‘Gasland’ filmmaker searches the globe for ‘Things Climate Can’t Change’
If You Go …
What: Impact Film at American Renewable Energy Day
When: Sunday, June 19, 10 a.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Where: Snowmass Base Village Conference Center
How much: All films $35; Single film $10
More info: Screenings continue throughout the AREDay conference with evening screenings June 20-24 at 8 p.m. Sunday’s guest speakers include National Geographic explorer-in-residence Sylvia Earle, Oscar-winning director Louis Psihoyos, and National Geographic filmmaker Jon Bowermaster.
Impact Film Lineup
June 19, 10 a.m. – 8:30 p.m.
‘How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change”
“Stop the Burning”
Wildways: Corridors of Life”
June 20, 8 p.m.
“Dear President Obama”
June 21, 8 p.m.
“He Named Me Malala”
June 22, 8 p.m.
June 24, 8 p.m. at RMI Innocation Center, Basalt
“Time to Choose”
Josh Fox’s new film opens with the documentarian dancing in his home, and not dancing particularly well.
It’s a silly, joyful, definitely surprising opening note from the muckraker best known for setting people’s tap water on fire in the visceral, Oscar-nominated, 2010 documentary “Gasland” detailing horrific effects of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”). He’s dancing because the activist movement he helped lead in Pennsylvania’s Delaware River Valley successfully got that corner of the globe off the table for fracking. He and his neighbors had won the “Gasland” battle.
But a war is still raging, as soon becomes clear in Fox’s “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change,” which screens Sunday at AREDay’s Impact Film and debuts June 27 on HBO.
After his one-man dance-off, Fox relaxes in his backyard woods savoring the nature spared from fossil fuel extraction. But a dead hemlock tree that he’s nurtured since boyhood sends him back into action. It’s been killed by an invasive woolly adelgid — an invasive insect moving north due to rising temperatures. (The forest-felling bug phenomenon will be familiar to Coloradoans who witnessed the devastation of the bark pine beetle, just as the battles of “Gasland” and “Gasland 2” mirrored the Roaring Fork Valley’s fight against drilling in Thompson Divide).
Fox goes from there to the areas around New York City drowned by Hurricane Sandy, following community activists and friends who lost their homes, walking through what he calls “heaps of the American dream” left behind by the water. He then sits down with climate experts — Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Elizabeth Kolbert and other prominent figures from the movement — to talk about Sandy, climate change and the end of the world as we know it: drowned coastal cities, mass extinction on land and sea, civil wars sparked by drought. The four horsemen of the apocalypse, he concludes, are already here and the end is inevitable.
Depressed and despairing at that doom-and-gloom reality, Fox goes in search of the titular “things that climate can’t change,” looking for local solutions that are working. And here the film hits its stride, as Fox goes to Peru, China, Ecuador, Zambia, the Amazon and Vanuatu to find people in the fight. What climate can’t change, he concludes, are human characteristics like creativity, resilience, innovation and love.
“This is an action-adventure movie, it’s an emotional roller coaster — it’s not some stale scientific essay or lecture,” Fox said in a phone interview.
A lot of climate-change movies rattle off the stats and the science, the carbon dioxide levels and rate of polar ice melt. Fox, instead, tells a human story here. And while a lot of these kinds of films end up preaching to the choir, unlikely to change anybody’s mind about the issues, “How to Let Go” aims for a tone that can reach anybody.
“Rather than think about which person I want to affect, I’m thinking about which part of every person I want to affect,” he said. “With this movie, it’s the heart.”
Impact Film, now in its second year at AREDay, features documentaries that will motivate viewers to take action. “The idea with Impact Film is, ‘What do you do when you leave the theater?’” said AREDay founder Chip Comins.
Fox is hoping for an emotional reaction to the new film. He wants to wake up the people tuning out climate change.
“If our reaction to being upset is that we numb ourselves, then we won’t act — we won’t have a deep, profound experience,” he said. “If you do allow yourself to feel it — and that’s what the film is arguing, that you must feel it — that will lead toward the path of action. No one can encounter climate change without a deep emotional reaction. And that should inspire you to act.”
The film doesn’t advocate for a particular organization or method — its far-flung segments include boatmen in Vanuatu blocking coal tankers through civil disobedience and engineer Huang Ming leading a solar energy revolution in China (where Fox gets flagged by the government and must smuggle footage on hard drives hidden in a banjo).
Fox argues that people should take action in their own way, based on their passion or vocation, along with showing up to protests and signing petitions and talking to local government leaders.
“I’m a filmmaker, so I make films,” he said. “If I went into this and said, ‘Oh, I’m going to be an organizer,’ I would have lasted about three weeks because I’m terrible at organizing.”
He’s now spent eight years and three films in the movement, becoming one of the most high-profile public faces of climate action. Based on the results he’s witnessed, Fox is a believer in grassroots, on-the-ground action. He has little faith in national or global policy initiatives. The new film notes, for instance, that the multi-national agreement that came out of United Nations climate conventions in Copenhagen and Paris pledges to hold global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius. Yet, climatologist Michael E. Mann claims in the film, current carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere compounded by projected emissions will warm the global temperature by 3.5 degrees in coming years despite the much-hailed accords.
“Placing it in the hands of government doesn’t give us a solution to this problem,” Fox said. “At AREDay and other events that are based on those kinds of solutions, there is a kind of elitism that sets in. The truth is that populist change is what changes things. … Change comes from the bottom up. We often get these conferences that people — often white, affluent people — sit around and talk about what the government should do. That’s not how change happens. Change happens when you have masses of people who are revolting against the current policy of the government and creating a nonviolent political revolution, which we know we need right now.”
Despite his rising profile and his Oscar nomination, Fox still works on a small scale with a bare-bones crew — “How to Let Go,” like his previous films, is shot mostly with handheld cameras (he added drones for this one). The direct filmmaking approach is for more than aesthetics. In the tradition of Albert and David Maysles, Fox works small in order to develop a more intimate relationship with his subjects.
“I try to be a friend,” he said. “If I’m a friend first, then I’m going to get the information in a much deeper way because I care so much about these people at this point.”
Fox cries alongside a friend whose home is drowned in Sandy. He grows close with the flotilla of Pacific Islanders and with the environmental monitors tracking deforested, oil-soaked stretches of South America. With his subjective personal style, he doesn’t go to big oil to get their side of the story as a traditional journalist might.
“I’m reporting in the trenches because I’m on their side and they know that and that’s going to form a deeper relationship,” he said.
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