Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival: A Critique

The Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival showcases exceptional new films that celebrate the beauty of the earth, explore challenges facing our planet, and entertain, inform and inspire personal action. This year, Committee member and PhD Candidate Megan Genovese attended the festival and wrote a critical overview.

Should education or activist media be fun? I asked myself this a lot over the weekend of the Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival. On the one hand, it’s hard to get people to show up for something actively unpleasant. On the other hand, climate change and ecological disaster hardly seem like fodder for entertainment. What is the right balance between honesty about a world in existential danger from itself and the simple pleasures of aesthetic beauty and narrative closure? If one is honest, how do you create pleasure for the viewers? Can something pleasurable to watch also offer a critical intervention?

The third annual Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival took place April 5-8 and showed 54 films, including 10 features, at the downtown Prince Theatre. Its organizers bill the festival as showcasing “the power of film to entertain, inform and inspire personal action about challenges facing our planet, along with films celebrating the natural beauty of the earth.” Their selections leaned more toward films addressing the problem of climate change and ecological exploitation than Planet Earth-style wildlife and natural vista documentary, but there were distinct tonal and thematic similarities among almost all of the feature films that offered aesthetic and narrative opportunities for the audience to find enjoyment. Unfortunately, these means of fostering enjoyment also undercut the activist ambitions PEFF and the filmmakers presumably hold to address environmental issues.

Beautiful trauma

It’s difficult to look at an image that is ugly, upsetting, or confusing, which creates a difficulty for filmmakers trying to connect audiences to topics like climate and ecological disaster. But there is also a danger in aestheticizing these issues; in finding visual beauty or attraction in trauma, there is a risk of fetishizing it. It’s difficult to teach an audience to hate something beautiful, to feel urgency to transform it.

The obvious offender in this respect is The Human Element (2018), due to its main character James Balog, an environmental photographer who wants “to bear witness to” the dramatic changes he’s seen in nature over his career. Inappropriately, he considers art and aesthetic an important aspect of this witnessing, which diminishes the urgency of his message.

He takes the audience through case studies of flooding in Tangier Island, asthma rates in Denver, megafires in California, and defunct coal mining communities in Pennsylvania and does staged photo shoots in each site he visits to show the effects of climate change on individuals’ bodies. Images of people are more affecting than descriptions and data representations, but I found his posed, color-corrected, and aesthetically groomed photos manipulative and even offensive. Balog had Tangier Island residents pose with adults up to their waists in water while their children were submerged so only their eyes were visible, saying in voiceover that these images evoking families in floodwater might provoke investment in saving Tangier from rising sea levels. After storms like Katrina and Maria and given routine coastal flooding and record river flooding in the Midwest this year, there is no shortage of haunting, disturbing images of people caught in floods. Forgoing those and creating staged images that could be in an edgy fashion spread cheapens and obscures the real lives lost and destroyed in these real disasters.

While The Human Element has the most obvious issue with fetishizing trauma aesthetics, it is also the easiest fix. Footage of Balog staging his shoots and the resulting images could be easily excised and the film could hang together with a stronger delivery of its message of disastrous environmental change. More insidious and difficult to change is the narrative fetishization of trauma.

A follow-up to the filmmaker Rob Stewart’s 2006 documentary Sharkwater Extinction (2018)about the finning industry, the stated goal ris to increase the audience’s empathy for sharks, to reduce public fear and indifference that Stewart believes enables the industry that still kills tens of millions of sharks every year despite national bans. However, Sharkwater Extinction offers limited portrayals of sharks in their natural habitat. There are a few vignettes of Stewart diving with sharks, but the vast majority of the film follows Stewart’s efforts to expose illegal fishing and sale of shark parts. This means that the prevailing images of sharks in this film are of them caught in fishing nets, their butchered bodies, or disembodied fins and flesh. The image that sticks with me is a shark, still alive after its fins were amputated, tossed back into the water and helplessly sinking, unable to swim and slowly asphyxiating to death.

