An Inconvenient Truth

6 Environmental Documentaries to Watch on Earth Day

For nearly fifty years, Earth Day has been celebrated worldwide to demonstrate a commitment to environmental protection. Originally, environmental issues ranged from cleaning up air pollution and acid rain to safety oversight over fossil fuel companies. The last few years has seen more of a concern of global climate change and the wide-ranging effects warming and acidifying oceans will have on both weather and sociopolitical dynamics around the world.

Environmental topics have been the focus of countless films, including narrative disaster films like Waterworld and The Day After Tomorrow, which sees the world overtaken by everything from giant tornados to tsunamis that freeze over. Even Pixar film WALL-E features a garbage-covered Earth that is no longer habitable to life.

Perhaps the most interesting environmental films of all are the true ones though—documentaries that portray the delicate balance of natural life on the planet, and all the ways society can upset that balance.

Here are just a few documentaries you can check out this Earth Day:

The 11th Hour

Directed by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, The 11th Hour gained a lot of buzz when it was realized for its association with producer, co-writer, narrator, and creator of the film—Hollywood megastar and noted environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio. The 2007 film interviews a murderer’s row of scientists, politicians, and activists, and places a focus on the myriad problems that pose dangerous threats to the planet, while offering possible solutions that are just as varied in their strategy.

Our Planet

The high profile docuseries Our Planet is Netflix’s own take on the Planet Earth series—Netflix went as far as working with Planet Earth producers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, and hiring David Attenborough to narrate this series as well. Each of the eight episodes of the series focuses on a specific part of the planet, from seas to deserts to forests and everything in between. The docuseries has become event television this spring, with an early Hollywood screening in February moderated by NYFA Acting for Film alum Lana Condor giving Our Planet some early buzz.

Everything’s Cool

Everything’s Cool was directed by Dan Gold and Judith Helfand and was first shown at Sundance in 2007. Unlike many other environmental films, the documentary focuses more on the politics and public perception of climate change, rather than the science behind it. This important angle is especially key at a time when the world’s scientists have come to a consensus that action needs to be taken to prepare and respond to climate change, while the laws and practices of nations and private corporations have yet to catch up.

Gasland

The 2010 film Gasland was directed by Josh Fox and showcased harrowing footage of local families dealing with the disastrous effects of corporate fracking—the process of stimulating natural gas production by injecting the ground with copious amounts of liquid chemicals. The film made fracking a hot button issue to this day, and brought to light some of the shocking side effects of the drilling method, such as water coming out of kitchen sink taps that could be lit on fire with a match.

An Inconvenient Truth

The 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth helped kickstart the latest wave of environmental activism, as well as a slew of environmental documentaries that followed in its wake. Based around a slideshow given by former Vice President and environmentalist Al Gore, the film focuses on carbon dioxide’s effect on climate change, and won two Academy Awards for its efforts—Best Documentary Feature and Best Original Song.

Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental film directed by Godfrey Reggio from 1982, with a score by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke, who mostly used slow motion and time-lapse footage of both urban areas and natural landscapes. The avant garde film is very much open for interpretation, allowing its viewers to lose themselves in its sometimes haunting imagery and music. While nothing is told outright to the audience, the relationship between humanity, technology, and nature is clearly the focus of the film, raising questions about how these connections affect the world around us and will affect the world around us for decades to come.

With every passing Earth Day, these questions are becoming more important than ever.

6 of the Best Environmental Documentaries

Documentaries have the power to change perceptions about the world around us on both a personal and societal level, and as we’ve seen time and time again, the source of this can come from anywhere; a student at documentary filmmaking school is just as likely to inspire big change as a well-known celebrity A-Lister.

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One area in which documentary filmmaking is making great strides is ecology and the environment. With single titles having a notable impact on how we as a species affect our planet, let’s take a look at six of the best environmental documentaries you should check out right now (from both the obscure to the award-winning).

Food, Inc. (2008)

Usually high up the list of many people’s “best environmental documentaries,” Food, Inc. went after one of the biggest subjects in ecology with a brazenness the likes of which isn’t often seen in modern documentary filmmaking. It found its mark.

Divided into three acts, the documentary covers the production of meat and vegetables in the first two before turning its attention to the conglomerate nature of food sales. Eye opening and horrifying in equal measure, it wholly deserved the Emmy which it went on to win.

Dirt! The Movie (2009)

Based on the book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth and narrated by none other than Jamie Lee Curtis, this is a documentary that doesn’t look appealing at first glance but is actually essential viewing given the ubiquity of the subject matter. It’s also free to watch on YouTube, so dive into this unexpected (and award-winning) treat by clicking here.

General Orders No. 9 (2012)

One of the lesser known yet no less stunning environmental documentaries on this list, General Orders No. 9 is an absolute beauty to behold.

Eschewing all of the standard documentary conventions and running like a visual meditation, this unique film sequence chronicles the American South’s demise as the wilderness is slowly paved over. Having taken 11 years to make, cinematography doesn’t get much more elegant than this.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

No list of the best environmental documentaries would be complete without a hat tip to Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. No real introduction is needed for the title which arguably did more for raising global consciousness than any prior film to the effects of global warming, so if you haven’t already, go watch it immediately.

Gasland (2010)

As we mentioned in our “How to Shoot a Documentary” post, Gasland has the distinction of being one of the few feature-length, widely distributed documentaries to have been produced by just one man. That man is Josh Fox, and Gasland doesn’t suffer any for the lack of crew members.

Fox’s story comes out of the gate swinging, beginning in medias res with a natural gas company offering him $100,000 to lease the land he lives on for drilling purposes. Intrigued, the director goes on to speak to families who have accepted the offer and uncovers numerous serious health issues in the process—essentially, it’s a modern-day Erin Brockovich in documentary form.

Blackfish (2013)

One of the most recognizable entries on the list of best environmental documentaries, in part due to the immense furor it caused upon its release in 2013 and the subsequent fallout.

If you want an example of a documentary that tangentially changed the world, this is it. The tale of one orca’s life in captivity and the narrative surrounding it totally savaged SeaWorld’s reputation, so much so that the company’s shares and attendance figures plummeted in the documentary’s wake:

Seaworld Share Prices
For its part, however, SeaWorld has claimed that the documentary hasn’t had a negative effect and that the drop in share prices is down to other factors (and the drop in attendance is the result of unseasonably bad weather at its main parks). We’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Got your own recommendations of the best environmental documentaries we should be watching? Don’t hesitate to hit the comments below and share with the group.