Everyone loves the movies. We go to the neighborhood theater with a friend, buy a ticket, buy some popcorn and a drink. We enter the theater together, find a seat, get comfortable, and the lights go out. For a couple of hours, we forget our lives and plan on being entertained. Unless it’s a documentary.
Documentaries explore the landscape of ideas, focusing traditionally on social issues. Tough issues. Complicated issues.
Michael Moore’s film Sicko comes to mind, tackling America’s relationship to health care.
Or Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, his brainy treatise on global warming that expressed the whys and hows of a complex and politically contentious debate over climate change.
These films expose reality rather than offering us an escape from it.
The Cove, Louie Psihoyos’s eco-thriller about a group of agile activists committed to stopping the dolphin slaughter in a hidden cove in Taiji, Japan, went viral worldwide. It’s a documentary with high drama: Think Flipper meets Ocean’s 12. Indeed, Flipper’s trainer, Ric O’Barry, the protagonist of Cove, spent the early part of his career as a marine mammal specialist working with dolphins in captivity, including Kathy, one of the dolphins that played Flipper on the television show. After Kathy died in his arms forty years ago, he vowed to do everything in his power to stop dolphin trading for aquatic theme parks.
In Cove, as the blue waters turn red with the blood of innocent dolphins, it’s hard not to be radicalized into action. The Cove received the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2010. It also received a cult following.
On December 9, 2011, the Empire State Building turned red as a reminder of the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji. Leilani Munter, a volunteer with Save Japan Dolphins, came up with the idea and convinced the building’s owners to go along. O’Barry was there, along with director Psihoyos, producer Fisher Stevens, and actor-comedian John Leguizamo, to watch the building turn a shade of amber.
“Before the people of Japan can stop their government from supporting this annual slaughter, they need to know about it,” wrote O’Barry on his Dolphin Project website. “And what better way than to light up the iconic Empire State Building in New York, the ‘World’s Most Famous Office Building,’ in red lights?”
A few months ago, O’Barry held a public session in Singapore to campaign for the release of twenty-five wild-caught dolphins bought by Resorts World Sentosa for its marine life park. He reminded the audience that the slaughter of dolphins persisted despite global awareness about the Taiji dolphin hunt.
“We still have a lot to do in the cove,” he said. “Today, they captured and killed thirty dolphins. It is important to keep it in the news.”
Enter a new star in the movie-making industry: filmmakers as activists. If you translate activist to protester, then you have Time magazine’s Person of the Year. And if you carry this logic further, then the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, represents an annual winter revolution.
Sundance’s founder and visionary, Robert Redford, has never been afraid of getting his hands dirty in the best of ways. In an interview a few years ago, Redford was asked if he thought documentaries have a role in affecting social change and why Sundance has been such a supporter of nonfiction films.
“I want Sundance to be a forum for cultural exchange and for political dialogue,” he said. “We’re not hearing the truth about a lot of issues, and I’m worried that people are giving up and getting numb and not even bothering to look for the truth. It’s often in documentaries—when the focus is on personal stories—that we learn the truth of current situations and events. They’re not just a cultural force for storytelling, they’re also political truth. If you look at Born into Brothels and Hoop Dreams and Super Size Me, these kinds of films really are a huge channel to get back to the truth.”
Geralyn Dreyfous, co-founder of Impact Partners, is committed not only to making independent films that ignite social change but also to financing them. She was one of the producers of Born into Brothels, which received the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2004.
“In today’s information-saturated and visual world, film is increasingly how ideas travel,” she says. “They are virtual and intentional, and essential tools for community building and democracy building. It is increasingly the role of the storyteller to find its audience, and build new audiences, a skill set similar to grassroots organizing.”
This year at Sundance, Impact Partners entered four films in the documentary competition: Queen of Versailles, The Invisible War, Detropia, and How to Survive a Plague.
Early buzz on this year’s favorite documentary centered on Chasing Ice, a heroic portrait of National Geographic photographer James Balog, whose Extreme Ice Survey is challenging even the most recalcitrant climate skeptics. With his deployment of time-lapse cameras recording receding glaciers worldwide from Greenland to Switzerland to the Himalayas to Alaska, Balog is deepening our perceptions of our changing world.
My own father saw a preview of Chasing Ice in Salt Lake City. A life-long Republican who had been more than skeptical about rising temperatures and receding glaciers, he left Balog’s presentation a believer.
“This is a tragedy,” he said to Balog afterwards. “Only 100 people saw this presentation tonight. It needs to be shown to 45,000.” My father was referring to the number of people at a University of Utah football game. Plans are in the making to show a three-minute trailer on the electronic JumboTron at halftime during the U of U basketball game this winter, with my dad as narrator. Students from the University of Utah’s environmental humanities graduate program are helping organize the public service announcement and are putting pressure on the athletic department.
Again, filmmaker as activist as organizer as storyteller.
Storytelling is the umbilical cord between the past, present, and future. Stories become the conscience of the community, a community that extends beyond our own species.
We don’t need to be entertained. We need to be moved to action. Independent films with independent visions issue a stay against complacency and lethargy.
Sundance inspires me. Forget the popcorn and bring your attention. Documentary filmmaking is more than focusing on social change—it is creating the change we cannot escape from, frame by frame by frame.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the recipient of the 2010 David R. Brower Conservation Award for activism.