It’s clear that Stewart likes sharks and finds no personal pleasure in this kind of images, nor does he want the audience to find aesthetic beauty in them. Their purpose is to shock. They’re effective in making the audience feel disgusted with shark finning and fishing, but the way Sharkwater Extinction exhibits this carnage, with minimal context other than Stewart’s frustration and determination to put a stop to it, reminded me of a crime procedural. Seeing a serial killer’s gory work is affecting, but the audience finds pleasure in feeling disgust because they know it serves the larger narrative of the protagonist trying to put a stop to the killing. The tagline of Sharkwater Extinction is “Some heroes are real,” written on the poster next to a large image of Stewart himself. Stewart is the film’s protagonist, not the sharks. Their mass killing is bad, but we care about it mostly because it makes Stewart feel bad, drives him to work harder to stop the villains in the story. And seeing the footage Stewart shot of the maimed shark dropped back into the water, knowing that he sought out and graphically displayed its slow, painful death, I was put in mind of the most compelling killer-cop dynamics, the ones that feel inescapable, where the audience has to wonder who the good guy would be without his nemesis.

You would be hard-pressed to recut Sharkwater Extinction to be about the sharks in the way Stewart says he wants it to be. It would be possible to make it a film about the shark industry that did not aestheticize slaughter, but it would require cutting out Stewart as the protagonist to avoid the hero-villain narrative dichotomy that makes the sharks’ death a fetishistic object. That’s more unlikely a possibility than it should be; the filmmaker as protagonist was nearly inescapable at PEFF.

Explorer-expert documentarian

In 60% of the features I saw, a filmmaker was their own main character, in a style of documentary filmmaking called presented. James Balog, though not the director of The Human Element, is credited as creator and producer and provides the narration as well as featuring on screen. Rob Stewart, who died in a diving accident while making Sharkwater Extinction, is inescapably foregrounded in the film his collaborators finished as a testament to him, though they clearly had a lot of footage of him to work with. Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story (2018) is about its director’s trip to Thailand to join an elephant rescue, and Ashley Bell makes herself as much the protagonist as Sangduen Chailert, the local activist who has been doing this work for decades.

These white filmmakers occupy a dual position in their films. In one moment, they are the audience avatar, discovering this information for the first time. They interview local experts on camera, performing, with varying levels of believability, a thoughtful ignorance of the facts; Balog says a startling number of times that he’d “never thought about” or “never considered” aspects of climate change a conservationist photographer and activist should have come across before now. But in the next moment, the filmmakers are experts, sometimes parroting what the actual experts have told them and sometimes making assertions in their own voices, providing no sourcing or evidence of expertise on their subject beyond the fact that they are making a movie about it. Stewart and his collaborators sift through stacks of disembodied shark fins, confidently asserting which species each came from because “we’re all basically experts by now,” but none of them are accredited ichthyologists, nor do they seem to want to share the knowledge they’ve picked up with the audience. We just have to take their word for it.

These filmmakers know more about their subjects than the average person, but they know it because they have spent months or years interfacing with experts, both professionally trained and members of subject communities. It is an expression of unexamined privilege and narcissism that they then want to act as mediators between those same experts and film audiences. It’s eminently possible to make a documentary in which the documentarian is invisible, a silent conduit to bring the experts to the audience; the best features at the festival and all the shorts I found most informative and persuasive used this interactive style of filmmaking that never showed the filmmaker on screen. My preference is partially subjective, but in a film like Sharkwater Extinction, we see style can impact a film’s message and its efficacy. Putting the filmmaker at the center of the story as both explorer and expert means that the story is not exclusively about its subject, but about the relationship between the filmmaker – and the white, Anglophone, American audience he speaks directly for and to – and the subject.

Additionally and importantly, the presented style of documentary filmmaking creates a problem of power when the filmmaker is an affluent white Westerner and the experts or communities impacted by the issues they depict are not. This problem is overt in Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story, described in the program as an “uplifting, family-friendly film.” Bell first learned about Chailert’s elephant sanctuary because a family friend helped fund it and she later visited as a tourist. Because she’s “always loved elephants,” Bell joins Chailert on an expedition several hundred miles south to take an elderly elephant from the trekking company that has abused and exploited her for years for tourist rides. While there, Chailert convinces the trekking company owner to let several elephants walk freely and Bell presses him about the difference in the elephants’ attitude when they aren’t chained up, acting the expert and treating Chailert as a mere translator. Bell offers her subjects minimal opportunities to converse or offer expertise in their native language and be subtitled for an Anglophone audience, even though Chailert’s accent is strong enough that she gets subtitled anyway.

One of the worst moments of thoughtless privilege is when an emotional Bell describes the crush box, a technique for breaking baby elephants by binding and torturing them until they do not recognize their mothers. Bell then explains that the footage of the crush box she uses in her film is Chailert’s, secretly recorded at her own family’s trekking company to expose the practice. Chailert is the true and underutilized expert throughout the film, but it is most egregious that Bell usurps her authority on the crush box, when that footage was what made Chailert famous as an elephant conservationist and caused her family to disown her. Bell chooses the footage of herself getting choked up about the abuse of animals as crucial information and affect for the audience over Chailert’s personal and professional expertise and emotional investment in her activism.

