Sundance puts spotlight on climate change

A girl in a Chinese town that processes imported plastic waste in the documentary Plastic China (above), which is part of the Sundance Film Festival.
A girl in a Chinese town that processes imported plastic waste in the documentary Plastic China (above), which is part of the Sundance Film Festival. PHOTO: YOUTUBE

The film festival opens with a documentary on global warming and has a new subsection with 14 eco-films and projects

LOS ANGELES • It certainly reads like a political statement: Next week, one day before Donald Trump takes the presidential oath of office, the Sundance Film Festival will open its 33rd edition with a climate-change documentary starring former vice-president Al Gore.

Mr Trump has mocked the science of global warming as a Chinese hoax and selected a climate-change denialist to run the Environmental Protection Agency. What better way for the very liberal Sundance to respond than to put forward An Inconvenient Sequel, the follow-up to the Oscar winner An Inconvenient Truth (2006)?

Not so fast.

"We stay free of politics," actor Robert Redford, who founded Sundance, said by telephone. "It just happened to coincide."

He added: "We don't want to be tied into the current political cycle. That would be a terrible mistake, if we start to drive the story, when our whole mission is to support film-makers who have stories they want to tell."

At the same time, his top programmers, Mr John Cooper and Mr Trevor Groth, say they are taking a specific stance that is political by nature: For the first time in the festival's history, there will be a spotlight on one theme - global warming and the environment. Their goal?

"To change the world," Mr Groth, programming director, said with a grin over lunch here recently. Mr Cooper, Sundance's director, added quickly: "Or die trying."

As the pre-eminent showcase for American independent film, Sundance sets the pace for what arthouse audiences will be watching in the coming year. Mr Cooper and Mr Groth said that they decided over the summer to use that power to push eco-films because they felt interest in them was waning. "That seemed a bit odd, given how large and important the topic is," Mr Cooper said. (Redford, it should be noted, is a long-time environmentalist, although he said that had no bearing on the festival.)

A new Sundance subsection, the New Climate, will include 14 documentaries, short films and special projects, including a virtual-reality experience that turns participants into trees that are violently chopped down.

Many of these films are meant to startle. Plastic China is a rudimentary documentary by Wang Jiuliang about sweaty workers at a Chinese recycling plant; they pick through trash piles as pipes at the plant belch white goo.

The Diver, at 16 minutes, focuses on a man who swims through the Mexico City sewer system in scuba gear to dislodge garbage clogs. At one point, after climbing out - but before being doused with what appears to be bleach - he calls home to request pizza for dinner.

Other entries shine a light on unlikely environmental heroes. Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, about conservationists in the American heartland, starts with a hard-bitten Montanan working to prevent development, to the outrage of some locals.

Sundance runs from Jan 19 to 29 in Park City, Utah.

Here is a closer look at some of the New Climate entries:


Director: Marina Zenovich

This is an expose about "notorious water barons" in California who take advantage of state laws and systems, leaving themselves with plenty of water, even as the state has faced severe drought. In particular, Zenovich and her team aim their cameras at Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who own the Wonderful Co, a citrus and nut conglomerate.

National Geographic will run California Heist some time this year.


Directors: Milica Zec, Winslow Porter

Virtual reality has been an increasing Sundance focus and this project is especially ambitious. Participants will not just be handed an Oculus Rift headset and told to have fun. After entering the installation, they will receive an actual seed of a tree and be told to plant it. They will then step onto a 3.7m-by-3.7m circular platform that vibrates during parts of the story. Once they are wearing headsets, participants will be made to feel as if they are rising through dirt, sprouting branches and, finally, basking in the sun as a full-grown tree.

It does not end well.

Porter, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, and Zec, who formerly collaborated with performance artist Marina Abramovic, emerged as VR stars at last year's festival, when they introduced Giant, a six-minute piece that transports viewers to a bomb shelter.


Directors: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk An Inconvenient Sequel again looks at Mr Gore's efforts to educate citizens about global warming. But the story has less doom and gloom this time around, focusing on his optimism that a future powered by renewable energy is attainable - unless fossil-fuel interests become newly powerful.

"Because we are on the night before the inauguration, we expect a lot of very heated emotions," Cohen said. "We're hoping the film is a bit of a salve. There is great hope in what people can do individually about the climate. And certainly Al Gore's relentless work has resonance. How you can come back from personal defeat."


Director: Michelle Latimer

Sundance is not just for films. Television shows now debut at the festival, too (generally in the form of their first few episodes). Rise is a coming Viceland show that bills itself as "a celebration of indigenous people worldwide and a condemnation of colonialism". Three 30-minute episodes will be shown at Sundance, all of which involve environmental activism.

One episode looks at a fight between Arizona tribes and a mining company. The other two focus on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota and the oil-pipeline standoff there.


Director: Jeff Orlowski A whole film about dying coral reefs? In Orlowski's hands, it becomes an emotional race against time to document "coral bleaching" as it happens along with global warming. Viewers are taken underwater to reefs around the world as a group of self-proclaimed "coral nerds" offers visual proof that an environmental catastrophe is unfolding because of rising ocean temperatures.

"Yes, there is sadness," one scientist says on camera, as the film contrasts thriving reefs bursting with colour and fish against tangled thickets of dead coral. "But there is also a chance to do better."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2017, with the headline 'Sundance puts spotlight on climate change'. Print Edition | Subscribe