Silver screen sustainability

Silver screen sustainability

This time out, VITTORIO BOLLO encourages the couch potato in all of us to enjoy a little educational viewing.

The French director and intellectual Jean Cocteau once wrote: “A film is a petrified fountain of thought.” As pretentious as it may sound, I get what Cocteau meant. Film, cinema, movies, call it what you will, does provoke thought and can change one’s entire outlook on an issue – or life itself. I enjoy a good popcorn blockbuster as much as the next person, but I do relish watching a film that has the ability to not only entertain me but also to move me, astound me or provide insight into this world that I had not considered before.

While I have learnt, and continue to learn, by reading books and articles and surfing the Internet, I have also learnt a lot through movies, including as a sustainability professional. If you feel you’re not adding to your professional knowledge by watching movies, then you’re not watching the right movies. Here are 10 of my favourite films with strong sustainability-related or eco themes that I highly recommend.

The must-see movie

GasLand (2010): Co-director Josh Fox goes on a trip across America in a quest to find out more about natural gas and fracking. What he finds is devastated environments on rural smallholdings, contaminated land and even tap water that can be lit with a match. Given how fracking in the Karoo is such huge news at the moment here in South Africa, this Oscar-nominated documentary is a must-see for every South African. It delivers a clear warning as to why fracking can never be the answer to a nation’s energy needs.

Mainstream movies that pack a punch

Erin Brockovich (2000): No doubt many readers of this magazine will already have seen this Steven Soderbergh film. Julia Roberts gives a brilliant, brash performance as Brockovich, taking on a big, bad corporation (electricity utility PG&E) on behalf of the small community of Hinckley in California over the small issue of the town’s water supplies being poisoned with a particularly nasty heavy metal (Chromium VI). Based on a true story that resulted in the largest US class action lawsuit awarded at that time (US$333 million), this is a highly watchable David and Goliath crowd-pleaser worth seeing again and again.

Wall-E (2008): Yes, I have included an animated film, because not only is this Oscar-winning gem simply one of the best films in recent years, it’s also packed full of environmental sub-plots and sly winks. You’d have to be blind or brain-dead to miss them – a waste-laden Earth deserted by humans, a spaceship laden with lazy and ever-fattening Americans and the future of humanity and Earth itself ultimately redeemed by the planting of a seed. This clever parable full of messages about how the future of Earth lies in our hands works on so many different levels, making it easily watchable by all in the family – as any smart animated film should do.

The Thin Red Line (1998): Terrence Malick’s masterpiece may not be as accessible as Erin Brockovich or Wall-E, but in my opinion it is one of the best war movies ever made. A poetic, startling rendition of the taking of Guadalcanal by American forces from the Japanese during the Second World War, it also does what few war movies even attempt: it shows environmental devastation as an unwitting victim of war. Steven Spielberg’s overrated Saving Private Ryan may have been the big war hit in the same year, but this was the superior movie on every count, including its depiction of war on nature by proxy.

Think-twice-before-you-eat movies

Food Inc. (2008): Blasé about what you eat? Don’t really care where the grub came from, as long as it tastes good? Then do I have a movie for you. This documentary by Robert Kenner, also Oscar-nominated, and heavily influenced by the excellent book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (which is a must-read), will make you think twice about the food you eat. This film lays bare the environmental and health abomination that is the industrial agribusiness and fast food complex today, especially where the consumption of meat is concerned. And yes, this film is as applicable to how we eat in this country as it is to Americans.

Super Size Me (2004): Director Morgan Spurlock went on one of the bravest experiments ever committed to documentary film: basically, every meal he ate for one whole month was a McDonald’s meal. And every time he was asked “Would you like that super-sized, sir?”, he had to oblige. Watch as he goes from being a lean, athletic guy to being bloated and sick, with an enlarged liver, sky-rocketing hypertension and horrified doctors. In just one month of eating McDonald’s. It may be ages before you eat a takeaway burger and chips again.

Our Daily Poison (2011): This documentary by French journalist Marie-Monique Robin looks at our food from another angle – that of the proliferation in use of chemicals and unknown biological factors in the global food supply, from pesticides and food additives to the manipulation of genetically modified (GM) food. Meticulously and exhaustively researched, this film not only highlights how chemically saturated our food chain is, but how environmentally unsustainable our love affair with chemicals is.

Movies to alert, shock and inspire awe

A Crude Awakening (2006): Much has been said and debated about the possibility of oil, which the entire world economy is so dependent on, eventually running out or becoming too expensive to extract. The hot-potato issue known as “peak oil” has futurists, strategists, politicians and even oilmen very worried. This expertly crafted, brilliant documentary inspired me so much and, among other things, was the reason my very first article for this magazine back in October 2008 was precisely on the subject of peak oil.

A scene from The Cove.The Cove (2009): They don’t come much more shocking than this documentary about the horrific plight of wild dolphins off the coast of Taiji in Japan. A group of activists led by renowned dolphin trainer Ric O’ Barry takes incredible risks, and incurs the wrath of Japanese authorities and fishermen, to film what is the annual corralling (for sale to aquariums) or slaughter of thousands of dolphins in the bay. It’s a bloodbath of epic proportions, and if its relentless slaughter of dolphins or whales is anything to go by, Japan is nowhere near being the civilised nation that holds so many Westerners in awe. This is a very tough but important one to watch.

The Planet (2006): There have been excellent and better-known documentaries such as former US vice-president Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which did much to finally bring the climate change debate alive, and The 11th Hour, as earnestly narrated by Leonardo di Caprio, but none of them come close to the magnificent sweep of this Swedish documentary by Johan Söderberg. Not only does it touch on so many key environmental issues facing Earth, it uniquely interweaves stunning imagery with interviews with leading scientists, including psychiatrists who try to deconstruct why we have such a destructive relationship with this planet. This one will be tough to find – but trust me, it’s well worth the effort.

There are many other excellent films that have strong sustainability and environmental themes, but these are a few that have inspired me in one way or another. In turn, I know that movies like these have made me a better and more informed educator and professional. They should do the same for you. Happy viewing!


Vittorio Bollo achieved an LL B in Law and Politics from a UK university and a Master’s degree in International Environmental Law from a Canadian university. He has over 12 years experience in the SHE field, primarily in consulting, training and R&D. He joined NOSA to work in its growing R&D department, where he continues to do work in environmental/SHE risk management and corporate governance, as well as his chief passion, sustainability.

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