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Why Are Climate Change Docs So Boring? Because It Works.

Years of Living Dangerously / Showtime

The glaciers are melting. Garbage pits grow more massive by the day. Tropical storms submerge entire island nations. Food is running out—not to mention fresh water. Climate change has all the raw ingredients of our most terrifying post-apocalyptic nightmares. You’d think it would be easy to construct a gripping narrative with these plentiful plot points. And yet, when it comes to turning climate change into compelling (or even successfully informative) entertainment, there’s no proven formula. Instead, successful depictions are so varied that it’s hard to trace any pattern.

Consider, for example, Showtime’s flashy nine-part television series on climate change, “Years of Living Dangerously” (2014). The cinematically stunning series is rife with celebrities; the first episode opens with Harrison Ford, who is sent to prowl around the forests of Indonesia. And yet, even though the series won an Emmy, the size of its audience was dismal: Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta” regularly pummeled “Years of Living Dangerously” in the ratings.

On the other hand, “Under the Dome,” an antiseptic, lecture-style documentary on air pollution in China, racked up more than 20 million views on a popular Chinese video-sharing site within a matter of days in late February before being shut down by the Chinese government. Guobin Yang, a professor of sociology and communication at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied online activism in China, attributes the documentary’s popularity to a mixture of luck, timing, and content. Aired while the Chinese National People’s Congress was in session, Yang said there was hope the documentary would spur legislative action. “For a number of years smog has been a major concern in China, and now you have this documentary film that really pulls things together and makes a powerful argument.”

Taken in aggregate, the success or failure of environmental films seems unpredictable, or counterintuitive, at least. But is success really due to chance? Or can these hits and misses tell us something about the ways we process one of the most pressing issues of our time? Let’s look back through recent enviro-cinematic history.

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) has arguably had the biggest impact since Rachel Carson’s iconic novel Silent Spring. It won two Academy awards, earned $24 million at the U.S. box office (and $26 million abroad), and is today the tenth-largest grossing documentary in the United States (albeit, after documentaries on Justin Beiber, Katy Perry, and One Direction). It has even been adapted by the National Wildlife Federation to fit into high school curriculums.

And yet, the film succeeded almost in spite of itself. David Remnick summarized the film this way when it came out: “Sometimes we see Gore gravely talking on his cell phone—or gravely staring out an airplane window, or gravely tapping away on his laptop in a lonely hotel room.” Nonetheless, the film became a lightning rod and a target of conservative ire. James Inhofe, currently chairman of the U.S. Committee on Environment and Public Works, in 2006 compared the film to Mein Kampf. “The goal was to establish Al Gore as an unreliable narrator and re-establish a sense of doubt and uncertainty, which would enable the US to continue dodging this issue,” Charles Musser writes in Eco-Trauma Cinema.

So what was it about An Inconvenient Truth that made Remnick concede that “it might be the most important” film of the year and that turned Al Gore into one of the most prominent faces of climate change? 

According to Musser, a powerful tool of documentary film is the ability to create a sense of revealing truth to the viewer, or creating “truth value.” Musser argues that before An Inconvenient Truth, the government presented uncertainty about climate change science as the “truth” of climate change. An Inconvenient Truth, with its plentiful stats, graphs, and scientific studies, presented a new, urgent “truth” to the country: Climate change is real and there is scientific evidence to prove it.

Josh Baran, a communications and PR professional who has worked on numerous environmental campaigns, also seems to agree with this curious assertion that it’s okay for environmental films to be a little snooze-inducing. “The quality of the film is not essential,” Baran told me. Rather, Baran believes that the hype created around a film is a more potent vehicle for change than the contents of the film itself. He points to the premiere of The Day After Tomorrow (2004), a CGI-filled action thriller about what would happen if the earth were thrown into an early ice age. As part of the marketing for The Day After Tomorrow, Baran printed up leaflets for movie-goers, lined up scientists to speak with the media, and held public “town hall meetings” on global warming and climate change.

