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Sundance's 'New Climate' section offers fresh perspectives on environmentalism

A scene from Marina Zenovich's documentary,
A scene from Marina Zenovich's documentary, "Water & Power: A California Heist."
Sundance Institute

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Every year, nearly 50,000 people gather in Park City, Utah to see what the best and the brightest filmmakers have to offer.

This year, The Sundance Film Festival is launching a new initiative called "The New Climate," which includes a series of conversations, screenings and virtual reality experiences all focused on the environment.

Opening night on Jan. 19 sees the premiere of the documentary, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” It’s a follow-up to the 2006 film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which is credited with sparking a groundswell of climate change activism and awareness. It also earned the Oscar for best documentary feature. 

A scene from Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,
A scene from Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power," featuring environmental activist and former Vice-President Al Gore.
Paramount Pictures

Former Vice President Al Gore is back in the sequel, but the directors of the follow-up are new. They are the husband-and-wife team: Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk. Shenk previously directed “The Island President,” a look at how rising sea levels threaten to submerge the island nation known as The Maldives.

When The Frame's John Horn reached Cohen and Shenk, they said covering the environment is now more urgent than ever.

This new generation of filmmakers that's coming up and making independent films is haunted by climate and the climate crisis. I think for filmmakers alive today — say in their 20s or 30s who are just getting going — this is the phobia that we live with in our lives, kind of like nuclear war was for us in the '70s and '80s. It's inevitable in that context that documentaries and dramas and novels and journalism will reflect that. I think it's an anxiety that we're all living with [and] it's only a matter of time before it bubbles out through the creative arts and certainly into documentary film.

While Shenk and Cohen are taking a macro look at climate change with the former vice president in “An Inconvenient Sequel,” there are Sundance films in the "New Climate" section that take a micro look at lesser-known figures, some of whom might not strike you as the typical people worried about the planet. 

The documentary, “Trophy,” explores big-game hunting, poaching and breeding animals that are killed for sport.

Shaul Schwartz and Christina Clusiau's
Shaul Schwartz and Christina Clusiau's "Trophy" takes an unbiased look at the world of big game hunting.
Sundance Institute

Shaul Schwarz, who co-directed the film with Christina Clusiau, talked about the complicated reality of big game hunting and how he hopes his film offers a different perspective not often seen in films about the environment.

Environmental films had a tendency to kind of be one way. You look at great films like "The Cove" and "Blackfish" — they were really going after one thing. When me and Christina started this film, we imagined we would land at the same arena. But what had happened to us is we understood that this discussion is way more complex. So, to us, what's really important is not a call for action, but a call for discussion. I think hunting and value on animals and breeding of game is something that is so polarizing. It's one of these issues, as abortion is, as religion can be — people either fall to the right or to the left and they just won't listen. 

So what we wanted to do with this film is [be] in a place where we can climb off the trees of an emotion and have a more mindful discussion.

One film addresses a topic that’s acutely relevant here in Southern California: water. The documentary, “Water & Power: A California Heist,” was directed by Marina Zenovich, and it’s sort of a real life “Chinatown” story, complete with scandal and back-room deals. But Zenovich knew it was still important for her movie to have powerful imagery to back up the story.

I was quite taken when we were in the Central Valley, driving down a road that on one side was totally lush and green, and on the other side was the dustbowl. I was like, Wait! Pull over! We need to shoot this! It's kind of like the signature shot of our movie. Like, How did this happen? That's the story we're trying to tell. 

Water is something we take for granted, and our film is a window into that world of what is going on behind closed doors in the state of California. It's time to pay attention. Water is a human right, but, like a lot of things, it is becoming a commodity. 

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman,” which is narrated by former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, also premieres at Sundance as part of the "New Climate" program. It’s based on a book of the same name by best-selling author Miriam Horn. The film’s directors collaborated closely with her in the making of the documentary.

John Hoffman, who co-directed the documentary with Susan Froemke, told us why they felt it was important to profile a different type of conservationist.

That is at the heart of what we set out to do. It's at the heart of what Miriam identified when she realized the outsized impact that these working men and women have on our environment. We point out in the film that it's less than one percent who are ranchers, farmers or fishermen. But they are managing two-thirds of the land and the world's most extensive fisheries. So if we really want to embrace progressive practices, we really need to work — and our environmentalists and conservationists need to work — with the ranchers and farmers and fishermen who understand those environments better than anyone. The threats to all these environments are very serious, so these are, in their everyday work, what we call heartland conservationist heroes. 

The Frame team will be in Park City covering the Sundance Festival, so stay tuned for more updates.

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