Climate of Change: Highlights of Tribeca Film Fest 2010

By Jeff Farr

Participant Media

“Climate of Change,” an official selection of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is the latest entry in the earnest genre of environmental documentaries that came to prominence with “An Inconvienient Truth” (2006). Four years later, the challenge for filmmakers working on environmental issues is to find new approaches that will make their films stand out and grab the attention of viewers who may already feel at this point that they have seen it all when it comes to global warming. Part and parcel with this challenge is finding ways to cast our current catastrophic condition in some kind of positive light — so that people will actually want to see the films — a challenge that the upbeat “Climate of Change” admirably takes on.

Director Brian Hill’s angle is to focus squarely on ordinary people around the world who are resolutely working for change in their local communities. These are people of all ages and backgrounds who believe, above all, in the Gandhian ethos of “Be the change you want to see in the world.” While the film offers scant evidence of measurable successes for the heroes of “Climate of Change,” that seems to be beside the filmmakers’ point: This is a film about the determination that it takes to seek change in times like these.

While the film jumps from continent to continent, from one far-flung champion to another, narration by Tilda Swinton — a bit ponderous at times — of a Simon Armitage poem written for the film holds everything together. Combined with colorful and striking imagery by a team of four cinematographers, “Climate of Change” often feels more like an essay film or film poem than a standard documentary. While this sets the film apart, it ultimately becomes a limitation when the filmmakers are unable or unwilling to push things to the next level.

The tale begins with a group of scarily articulate and fully empowered teenagers in India who are demonstrating against nonbiodegradable plastics. Their self-confidence in their ability to cause change sets the tone for the rest of the film, as does, unfortunately, a certain canned quality to some of their pithy pronouncements for the camera. We thus get the clear sense early on that this is going to be a film about committed people saying and doing the right things — but will it also be a film looking for subtleties, contradictions, surprises?

At a fast-paced 86 minutes, “Climate of Change” is soon whisking us off to other locations, such as Togo, where we meet Sena Alouka, the charismatic young leader of an environmental group focused on education in African villages. He describes himself as neither a pessimist nor optimist but as someone just determined to change things — a neat summation of this film’s worldview.

We also spend time in London, with a plucky entrepreneur who wins the UK Ethical Businesswoman of the Year award, and in Papua, New Guinea, with a group of natives practicing sustainable logging. There is also a brief and spooky visit to the Global Seed Vault in Norway, where specimens from throughout the world are now being stored — just in case.

Likely to be the film’s most interesting sequence for U.S. viewers, substantial attention is paid to West Virginia as Hill profiles a number of citizens fighting against coal mining companies that have been blasting away mountaintops for many years. This has caused a wide array of environmental, not to mention human, destruction, leaving the land visibly scarred and towns empty. We see the noble attempts of lobbying groups like Appalachian Voices and Alliance for Appalachia to bring the people affected most to Washington to have their voices heard by the political powers that be. In fact, it almost seems that another movie — perhaps a more interesting one — on West Virginia is embedded within “Climate of Change.” Taking the time to go into more detail with this sequence, the film uncovers universal truths about “people power” that are missing elsewhere. Hill even starts to dip into fundamental issues of what a democracy should be, how democratic processes can be improved: an issue that is for the most part glossed over in the film.

“Climate of Change” is nothing but high-minded and sincere — with the visuals to match — but it often seems to miss the human element, despite its focus on ordinary people. We hear their opinions on the issues of the day and see them in action, but rarely do we get even a glimpse into who these people actually are. How did they come to this work? How did they become so determined? Do they ever get discouraged? If so, how do they become determined again? What personal sacrifices are they making to live like this? Useful questions like this are mostly absent from this film, leaving us to some degree with talking heads.

Meanwhile, the corporate enemies sometimes alluded to are never given a face. The company names are never mentioned, and no representatives are seen or heard from — although it is difficult to imagine what they could possibly say in their own defense. This may be part of the film’s strategy of staying positive, but it becomes a liability because viewers want to know not just what but whom we are up against. We all know that human beings have created this mess, but who are the people trying to keep it a mess?

What “Climate of Change” lacks is some kind of dramatic arc. About an hour in, it becomes clear that the tale is essentially going around in circles. We meet — and meet again — a lot of these wonderful people doing wonderful things, but the film is neglecting to make any engaging argument about them–or their work. Great documentaries always traffic in the unexpected, revealing new truths to us even regarding subjects we think we already know well. For all its strengths, “Climate of Change” does not go there.