By JoANN VALENTI
The documentary film “Marmato” follows mountain village Columbians using traditional methods to mine rich deposits of gold under siege by a Canadian company in cahoots with the government to strip mine and level their homes, culture and history.
Photo: courtesy of Calle Films
Perhaps it’s no huge surprise — with climate change coverage seeming to falter on broadcast news over the last year — that even indie filmmakers’ interest in environmental themes has waned. The January 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT, the 30th, was a case in point — short on environmental topics, despite more than 12,000 submissions, with 123 feature-length films and 66 shorts selected for screening.
Of the two dozen or so films in the science category, which overlaps with nature/climate, none referenced climate change or global warming. Some addressed health issues (disease, blindness, diet), while industrial pollution, resource extraction disasters and resulting jobs/culture crises served as the backdrop for several others.
Of 24 recent projects supported by the Sundance Institute itself, half a dozen are environment or science themed. The 2014 Alfred P. Sloan Award for science in film, “I, Origins” from director Mike Cahill, came through the labs. Cahill is the first two-time winner of the prestigious award. His first film, “Another Earth,” received limited distribution. I, Origins, a drama featuring a molecular biologist researching eye evolution, was picked up by Fox Searchlight. Sloan awards only feature narratives, not documentaries, in their effort to go beyond “preaching to the choir.”
Documentaries at past Sundance festivals have been the go-to for tackling key environment issues. Only a few this year added depth to the stories behind the news. “Marmato” follows mountain village Columbians using traditional methods to mine rich deposits of gold under siege by a Canadian company, in cahoots with the government to strip mine and level their homes, culture and history. “Fishing Without Nets” tells the Tom Hanks’ “Captain Phillips” story from a Somali fisherman’s perspective. Waters polluted by nearby passing oil tankers have forced sustenance fishers into piracy to feed their families. They’re not all lovable pirates, but their desperation is clear. “Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe A La Hache” is a gem from the Slamdance fest celebrating its second decade — across on Main Street — in conjunction with the larger Sundance.
The documentary film “Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe A La Hache” details the impact and devastation of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a primarily African American fishing community.
Photo: courtesy of Perspective Pictures
“Vanishing Pearls” details the impact and devastation of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a primarily African American bayou fishing community. Still recovering from Katrina, then hit by Hurricane Isaac, hard-working oystermen fight to preserve their independence from sharecropper status. The group’s spokesman laments, “Generations of [oyster fishermen] were taught to never abuse the land.” Shut out of negotiations for fair compensation by a hired gun for BP, federal agency acceptance of a doctored report on the Gulf’s recovery and an adversary with limitless resources, the once-proud community ceases to exist. “We used to say there were no grocery bills on the bayou,” one fisherman says. Now food stamps fend off starvation.
“Young Ones,” a feature premiere on both potentially relevant genre lists, dramatizes a future barren Earth where water is the top commodity resource. As with gold and oil, whoever controls the water supply holds power and will drain the soul from anyone confronting their greed. Whether in Columbia, Louisiana or the future, indie filmmakers see the loss of natural resources as the loss of life for communities, the demise of heritage so others can get rich.
That’s a message consistent with festival founder and cultural icon Robert Redford’s aim to support independent voices, although he said at the opening press conference, “I try not to blend my environmental work with our film programming.” Still, he also lamented, “We haven’t left the next generations much to work with.”
JoAnn Valenti is an emerita professor, former SEJ Board member and SEJournal Editorial Board member. Go to www.sundance.org/festival for more information.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.