Over the past ten years, documentaries that focus on the various environmental issues that plague our planet have become increasingly popular. These films have both educational and entertainment value, making them an excellent medium through which one can broaden their knowledge of the current and historical phenomena that impact the natural environment. While some these docs may seem incredibly informative and convincing, it is important to recognize that they are typically presenting a very one-sided perspective of the subject. As a student of environmental science, policy and economics I take my environmental education very seriously and I strive to be fully informed on all fronts before I make up my mind on where I stand on the more controversial environmental issues. I encourage readers to do the same and to take environmental documentaries with a grain of salt so before you watch your next documentary, keep these five thoughts in mind to get the most out of the information that is being presented to you:
- The purpose of a documentary is not necessarily to educate you; it is to sway your opinion about a certain environmental issue.
- Who is the director/producer of the documentary? What experience to they have that qualifies them to present this information to you?
- Documentaries use shocking visuals and dramatic music to draw you in. Are these visuals truly relevant to the argument the film makes?
- How does the documentary address the other side of the argument? Does it even mention other perspectives on the issue?
- Are there other documentaries out there that address the same subject?
The following popular docs have received notoriety for their presentation of specific environmental issues. Many of them have been nominated for or have won awards and tend to pop up on lists of the “Best Environmental Documentaries.” The trailer is linked to the title, so you can see a bit more about the film, followed by a description of the film’s content based on the five thoughts mentioned above.
5. An Inconvenient Truth – By far the most dramatic documentary on this list, An Inconvenient Truth follows a series of speeches given by ex-Vice President Al Gore to the general public in regards to global climate change. The film couples startling visuals with a melodramatic soundtrack to persuade the audience of its argument. To appeal to your sensitive side, this doc features anecdotes from Gore’s personal and political life that when you think about them, they have absolutely nothing to do with the main message of the film. While this doc presents some very relevant information about global climate trends and the impacts that certain human activities have on the climate system, this film is all about manipulating your views on the subject. The film employs a series of symposium-style presentations and fancy graphic representations to give the illusion of the integrity of the information that is being presented. When all is said and done, An Inconvenient Truth’s entertainment value is a lot stronger than its educational value.
4. Gasland – In this doc, small-town boy Josh Fox picks up a video camera and a banjo and travels across America to document the controversial method of extracting natural gas from the earth known as Hydrofracking. Immediately, the audience is made aware (or should be) of Fox’s personal bias against Hydrofracking and the rest of the film follows suit. A series of clips throughout the film follows Fox into the homes of a handful of those that live nearby hydrofracking operations as they recount the experiences of increasing health problems and combustible faucets. It is undeniable that Gasland brought tremendous light to a highly questionable process but it neglects to address even remotely the other side of the spectrum. There is a reason why this process is still occurring in the U.S. and the viewer never learns why. Getting unbiased information on this topic is tough so be sure to check out Eco18’s article about Hydrofracking.
3. Food Inc. – Food Inc. focuses on the questionable methods of production of the food we eat by going around to farms and factories to give a name and a face to the culprits. After watching this film I didn’t eat meat for at least a week. This doc is one of the scarier ones on the list because it reminds us while ignorance may be bliss, bliss is the genetically modified, drugged-up body of the chicken that’s been ground up to make our tasty chicken nuggets. While the educational value of this doc is significant, its scare tactics are a turn off.
2. King Corn – King Corn follows the eventful and endearing journey of two young men retracing their family roots back to Iowa farm country. This doc is similar to Food Inc in that it questions the quality of the products that come out of the food industry and go into our mouths. King Corn is one of my favorites because the filmmakers literally put themselves into the farmer’s shoes and try their hand at cultivating one acre of industrial-style corn. While the audience’s first impression is that film focuses exclusively on the commodity crop of corn, we soon realize that corn is in fact almost every food product on the market in some way or another. This doc does a phenomenal job of explaining everything from the biology to the economy of the corn industry in America and with the 2012 Farm Bill coming up for review this Fall, King Corn is a must-see.
1. The Cove – The Cove takes its rightful place as number one on this list of environmental documentaries. This film exposes the covert trapping and slaughtering of dolphins on the coast of Japan through the camera lenses of a task force of activists and divers determined to uncover the truth. Throughout the film we learn that the lies spread all the way across the Pacific Ocean and into America as professional dolphin trainers from aquariums like Sea World venture to these coves in Japan, paying thousands of dollars to hand select their next main aquatic attraction. I cried more than once while watching this one. The Cove is an artfully crafted compilation of information, action and heartfelt concern for the future of this majestic species.