Aspen Ideas Festival: Co-directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk on ‘An Inconvenient Sequel’ | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Ideas Festival: Co-directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk on ‘An Inconvenient Sequel’

It's been more than a decade since "An Inconvenient Truth" — the paradigm-shifting, Oscar-winning documentary based on Al Gore's global warming slideshow — thrust climate change into the mainstream.

In the years since, we've seen the advent of "green jobs," affordable solar power, the signing of global agreements to curb carbon emissions and we've seen continued devastation from rising seas and a warming climate. Al Gore, all the while, has been fighting the same battles, serving as a diplomat for clean energy, giving presentations and training people around the world to do the same.

Two summers ago, the former vice president brought filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk to meet him in Nashville about making a sequel to the watershed 2006 documentary.

"We, like a lot of people, were curious about, What has Al Gore been doing for the last 10 years since 'An Inconvenient Truth'?" Cohen said. "We were surprised at how relentless he is in pursuit of truth around the crisis and the solutions."

Next month, Cohen and Shenk's "An Inconvenient Sequel" will be released in theaters nationwide. They're bringing the film to the Aspen Ideas Festival today for an early public screening.

At that first meeting, Gore showed them a 10-hour version of his latest slideshow presentation to give them a crash course in all of the latest data and science and solutions to global warming. And he told them what he's been up to, training thousands of people to give his slideshow, negotiating international climate deals and pushing businesses to create solutions to curb carbon emissions.

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The pair had proved adept at telling the story of climate change on film — their acclaimed 2011 film "The Island President" profiled Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldives, as he battled rising sea levels. (The pair's 2016 cyber-bullying doc "Audrie & Daisy" screened at last summer's Ideas Fest and went on to win a Peabody Award.)

Since "An Inconvenient Truth" won Best Documentary a decade ago, a cottage industry of climate change media has emerged — films, books and journalism along with scientific research. Thanks to that film, just about everybody knows the basics. So while the original film was really an expanded version of Gore's slideshow, explaining the causes of climate change and its threat to life on Earth, the sequel is about Gore himself and his mission to save the planet.

"This is someone who has been defeated — and in such a tragic way in the 2000 election — but found a way to regain his hope and optimism and move on to a second career that is arguably more important than anything he has ever done," Shenk said. "We felt if we could capture that, and the endless energy he has and how he leaves no stone unturned, we felt we had a magical combination for a new story."

In the new film, we see Gore as a globe-trotting crusader adding the latest current events to his slideshow — inserting new flood and fire footage from the day's news before taking stages around the world. Gore also walks on melting glaciers and wades through the streets of Miami, he comforts flood victims and he confronts world leaders, challenging them to take action (the film's full title is "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power").

"An Inconvenient Sequel" includes jaw-dropping imagery from the front lines of climate change: we see ice sheets in Greenland literally exploding, horrific flooding in the Philippines, a "rain bomb" falling on a city. Gore is our tour guide through the current state of a warming planet.

And it includes some terrifying statistics, like the fact that 14 out of the 15 hottest years in recorded history have been since 2001. But it trusts that the audience knows what climate change is, and looks instead at solutions big and small. In one of its most powerful segments, Gore talks about how "the most criticized scene" in the original film suggested that rising sea levels and more powerful storms would flood Manhattan and the 9/11 Memorial downtown. But Gore was right. It did flood in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy.

A large segment of the film plays out like a thriller in its portrayal of Gore's backchannel communications during the 2015 Paris climate talks. With seemingly unfettered access and working in a cinema verite style, Cohen and Shenk exhilaratingly document how Gore helped convince India to sign onto the climate agreement. (The film also deftly portrays the developing nation's point of view, and its desire to jumpstart its economy on fossil fuels and dirty coal power just as the U.S. did for 150 years).

The filmmakers' remarkable access and their unadorned style serve the story well. When he saw what they were capable of, the filmmakers said, Gore opened every door he could for them.

"Once we started getting into the material and showing him some of the scenes, he really got on board," Shenk recalled.

Their straightforward style, Cohen added, was a choice they made with climate deniers in mind.

"The nature of verite is that it's truth," Cohen said. "We're not commenting on it. We're observing it. From a climate denier point of view, we thought that was putting our best foot forward."

But, as we all know, there also was an inconvenient election last year. And, in the months since "An Inconvenient Sequel" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, President Donald Trump has vowed to pull out of the Paris accord and to undo the work that Gore did.

"It's devastating. There's no other way to say it, and incredibly embarrassing as Americans to witness that from our leader," Cohen said.

They recently edited a new cut of the film that incorporates Trump's exit from the Paris agreement. But the tail end of the film also sort of argues that it doesn't matter. Local and state governments, and the private sector, are taking action to carry out the clean-energy revolution that Gore helped start. The film name-checks Aspen and other towns that have gone to 100 percent renewable energy and follows Gore to Georgetown, Texas ("the reddest city in the reddest county in Texas," according to its mayor), which has done the same.

Trump's denial of climate change and his anti-environmentalist policies, Cohen and Shenk argue, do not undercut the progress their film documents.

"The truth is that, in practical terms, a lot of the work that needs to be done in order to fulfill the Paris accords, from the perspective of the United States' obligations, is already underway at the local and state levels," Cohen said.

And the film does show Gore go into Trump Tower and up an elevator to visit Trump after the election, but it does not include footage or information about their meeting. Shenk said that Gore has a policy of not filming meetings with sitting presidents.

Diplomatic behind the scenes, Gore gets uncharacteristically fired up during "An Inconvenient Sequel." He is overcome with anger as he talks about the Zika virus, its spread due to rising temperatures, and its threat to pregnant women. And, in an epilogue, he offers a fiery call to moral action on climate change in stark terms: "It is right to save humanity! It is wrong to pollute this Earth! It is right to give hope to the future generation!"

atravers@aspentimes.com

If You Go …

What: ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’ presented by Aspen Ideas Festival

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

When: Friday, June 30, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $12

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com

More info: The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with co-directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk with Skoll World Forum director Sarah Borman and Capricorn Investment Group director Dipender Saluja.

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