When The Day After Tomorrow hit box offices, it raked in $186,740,799 in the United States and $357,531,603 abroad. And a 2004 Yale study found that the film raised moviegoers levels of concern about global warming; changed how they thought about climate change; and made people more likely to take environmentally friendly actions, such as purchasing a more fuel-efficient car or volunteering with a global warming group.

Fortunately, there are simpler, less expensive ways to wrangle the public’s attention. Flo Stone, the founder of the D.C. Environmental Film Festival, told me that big doom and gloom films on climate change, such as The Day After Tomorrow, may in fact turn people off to the realities of climate change by making the situation seem overly bleak and hopeless. Stone believes that climate change films have to work within narrow bounds: They must not be preachy, but they must have urgency; they must present scientific fact, but they must draw on the audience’s emotions.

Stone finds that the most successful climate change films are like conduits. “People don’t want to be told what to think. They want to have the doors opened,” she said. Smaller narratives about the effects of climate change—rather than those that seek to tackle the whole issue—are more successful because they are more accessible: They are easier to relate to, and they present smaller ideas that can be easily Googled later. “I think that’s what excellent film does,” she said. “It focuses you so you’re on that track that has made an impression on you when you’re following that story.” In the 23 years the D.C. Film Festival has run, Stone said she has seen increasing numbers of people asking for information after viewing films.

Next month, Seeds of Time, a new documentary about climate change and the world’s dwindling crop diversity, comes out in select theaters. The film follows agriculturalist Cary Fowler’s attempt to bring food security to the attention of government leaders and the public as he builds the world’s first global seed vault—a James Bond–esque  bunker entrenched in the permafrost of Svalbard, Norway. 

The message of the film is simple: Our domestication of plants over the past thousands of years has drastically reduced the genetic diversity of our crops. In the U.S. alone, we have less than 7 percent of the vegetables we did a century ago. Combine this decreasing diversity with a growing population, new crop diseases, and planting seasons that are made more extreme and less predictable due to climate change and we could experience a future in which food is in shorter supply than ever before.

The film takes the viewer through the golden cornfields of the Midwest, the mountainous potato farms of indigenous Peruvians, and the icy Svalbard—all narrated by Fowler, who tells the story of how he went from Tennessee native to the leading pioneer for gene diversity. He talks about failed attempts to move legislators, his bouts with cancer, and his quest to save the world’s food system. Fowler, although an unassuming protagonist, is nonetheless a remarkable person.

It’s hard to gauge how well Seeds of Time will do on a national stage. In the film itself, Fowler is the first to admit that crop diversity isn’t exactly the sexiest of topics. However, that didn’t stop Al Gore’s in An Inconvenient Truth. And Seeds of Time certainly meets other criteria for successful climate change films: It presents a truth about our food system, has an engaging personal narrative, takes the view to beautiful places. But is this enough?

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the climate change narrative—the struggle to turn scientific facts and figures into a compelling story—is also its greatest strength. If you strip away the pesky political baggage, climate change is a blank slate on which filmmakers can layer stories of human struggle, victory, anguish, resilience.

There are signs that filmmakers are catching on to these possibilities. This year the D.C. Environmental Film Festival screened more than 160 films. Environmental film festivals are putting down roots around the world. Increasingly, the potential consequences of climate change are entering the peripheries of Hollywood. In Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar, a NASA pilot must traverse space and time to save a drought-stricken, dust-covered Earth; in Snowpiercer, the planet’s last humans duke it out on a never-ending, hellish train ride after a failed climate change experiment turns the world into an ice cube. There have even been whispers of “cli-fi,” or climate change fiction, as a new literary and film genre. Maybe it’s a good thing that we haven’t routinized how we tell the story of climate change. Without a set method for success, filmmakers are forced to dig deeper into a topic that desperately needs exploring.