Moving pictures, recently

Principal author:
John L. Clark


I've seen several powerful films in the last couple of months. Four of them brought me to tears. I want to share my experiences with you, in part so that you can determine whether you might also want to so spend your time and attention.

If you know me, you will probably not be surprised to learn that four movies that I have seen recently and that I would also strongly recommend each have environmental themes. But none of them stop there. Instead, they both advocate for human relationships in general and facilitate specific relationships to certain beautiful people. Because of this, each of them brought me to tears. I would happily share each of them with you, at the very least with the brief discussion of each below.

The annual Cleveland International Film Festival concluded last week; I took the opportunity to see two documentaries. I was able to see the first-ever showing of Bidder 70, which tells the story of Tim DeChristopher's brave actions in pursuit of environmental justice. I went into the movie after having attended the deep interview with Tim by Terry Tempest Williams in Orion magazine. In it, Tim recounts a profoundly disturbing experience that he had when he attended a presentation by Terry Root in 2008. I was struck, then, when the movie animated that story by recording and presenting a reunion between the two, in which they reflect on that pivotal moment. That was one example among many in which the film vividly connected with Tim as a person as well as his particular history over the past few years.

The spousal team of Beth and George Gage clearly sympathize strongly with Tim and the community that has rallied to his side. They are also talented documentary producers. The movie elegantly summarizes the history of Tim's struggle while at the same time it emphasizes the importance of that struggle. There were several moments where I wanted to jump up and shout, while other parts were deeply reflective and thought-provoking. Also, the film admirably placed Tim in the larger context of his community of support—particularly Peaceful Uprising—and it also highlighted the ways in which that community has both shared his journey and tackled the larger issues. It was powerful to have the directors with us for the first screening of their film; that sense was intensified by the fact that Tim was released from solitary confinement earlier that day. It's a peculiar sensation, knowing that the history we attended in the film is pressing thickly right up against the present.

The other documentary that I saw during the film festival, Payback, lacked the driving narrative of Bidder 70, but instead presented pointed case studies that link together a variety of questions about justice through the idea of debt. The film implicitly asks some tough questions about the social understanding of debt, and in the process it highlights some very high-profile debts and their very personal manifestations. Some of the visuals captured in the movie are just stunning, such as the wide angle shots of the Deepwater Horizon disaster as well as sequences that immerse the viewer into the oppressive, and at times literally enslaving, conditions of current agricultural workers. It's not easy—yet very important—to connect these and other pieces of our world together.

For a bit of a change of pace, the next film I attended (in reverse chronological order, if you're interested, although I did just rewatch it in order to have it fresh in my mind) is only about 12 minutes long. The movie Sacred Economics, directed by Ian MacKenzie, is essentially a teaser for the book of the same name by Charles Eisenstein. And yet in its short span it provides an elegant summary of so many of my own beliefs. Completely narrated by Eisenstein, the film includes pointed visuals and cartoons to illustrate the summary that he provides. In that latter respect, as well as on some points of content, the film reminds me of Money as Debt, which provides excellent background to the brief discussion of the current economic system in Sacred Economics. (The film, that is. The book may provide completely adequate background, but I haven't made time to read it yet, though I very much want to.)

The blade that cut through me in Sacred Economics, though, is the directness, clarity, and compassion displayed by Charles Eisenstein himself. There is graceful wisdom in him, and I pray that he continues to move toward the truth and that many others can learn from him. I was swept away by his speaking as much as his words. I have to struggle not to quote nearly the whole movie. Here's a beautiful segment, although I can't help reading it without hearing his particular gentle hopefulness.

Life should be something that you love. We didn't earn any of the things that really keep us alive or that make life good. We didn't earn air. We didn't earn being born. We didn't earn our conception. We didn't earn being able to breathe. We didn't earn having a planet that can provide food. We didn't earn the sun. So I think that on some level people have this inborn gratitude because on some level we know that we didn't earn any of this; we know that life is a gift. Well, if you know that you've received a gift, then the natural response is gratitude: the desire to give in turn.

Note that that goes far beyond basic environmentalism; justice extends its roots into the deepest core of our humanity.

Last in the ordering here, I actually saw Force of Nature first, and in some ways it is my favorite of the set. I was excited to learn that the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinemateque was showing this film, as I had wanted an opportunity to learn more about David Suzuki. Building on the legacy lecture that he presented in 2010, as he approached his 75th birthday, and strongly steeped in some very powerful history, the movie provides an excellent venue for doing just that.

In reviewing Suzuki's life, we have an opportunity to gain a vivid glimpse into an extended period of North America's recent history. We do not often think about the experiences of the Japanese in the internment camps during World War II, for example. It is also intriguing to see the passion in this scientist flare up, but then later founder as awareness led to disillusionment. We proceed to follow Suzuki as he pursued paths of activism and education. The film skillfully weaves in segments of his legacy lecture, where he continued and continues to try to educate his audience. I was glad to see him review some basic principles of sustainability, such as the crushing force of exponential growth, although his passing treatment of such topics cries out for a deeper analysis, such as that provided by Professor Albert Bartlett in his excellent lecture Arithmetic, Population and Energy.[1]

Suzuki changes his focus one more time in the course of his life to this point, and the film tacks along with him. In the end, his relentless search for meaning comes to rest on building up a loving and resilient community (emphatically including respect for the environment) centered around his family. In a rich and tender moment, the film grants us a full pause to consider the meaning of this as David Suzuki cradles his newborn grandchild in his arms.

One thing that pleased me about each of these movies is that they all incorporate beautiful and penetrating music. Music is most valuable and potent when it connects us to our experiences. We see this, for example, in the way that dancing and music collude to bring people together in a celebration of life. In a similar way, a good soundtrack reinforces our connection with the content of the film by skillfully plucking our emotions. Each of these movies provides textured atmospheric music at times; also, Force of Nature provides historically-oriented music (reminiscent of what was done in Watchmen), which helps to anchor the historical flow of the narrative. I appreciate both uses of the soundtrack to enhance the content of these movies.

I am powerfully affected by the immediacy and potency of history that comes through in these films. It is for us to both learn from these stories and also to step into them, to manifest justice in our own lives as we walk and work side by side with these salutary companions, and others.


Bartlett also provided input on another recent educational video: There's No Tomorrow.

This page was first published on 2012-04-06 13:42:00-05:00.

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