News from the Field

2017 Sundance Film Festival turns its lens on climate change, environment

Last week, as Donald J. Trump was being inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States in Washington, D.C., festival-goers in Park City, Utah, were preparing for premieres, parties and protests at the Sundance Film Festival. The MIF staff, its board of directors and various colleagues were focusing on how to move forward with effective, engaging storytelling, especially as it pertains to the health of our planet.

Sundance has committed to incubating and showcasing stories about conservation and the environment through its New Climate program, supported by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Kendeda Fund, Discovery Channel, Vulcan Productions, Code Blue Foundation, FOND Group, EarthX Film, and the Joy Family Foundation. This marks the first time the festival has focused on driving action around a particular social issue.

Here’s some of what we saw and experienced at Sundance:

Films

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power: Former Vice President Al Gore’s climate change film, released 10 years after An Inconvenient Truth—which is widely credited for educating the public on global warming and mobilizing the movement to combat it—kicked off Sundance and premiered to a packed house and a standing ovation. The sequel offers a more personal, emotional look at the effects of climate change on people all over the world.

Gore later appeared on a panel moderated by Amy Goodman, co-host of Democracy Now!, to discuss what the Trump administration means for climate policies, the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, and more. Read the interview here.

“The hopeful story of what has developed in the last decade since An Inconvenient Truth came out is that the cost of electricity from renewable sources, principally solar and wind, and now the cost of energy storage, principally in batteries, and the cost of hundreds of new efficiency technologies that are not as well-known but are transformative—all those costs have come down so rapidly that they’ve created a new world of opportunity that is irresistible for business and industry and investors.”

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Debuting on the Discovery Channel in August 2017, this documentary (inspired by Miriam Horn’s book of the same name) features three unlikely heroes of America’s conservation movement: a rancher trying to protect the Rocky Mountain Front from oil drilling and pipeline construction; a farmer utilizing noninvasive no-till plowing on his fields in an effort to make the land more sustainable; and a fisherman fighting for restrictions on overfishing. What’s special about this film is that while these men look at sustainability practices as essential to their long-term business survival, at the same time their efforts to protect the environment are met with resistance by the conservative communities in which they live.

At the film’s Sundance premiere, we heard from John Hoffman and Susan Froemke, the filmmakers; Tom Brokaw, who narrated the film; and Dusty Crary, the rancher who successfully lobbied for Rocky Mountain Front protections.

“There’s a larger lesson in this film,” Brokaw said after the premiere. “Yes, people are not happy about what’s going on in Washington, but that doesn’t mean they have to go 180 degrees in the other direction. You can find ways to organize as citizens around common interests, and within that common interest you can get allies in the government. There are people in government who want to help. This [film] is really a template for it.”

Chasing Coral: This beautifully shot film by acclaimed Chasing Ice director and inaugural Sundance Institute Discovery Impact fellow Jeff Orlowski follows the rapid disappearance of the world’s coral reefs using underwater time-lapse photography. (We spoke with Orlowski about Chasing Ice last year in an interview—catch the highlights here).

Recently acquired by Netflix, Chasing Coral documents the story of our changing oceans with engaging visuals and by making science look fun and adventurous. Those on the MIF team who were able to preview the film said they didn’t expect how emotional it would be to watch footage of dying coral.

Orlowski’s primary goal was helping the public understand the importance of our changing planet and the ways in which that can be accomplished. “Filmmakers are translators for the scientific community,” Orlowski said.

At a Media Impact Funders private gathering that brought documentary funders together to discuss storytelling initiatives and strategies for forging ahead, Orlowski commented that the film was meant not for the hardcore climate skeptics but those who find themselves somewhere in the middle of the debate. And, he adds, it’s important to consider who is delivering these messages of change: “If the messages came from the tree huggers, they aren’t as effective as when they come from the farmers, fishermen, and the non-tree huggers,” he said. We’ll be learning and sharing more about the film’s impact strategy in future MIF programming, so stay tuned for that.

Transmedia

Environmental topics were popular subjects for more than just films. There were many experimental media projects on display at Sundance this year. 

Some served as add-ons to documentaries featured at the festival. For example, Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel was accompanied by a short VR movie made by production and stereoscopic camera company Condition One. Viewers begin the short, Melting Ice, in an equipment tent with Gore and a scientist taking measures of Greenland’s rapidly dissolving glaciers, but then are quickly immersed in 360-vistas of cracking ice cliffs, dripping snow and rushing waters. Both beautiful and terrible, the experience surrounds the viewer with kinetic proof of the shifting climate, and ends with a look at the consequences: a flooded coast in Florida. 

Similarly, the Chasing Coral team has created an experience that allows viewers to travel down into a coral reef at Lizard Island with scuba diver and researcher Zachary Rago to witness a bleaching event—bringing both the joy of navigating the reef and the dismay of watching the reef system dying directly to the VR viewers. 

Condition One—founded by war photographer Danfung Dennis to bring viewers a first-hand experience of the world’s suffering to spark empathy and action—also brought a VR piece called Fierce Compassion to the festival. Building upon previous VR pieces such as Factory Farm and In the Presence of Animals, this experience adds a new dimension: compassion meditations designed to open viewers’ hearts before and after experiencing the trauma of being immersed in a factory chicken farm. 

Viewers are invited to sit on meditation cushions arranged around painted mandalas, and then led through this meditation while watching yogis practice in a 360-degree canyon. Then, they accompany a group of animal rights activists illegally descending into a corridor with many miserable and unhealthy chickens crammed into egg-laying cages. After rescuing a few, the activists then release one survivor to range freely around a humane farm. The experience closes with a final meditation in an ancient forest that urges viewers to absorb and release the pain of the world’s living beings. The result: part action documentary, part melancholy, part wonder at the ability of Condition One’s cameras to simulate the actual feeling of being there.

Many of these new media experiences are not for the faint of heart. Installed in the Sundance New Frontier space, another standalone project, Tree, brings the user directly into the experience of being planted, flourishing, and eventually being chopped down. Supported in part by The Fledgling Fund, the project includes not just VR, but a subwoofer backpack, a fan, and a haptic floor so that you can feel your virtual roots. Those who experience Tree are even given their own seed to take home and plant. 

In addition to VR and installations, the New Frontier space offered visitors the chance to try other rising technologies designed to more deeply engage, inform and mobilize users. For example, the Meta Augmented Reality headset allows two users to jointly assemble a holographic model of the human brain. Sitting across from one another in a purpose-built room, participants are directed to “touch” the different segments of the brain as they learn about them and place them into context. The production, titled Journey to the Center of the Natural Machine, provides a convincing 3D illusion that is laid on top of the real world.

While not all of these experiences are seamless or fully satisfying as narratives, they provide glimpses into how stories might soon be experienced—not just with the eyes and ears, but with the body and perhaps the heart. Many thanks to Kamal Sinclair of Sundance, who gave us a tour of the New Frontier space and a rundown on the latest innovations.

Discover more festival news for yourself on Twitter @sundancefest and #Sundance. 

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