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Then, now and after – the climate crisis in film

Written by Film

Film, like all arts, serve many purposes, traversing from gleeful escapism to arresting provocations that command us to take note, even if we don’t like what we’re watching. Indeed, both have their merits, but it is the latter which has enticed me to pen this article.

Often art mirrors life, and we can observe a reflection on canvas, screen or paper, the effects of war, poverty or injustice to name a few. In light of this, I delved into pictures that tackle the ongoing climate crisis – arguably Earth’s most immediate threat – and separated them into three categories: Then, Now and After, to chart how film has approached the causes of the crisis, its depiction of the devastation already unfurling, and filmmakers’ dystopian prophecies for the future. The features chosen, showcase the individuality of film, and how one topic can be spun in a hundred different directions whilst all offering uniquely different but equally compelling accounts of this singular threat to the world we live in, and everything in it.

In 2007, An Inconvenient Truth won 2 Academy Awards, including one for Best Documentary Feature.

Documentaries have been particularly prominent in this field, as filmmakers have routinely opted for a more direct, no-frills approach way to convey their ideas, perhaps due to the critical nature of the situation. It would be amiss, therefore, not to include one of the captivating offerings available, despite the bleakness and sense of imminent peril that feels inescapable in a host of them. Whilst Virunga (2014) is not exclusively tied to the issue, unlike An inconvenient truth (2006) or Before the flood (2016), its investigation into the privatisation and exploitation of Congolese land by foreign interests, is absorbing throughout. The feature uses the plight of the last remaining mountain Gorillas as a vehicle to navigate through the complex political terrain that has engulfed Congo for decades. It’s an important picture that pierces right through to the beating heart of its subject, simultaneously deploring the greed and depravity that humans can sink to whilst heralding individual beacons of hope and defiance. Once the picture has taken hold of you, it doesn’t let go.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) illuminates the stark realities that have become commonplace in an ever-growing number of coastal areas today. The story follows a six-year-old girl who lives with her ailing father in a small community on the Mississippi River delta and the challenges she faces because of this. It’s rare a film can simultaneously feel joyous and foreboding all at the same time. It can’t help but be optimistic, even though it’s underpinned by a devastating threat that is bitingly present throughout. The score is enchanting and acts akin to a companion for ‘Hushpuppy’, played superbly by Quvenzhané Wallis in her breakout role. The film is never preachy, and this is noteworthy. An audience tends to turn away when they feel like their being lectured, or in the wrong. This line is never crossed. We’re not alienated but drawn in, and this a powerful tool to harness. Warmth percolates through every frame of this Indie gem, and it’s essential viewing for any cinephile.

The scenarios that may unravel are far-reaching, and this fact has not escaped the minds of filmmakers around the world, who have seized on this prospect and concocted mind-bending scenarios for our uncertain future

In 2019, the United Nations was addressed by global experts on climate change and given the chilling ultimatum; unless drastic alterations were made in our living habits and use of finite resources, irreparable damage would occur in 11 year’s time. The scenarios that may unravel are far-reaching, and this fact has not escaped the minds of filmmakers around the world, who have seized on this prospect and concocted mind-bending scenarios for our uncertain future. I have chosen Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer (2013) to illustrate this, as not only is he the man of the hour after his triumphant Parasite swept this year’s Oscar’s, but Snowpierceris also a relentlessly intriguing picture, that leaves the viewer eager to see what hides behind every locked door. The plot centres around a doomed climate change experiment and an eternal train that harbours the last surviving humans, with each carriage divided into a different social class. It’s a fascinating premise to situate the world in the microcosm of a train, and his directorial skills are more than up for the challenge. This is by no means a perfect science fiction film, however. It lacks subtlety, and there are scenes that feel awkward and unnecessary, but Joon-Ho is most likely aware of this, as his aim is to hammer his point home, not dance around the details. Snowpiercer is a tour de force picture, and despite its faults, the questions it asks are so pertinent and expertly realised, that it demands to be watched, on as bigger screen as possible.

In 2013 Beasts of the Southern Wild was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including a nod for 9 year old Quvenzhané Wallis in the Best Actress category.
Image Source: IMDB

Last modified: 10th April 2020

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