As I'm sure you're well aware, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences have just released their Oscar nominations. I was a bit startled—happily so—to see that an impressive 40 percent of documentaries nominated for the Academy Awards are somehow environmentally-themed.
I've seen all of the four nominated films—two for feature length and two for short subject—and would recommend each without hesitation. (And I should confess that I haven't been especially gracious in past reviews of environmentally-themed art, music, and film.) What these ones all get right, in my opinion, is that they stand alone as human interest stories. They all acknowledge the fact that the most important environmental issues—pollution, waste, extraction, climate change—are also the most important human issues.
Here are the four films:
Documentary, Short Subject
Sun Come Up follows the plight of some of the world's first true climate refugees. Their homeland, the Cataret Islands, a remote chain in the South Pacific, is fast losing ground to rising sea levels. The families who have lived there for dozens of generations have made the agonizing decision to relocate their entire community.
Be sure to check out my interview with filmmaker Jennifer Redfearn from last spring, where we learn how the filmmakers were received by the islanders and where the film's title comes from.
This film tells an incredible "David vs. Goliath" story of poor villagers in China's industrial heartland standing up against runaway pollution. The village of Qiugang is plagued by three major industrial outlets that "churned out chemicals, pesticides, and dyes, turning the local river black, killing fish and wildlife, and filling the air with foul fumes that burned residents’ eyes and throats and sickened children." The film tracks "the struggle of Qiugang’s increasingly emboldened population to curb the pollution that was poisoning them in their homes, schools, and fields."
Gasland, which we covered upon its release, takes a critical look at the natural gas industry—particularly the relatively new and controversial practice of "hydrofracking" to extract the fossil fuel from its shale deposits. The filmmaker, Josh Fox, was himself approached by companies to sell drilling rights on his land, and the film uses startling images of kitchen faucets erupting in flames and polluted streams to argue against the practice that many community activists see as a major threat to public health and safety.
The film already won the Jury Prize for best documentary at Sundance last year, and in an interesting twist, The New York Times has a good piece about how the natural gas industry wasn't all too pleased at the film's nomination.
In the world's largest garbage dump, on the outskirts of Rio de Janiero, a community of catadores, or "scavengers," spend their lives picking through the refuse for recyclable, reusable, and even edible materials. WASTE LAND follows artist Vik Muniz from Brooklyn back to his native Brazil, where he connects with the trash-pickers, helping them create striking, vivid images of themselves out of garbage that he then photographs. (Muniz gives all the money raised from the sale of the portraits to the subjects.) The images, according to the filmmakers, show "both the dignity and despair of the catadores as they begin to re-imagine their lives."
Again, all of these films are poignant, challenging, and wonderfully rewarding to watch. What's more, I've heard from friends who work in the "industry," and everyone is saying that this year was a really strong one for documentaries, which makes this accomplishment all the more impressive. Huge congrats to all of the nominees. I, for one, will be watching the Oscars this year for the first time in probably a decade.