It’s Easy Being Green: Green on the Screen

Four critically acclaimed environmental documentaries to keep your eyes on this season.

Brooklyn artist Vik Muniz takes a photograph of Tiaõ, one of the catadores featured in
Brooklyn artist Vik Muniz takes a photograph of Tiaõ, one of the catadores featured in "Wasteland." (Vik Muniz Studio)

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The 2011 awards season is officially upon us. Environmental films aren’t traditionally thought of as number-one stunners when competing against movies such as “Inception” and “127 Hours,” but since last year’s Oscar for Best Documentary went to “The Cove,” a film exploring the annual slaughtering of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, a new trend may have started in which environmental films are more welcome in the spotlight.

Below is a list of four green films to keep your eyes on this season.

The Last Mountain

“The Last Mountain.” A standout among the too few environmental documentaries premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, documentary filmmaker Bill Haney’s “The Last Mountain” takes a look at coal mining in Coal River Valley, West Virginia, and the “battle over protecting our health and environment from the destructive power of Big Coal.” The film brings to light questions of Big Coal’s apparent stronghold over the democratic process and what that means for our future.

Massey Energy, the third-largest coal company in the United States and the single-most destructive coal mining company in history, has literally blown the Coal River Valley to pieces with the force of “explosive power the size of a Hiroshima bomb each week.” Haney’s film follows those people fighting “a fight for our future.” He captures their attempt to stop the destruction of the last-standing mountain in the region and their efforts to promote clean energy alternatives for powering the valley. Simply developing a wind farm on the mountain could provide power for the whole region, keep the mountain intact, and create jobs for the surrounding communities—all preferable alternatives than giving in to Big Coal.

This film is just one piece of evidence that proves the United States has an obligation to make clean energy “cheap, easy, and accessible.” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. says of the crisis in Coal River Valley, “If the American people could see it, there’d be a revolution in this country.” To see for yourself watch the trailer here.

“Sun Come Up.” A nominee in this year’s Best Documentary category at the Academy Awards, Jennifer Readfern’s “Sun Come Up” is the story of one of the world’s first cases of environmental refugees. Forced out of their homes due to rising ocean levels that threaten their water, food supply, and living conditions, citizens of the Cateret Islands in the South Pacific must relocate to Bougainville, an island nearby in Papua New Guinea. Though the Cataret people are some of the first “climate refugees” to receive media attention so far, there may well be 200 million climate refugees by 2050. This is the first time in history when countries could be eliminated from the globe entirely. International investment in clean energy is one way to combat global climate change and the effects it’s having on nations across the globe. It must be a priority of governments worldwide.

The name of the film, “Sun Come Up,” refers to “San Kanap,” a word in a local Cataret language, Pigdin, meaning “sun rise.” Find out more about this film and view the trailer here.


“Gasland.” This HBO documentary by Josh Fox, too, is nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category. Prompted by an offer to lease his land for drilling, Fox travels across the nation to investigate the practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial way of extracting natural gas from the earth, and show the dangerous consequences this action has on the environment. He sees the same three problems everywhere: water trouble, health problems, and hazardous explosive conditions inside people’s homes.

Further exposing the effects the Halliburton Loophole has on our country and the ability of the National Gas industry to ignore the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act, “Gasland” is a shocking reminder of the importance of clean energy and the dangers of drilling. This film even managed to ruffle the feathers of America’s National Gas Alliance, which denounced the movie and its message. Watch “Gasland”’s trailer here and see what CAP has to say about fracking here.


“Wasteland.” By now everyone knows the benefits of recycling but the catadores featured in the film “Wasteland” take this green effort a step further. “Catadores” is the name for the people in Brazil living in Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest trash dump right outside Rio de Janeiro, who make a living for themselves by picking recyclable materials out of the garbage. The catadores earn around $20 to $25 per day and the recycled material they scavenge eventually becomes car bumpers and buckets, and sometimes even a meal.

Filmed over a period of three years, filmmaker Lucy Walker follows Brooklyn artist Vik Muniz’s work in capturing the joyful essence of the catadores in his art. Muniz photographed several catadores featured in the film and used recyclable materials from Jardim Gramacho to create their likenesses on a grand scale; he then auctioned off photographs of his creations, giving the proceeds back to the catadores and helping them lead better lives.

Overall, “Wasteland” isn’t just a movie about recycling. The film touches on the transformative power of looking at life a little differently. To change your perspective and learn more about the film, watch the trailer here.

There are many environmental films and film festivals happening in 2011 and this list is just an overview of those garnering major media attention. Go forth, watch, and learn something!

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