had perceived the properties with similar respect. Buriganga (UK, 2010), a film often billed as a portrait of life along a Bangladeshi river, turns out to also be about recycling of sorts. The water of the Buriganga is an unfortunate receptacle of the nearby capital Dhaka's sewage and industrial waste. Locals somehow manage to eke out their living from its contents, their lives inextricable with that of the river. Director Michelle Coomber finds beauty and humanity in this morass as skillfully as her subjects repurpose flotsam and jetsam.

The most abstract work of the group was also the most evocative. In the non-narrative Il Capo (Yuri Ancarani, IT, 2010), a shirtless man ("il capo" or "the boss") directs a machine operated by another worker at a marble quarry in Carrara, Italy. Over the roars of the engine, the film cuts repeatedly between close-ups of his signal gestures and corresponding movements of the mechanical beast. Coupled with shots of pristine white rock being methodically separated from its natural environment, the film swiftly conveys man's power and dominion over nature.

Il Capo (Yuri Ancarani, IT, 2010)

At first glance, the plundering could seem like a fascistic expression thematically incongruent with the program's preservationist orientation, except that in time, Ancarani unifies the boss with the rock. Geological survey and physiological study converge with each juxtaposition of the ridges and wrinkles of the man's body with the crevices on the marble face. The framework provided by "Landmarks and Monoliths" enables films like Robin Hood Gardens, Minka, Cannonball and Il Capo to expand our environmentalism beyond anthropocentrism. The arguments do not need to stress consequences for human beings to be persuasive.

The hottest ticket in town was arguably El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (Gereon Wetzel, DE, 2010) judging by the persistently long lines for stand-by tickets before all its screenings. It chronicles an off-season of the famous Catalan restaurant, El Bulli, when its chefs invent new menus in molecular gastronomy. As a film ready made for fanatical denizens of foodie culture, it is difficult to make a case for it beyond its singular objective to deliver food porn - and the film assuredly does. However, we should still ponder its popularity in a year when environmentalism was absent in content, although not in spirit. Time magazine's environmental correspondent recently repeated the common assumption that foodie advocacy for sustainability and organics, in concert with its eschewal of processed food and industrial farming, aligns the food and environmentalist movements with shared interests. A month later, B. R. Myers's hostile challenge to that conventional wisdom in The Atlantic charged food fetishists with bourgeois gluttony and environmental disregard.2 Although the latter's disjointed screed provoked justifiable criticism, this debate is surely worth having.

If one had to look a bit harder to find a film about the environment, the reverse was true for documentaries about Africa, the subject of four features. Last year, I had noted a minor trend of films that represented Chinese capitalism as maladroit.3 By comparison, a greater degree of self-consciousness clearly exists about how the outside should perceive Africa, presumably because all of the filmmakers are either from or based in the West. The festival even foregrounded these limitations and responsibilities by convening a directors' panel about whether African stories could be told without recourse to stereotypes and colonialist paradigms. The short answer as to whether the films succeed in that regard is no. For instance, Benda Bilili! (Renaut Barret and Florent de la Tullaye, CG/FR, 2010) is an uplifting crowd pleaser about the unlikely success of a Congolese musical band of paraplegics and street kids. But because the narrative climaxes with the group's well-received performance in front of an adoring crowd at a European music festival, it seems to measure success and validation on Western terms.

The other films are less heartwarming and all carry the palpable threat of violence. The central question surrounding An African Election (Jarreth Merz, CH/GH/US, 2011) was not who would win Ghana's 2008 presidential polls, but whether the event could take place peacefully. Is not that bar of expectation set too low? Conflict is also the central theme of The Redemption of General Butt Naked (Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss, GE/LR/US, 2011), where former Liberian warlord and evangelical convert Joshua Milton Blahyi's searches for forgiveness among his victims from the country's civil war.

The Redemption of General Butt Naked (Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss, GE/LR/US, 2011)

The character portrait's most compelling moments see Blahyi exercising his Christianity with the same physicality that made him a fearsome warrior. He preaches bellicosely and imposingly presses cowering victims for forgiveness. Like Blahyi himself, these films had difficulty transcending the specter of violence.

One of the panelists had begun by declaring the need to interrupt Africa's widespread association with disease, poverty and war. Since the films hardly dispel that image, the event did little to exonerate western filmmakers in general from the charge that they express self-awareness to conveniently deny their own complicity.4 Within the recent film cycle, these works share ideological ground with Claire Denis's acclaimed White Material (FR, 2009). Given that her auteurist art film can be similarly criticized, lends that indictment weight. White Material, about a white family struggling to retain their African coffee plantation, avoids colonial politics assiduously, not even naming its setting. With that anonymity, the film in effect dismisses colonial history and slips into fetish. The ease with which that can occur was demonstrated when Ben Nabors screened his unfinished feature, Moving Windmills, a biography of a Malawian boy who earned worldwide fame for building a windmill with parts that he scavenged from a scrapyard. The feedback that Nabors requested from his preview audience reflected some problematically patronizing views of Africa, although the director made clear that the completed film would avoid generic narratives.