Especially for climate change and ecological destruction, which disproportionately affect poor, non-white, non-Americans, the presented style of filmmaking that positions the filmmaker at the center of the story as both explorer and expert creates or enlarges a power imbalance between filmmaker and subject. Chailert should be the hero of Love & Bananas, not the random white woman with a film crew who decided to spend a couple months in Thailand. There are stories about climate change and ecological destruction that should have affluent white Westerners at their core, but they would likely have to be about how those subjects perpetrate climate change and ecological destruction. Instead, white filmmakers insert themselves into communities not their own and tout their expertise on subjects they do not experience firsthand so they can make themselves out to be heroes. Maybe they do that intentionally, so their intended audience of similarly affluent white Westerners feel empowered to become activists, too, but it comes off as narcissism. Maybe they do it thoughtlessly. In any case, the explorer-expert documentation eclipses the knowledge held by people who experience climate change and ecological destruction directly and the critical activism they have been doing already without the intervention of a white savior.

“Human stories”

There are two primary stumbling blocks to climate education in the United States: data alienation and partisan negation. It is difficult to tell stories about changing concentrations of atmospheric gasses and difficult to reach people whose political identity is staked on refusal to believe anthropogenic climate change exists. Some of the films at the Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival tried to kill two birds with one stone by telling what the filmmakers call “human stories.” As the director of The Human Element explained after the screening, human stories get away from politics, put sympathetic faces on climate change, and focus on its “real effects” to the economy, jobs, and national security; in other words, “human stories” are those that even a conservative would listen to.

Human characters are effective tools for shaping narrative and impact, but as much as who tells the story changes the power and knowledge dynamics of documentary, so does which stories get told. Story sampling and framing shapes the impression of the larger issue, often to the detriment of the excluded. James Balog goes to Tangier Island, which would seem to have only a few non-white residents who he never interviews, though he does highlight a photo of a black woman and her daughter in his facsimile floodwaters; he does not go to any other, less white American communities, or do much to connect Tangier to coastal communities around the globe impacted by rising sea levels. His only non-white interviewees are a Hispanic or Latino family in Denver with three children whose asthma is so severe that they have to attend a special school for children with respiratory conditions. The Human Element does not mention that disproportionately impoverished people of color in the United States are more likely to be exposed to and suffer health effects from environmental pollutants. In trying to strip the intersectional politics of race and class from environmentalism to appeal to a conservative audience, The Human Element occludes a major facet of the problem and a necessary consideration in its solution.

Trying to appeal to the right with palatable “human stories” also affects how these documentaries represent the answers to climate change and ecological destruction. The Need to GROW(2019) looks at an impending crisis in food supply if current agricultural practices continue and sterilize all arable soil. It follows three “human stories”: a Girl Scout and her mother petitioning to get GMOs out of Girl Scout cookies, a San Francisco organic microfarmer developing vertical hydroponic planters, and a computer scientist who built a negative emission green energy and biochar plant. Their arcs reinforce the idea that ‘the man’ and his systems will not participate in solving this crisis – the Girl Scouts refuse to meet with the petitioners, the city council reclaims the land they gave to the microfarmer for commercial development, and the computer scientist’s plant burns down, possibly by arson. The Need to GROW also dismisses the role of government regulation in shaping agriculture and uncritically forwards conspiracy theories about the non-existent health effects of GMO crops along with the facts that corporations like Monsanto engineer monopolies in part with GMO patents. Focusing on individual characters and not on systems that might be more narratively compelling, but it also limits the documentaries’ scope to a small scale, at which solutions will be partial at best. In addition to the pervasive whiteness of the “solution innovators,” the film puts the onus on individuals and communities to invent fixes to climate change and ecological disaster themselves, giving up political solutions as a lost cause.