Blood in the Mobile (Franck Piasechi Poulsen, DE/DK, 2010) shares Nabors's self-consciousness. It investigates the illegal mining of cassiterite (a "conflict mineral" used in the manufacture of cellphones, laptops and medical devices) in the eastern Congo. The film foregrounds its own form by structuring a parallel between the camera's plunge into dark labyrinthian mines, and later following shots that snake through fluorescently lit halls of corporate and legislative offices, where Poulsen seeks answers from the West about its exploitation of the Third World. Still, during its ventures into Congolese warzones through armed checkpoints and hostile crowds, the Africa that we see is filled with peril. Nevertheless, advocacy films like this face a conundrum, since these plights must be starkly represented in order to generate impetus for immediate solutions.

In conclusion, two films centered on conflict were particularly memorable. Ian Palmer's examination of bare-knuckle fighting among a group of Irish Traveller families, Knuckle (IE/UK, 2011), is a lucid and trenchant examination of war. By documenting how the feuds began, where those reasons swiftly ceased to matter, and why they are impossible to stop, the film straightforwardly allegorizes why we fight. Its initial refusal to disavow the voyeuristic pleasure of violence subsequently serves to forcefully renounce that perversity. The senseless braggadocio of colorful characters that deepen and prolong grudges illustrates the strain that nationalism puts on diplomacy. Knuckle is not immune from predictably poignant scenes of play-fighting children mimicking their elders and inheriting a culture of violence, but the youngsters display its most evocative visual motif.

Knuckle (Ian Palmer, IE/UK, 2011)

The lead character's son wears an array of jerseys worn by Liverpool, a professional English soccer team popular amongst the Irish. Like most clubs, Liverpool redesigns its uniform every two years. In the middle of such an intransigent social milieu, the bright red shirts' changing designs provide visual starkness, as if to mark time for unending hostilities.

Armadillo (Janus Metz, DK, 2010)

On the related subject of military quagmires, another film borne from embedded reporting in Afghanistan, Armadillo (Janus Metz, DK, 2010) provides an important rejoinder to last year's Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, US, 2010). Nothing better attests to the differences between them than their native reception. American servicemen from outpost "Restrepo" who attended True/False last year were feted, whereas the Danish soldiers stationed in Camp Armadillo were outraged at the film's implication that they violated rules of engagement. Metz's film prompted an outcry in Denmark and resulted in a government investigation; but while Restrepo generally leads American audiences to rue the tolls of war, it has done little to challenge the strategy. Those differences arise out the films' divergent relationships to the object. Like White Material, Restrepo is determinedly apolitical. Its viscerally personal stories enforce indentification first with soldiers and consequently with the mission that they believe in. Its interpellation of both the troops and the audience is significant, particularly when Judith Butler points out, "the discourse of justification has been effectively subordinated to strategic aims," thus conflating "instrumental forms of reasoning and normative justification."5 Armadillo and Restrepo are both observational, but the former is radically different. Metz remains critically distant from his subjects, and adamantly pushes his optical view of the battlefield to say something larger. He makes cultural points by showing the soldiers playing first-person-shooter video games, inflects their naïve preconceptions about war with slow-motion shots of hovering helicopters that recall Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1979), lingers on a shell-shocked wounded soldier for surreal effect, and does not hesitate to use impressionistic shadows. As such, Armadillo validates Butler's argument that although "embedded" war footage is necessarily pre-interpreted, it remains able to resist those meanings and develop "our analysis into a social critique of regulatory and censorious power."6

After winning the Semaine de la Critique at Cannes in March 2010, Armadillo found an American distributor only after an inordinate delay. Gulf War fatigue does not help a subtitled documentary. For that very reason, Armadillo's intervention is crucial. These debates, like questions about Africa, should be restarted. Hopefully that can occur as effectively as the environmental issue was renewed this year. The contribution of documentaries to that public discourse only magnifies the recent loss of Tim Hetherington. This essay is dedicated to his memory and work.

The author would like to thank the Morrow Fund Endowment for its support of this work.

Gerald Sim (Ph.D. Iowa) is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Florida Atlantic University. He specializes in American cinema, national cinema, sound and critical theory. His current manuscript is an historical materialist evaluation of film studies’ engagement with race. His writing appears in Asian Cinema, Screening the Past and Film Quarterly.


1. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

2. Bryan Walsh, "Foodies Can Eclipse (and Save) the Green Movement," Time (February 15, 2011); B.R. Myers, "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies," The Atlantic (March 2011). Both accessed June 1, 2011.

3. Gerald Sim, "True/False 2010 Festival Report," Framework (2010). Accessed June 1, 2011.

4. Steven Feld, "Editor's Introduction," Cine-Ethnography, ed. Steven Feld (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 20.

5. Judith Butler, Frames of War (London: Verso, 2010), xv.

6. Butler, 71-2.