This reliance on consumer and market solutions is a dangerous thread running through much of the film festival’s lineup. Ashley Bell urges her viewers to not go on elephant treks in southeast Asia and not patronize entertainment involving trained elephants because they were probably trained in the crush box. Rob Stewart blames the slaughter of tens of millions of sharks per year on ignorance, particularly Western ignorance, saying that “our morals would kick in” if we only knew what was happening and how many consumer products contain illegal shark parts. James Balog gives a plug to privately owned solar panels as a market-driven solution to energy and job needs in former coal country and urges viewers to make the vaguely-at-best defined “right choices” to restore balance to nature. The Need to GROW champions local seed libraries, schoolyard gardens, and vertical planters; co-director Rob Herring said in the post-screening Q&A they tried to depict “as many solutions as we can so there’s something for everyone” who wants to do their part.

There is nothing wrong with doing any of these things, but presenting these as the only ways that people can contribute to the fight against climate change and ecological destruction belies that they are societal and political problems with societal and political solutions. At best, it is disingenuous to give the impression that buying organic produce at a farmer’s market will change the facts that industrial agriculture exists, global food supplies depend on it, and the industry has enormous power to protect itself politically and financially while exploiting farmers and leaving many communities underfed. At worst, it redirects energies that could go into activism for systemic redress into small actions that leave those who care feeling like they’ve done good when they’ve only become complicit in disregarding the impoverished, marginal, people of color, and non-Americans most severely impacted by environmental issues.

Part of the problem here is the inherent skepticism of political solutions present in films like The Need to GROW, but the main problem is the filmmakers’ desire to reach out to conservative Americans as well as liberals already on board with climate change. Using granular, uncontroversial “human stories” helps them craft compelling narratives that don’t immediately trigger partisan negation. Hesitance to embed granular stories in a larger societal and political context and frame solutions in that same context, for fear of alienating an audience that may not be watching at all, cuts these documentaries off at the knees. Their messages aren’t wrong, but they’re incomplete and pulling their punches, something the liberal audience might not realize. Alternately, the PEFF audience might know that the documentary is defanged but find another pleasure in feeling superior to the conservatives who might see it and finally be convinced climate change is real by these cherry-picked, whitewashed, deliberately framed “human stories.”

It must be said, I am in a minority in my skepticism about these films. The Human Element won the festival’s Environmental Advocacy award; the jury awarded Best Wildlife Film to Love & Bananas. Festival attendees were invited to vote for the Audience Favorite award, and they honored The Need to Grow.

And it isn’t that these films had no redeeming qualities; they each make their point. They present true and urgent information about climate change and ecological destruction in a way that is understandable and moving to an audience. They promote finding ways to solve those problems. The filmmakers and the festival organizers frame them as potentially able to reach audiences unconvinced that climate change and ecological disaster are real. They’re entertaining. But is that enough?

By focusing on small scale actions and sidestepping the need for a systemic political and economic agenda to stop and reverse climate change; by meting out responsibility equally among all people rather than identifying the wealthy corporate and political elite who shape the systems and policy that pollute and strip-mine the environment; by framing climate change and ecological disaster as an impending problem for white, middle-class America rather than an everyday health and survival risk to poor, marginal people around the world; by foregrounding the filmmakers’ discovery and determination over impacted communities’ activism and resistance; by using these aesthetic and narrative tactics to promote audience enjoyment and minimize their discomfort, most films at the Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival present climate disaster as a problem solvable by white Westerners learning about it and making slightly different purchasing and lifestyle choices. If PEFF’s films are representative of environmental activism in America, there is a common problem with honestly depicting the stakes of the issue and the scale of necessary action.

I do not think that audience pleasure and critical content are necessarily at odds with each other. A few of the films at PEFF, notable among them Patrimonio (2019), showed aesthetic and narrative choices can craft a compelling experience that does not undercut or misrepresent the seriousness of the subject, or condescend impacted communities’ expertise and activism. They approach the work that environmental documentary films should do in a form that maximizes their efficacy, both in communicating urgent information and engaging the audience for activist goals.

The question I should have been asking at the festival, instead of whether activist media should be fun, is whether so many films were made to be fun at the expense of honesty because the PEFF jury and filmmakers were overly concerned with audience comfort, or because they valued egoistic enjoyment over knowledgeable, committed activism.

Megan Genovese is interested in media texts as they reflect and construct social identities and cultural norms and in the dialogue between industry creators and audiences. Her current focus is on superheroes and contested narratives in canon and fan works. Genovese graduated summa cum laude from Baylor University in 2015. Her scholarly background is in linguistics, rhetoric, culture studies, and media studies. Her undergraduate thesis, Boys, Girls, and Monsters: Regulation of Normative Gender in Supernatural(link is external), was a close reading of ideologies of gender, sexuality, and heroic identity in the (inexplicably still airing) CW program Supernatural.