Streetlamp and festival sign
Photo: Courtesy of Daisy Simmons.

NEVADA CITY, CALIF. The mood at the 2019 Wild & Scenic Film Festival was brighter than one might expect from an event riddled with reminders of the perils of living in these times, from catastrophic wildfire to loss of biodiversity. But that’s the point of the SYRCL-produced affair: To inspire personal action, not just depress the audience.

With more than 150 documentary films screening at 10 different venues, and supported by 700 volunteers, the lineup featured a number of memorable films tackling difficult climate change issues.

Of these, several key themes emerged, but none so palpable as the sense that climate change is more than imminent; its impacts are already becoming painfully personal here.

This festival took place just 50 miles away from Paradise, California, which just two months prior had been destroyed by the most destructive fire in state history. With 200 towns across the state now flagged as highly vulnerable to fire, too, it’s little wonder that fire-related films were met with full-house audiences, including for the late-night sessions with panels featuring scientists, filmmakers, and local officials.

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In addition to harrowing scenes of fire, many films covered other personal, disturbing new realities, like worsening effects of air pollution on children’s health, or the town at risk of disappearing as sea levels rise. Still, most ended with a message of hope, shining the light on ways forward that, unlike in years past, ask viewers to rethink how we live, rather than urging purely tactical actions like recycling or eating less meat.

Also of note was a clear effort to include indigenous voices throughout the festival, from the opening ceremony featuring local Nisenan Tribal Council members, to the more than a dozen films highlighting indigenous wisdom on issues like managing fire and preserving biodiversity.

Add these memorable climate films to your watch-list

The main festival is over, but there are still ways to watch some of the highlighted climate feature-length films, whether by renting them online, or attending Wild & Scenic On Tour, which takes place throughout the year in around 230 locations globally.

Following are recommendations for your next climate-documentary date night:

1) The Human Element, Matthew Testa, Olivia Ahnemann, Daniel Wright, James Balog, Lyman Smith (2018), 78 min.

Have humans become as fundamental as the four elements? Renowned environmental photographer James Balog argues yes in this sweeping exploration of the ways we are altering the world – and in turn, ourselves. Mixing scientific data with portraits of real-world impacts, Balog brings us on an interactive photo shoot documenting our relationship to Water – with a close-up on Tangier Island, Virginia, the town at risk of disappearing within 25-50 years as sea-level rise laps away its shoreline; Air, to a school in an industrial Texas community specifically designed for kids with asthma; Fire, with exhausted evacuees in a Northern California emergency camp; and Earth, to the mine in Pennsylvania where Balog’s own grandfather died, and new destruction from mountaintop removal mining.

Through the stories of illness, pain, and loss he records, Balog remains objective, yet relatable, claiming he can hide behind his camera …”but it eats at you.” He also raises tough questions, like which city do we invest in to defend from sea-level rise – the smaller, cheaper-to-protect town, or the bigger, pricier, more populated metropolis? In the end, Balog and his audience both can take heart from the people he meets, from their sheer will to survive, to their grassroots efforts to effect change. As Balog muses, “An imbalance in one element leads to an imbalance in another. People are the only elements that can choose to restore balance. And that gives me hope.”

Available to rent online.

2) Living in the Future’s Past, Susan Kucera, Jeff Bridges (2018), 84 min.

Jeff Bridges lends his gravelly, earnest voice as narrator to this intellectual look at what it means to be human through changing climate. In addition to stunning footage, the film rolls out a veritable who’s-who in climate thinking, from NASA scientists and biologists to philosophers, politicians and psychologists, weaving together a dialog about how climate impacts like loss of biodiversity and drought are a result of specific human behaviors.

Probing human history, the film makes the case that we have the capacity to change, and do the work it will take to achieve a renewable energy economy. It suggests that, as social beings, people are likely to feel powerless when exposed to fear-based politics – but more likely to rise up to any challenge when an inspiring goal and hero emerge. Bridges seems to suggest this power lies in all of us, calling on viewers to rise up to the name homo sapien, or wise man, and find ways within ourselves to help shape a brighter future.

Available to rent on demand.

3) Metamorphosis, Nova Ami, Velcrow Ripper (2018), 85 min.

Metamorphosis (Trailer 90s) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

Like caterpillars, humans seem to be consuming everything in sight, from fossil fuels to the latest phone. But can we take the insects’ cue, and transform ourselves for the better? This is the premise of a visually rich and at times surreal documentary that asks viewers to take a deeper look at the climate impacts we’re causing – ocean acidification, desertification, megafire, rising seas, to name a few – and consider what it will take to overcome these often overwhelming threats.

The film is peppered with stories from people living with the impacts, like a family displaced in a California wildfire, or the Carnival mask-maker living in Venice, Italy, who points out that fewer people can now live in the increasingly underwater city. But it also introduces inspiring stories of people taking action, from the Arizona man who’s reclaiming swimming pools by turning them into self-sustaining gardens, to the sculptor creating submerged works of art that double as coral reefs. Can the climate crisis be an opportunity for positive transformation? This meditative film offers a resounding yes.

4) Ode to Muir, Teton Gravity Research, Elena Hight, Jeremy Jones (2018), 63 min.

Is this the last chance to experience an unforgettable place? What does it mean to truly experience wilderness? Pro snowboarder and Protect Our Winters founder Jeremy Jones examines these questions in an unlikely backdrop: an extreme sports film. Part heart-dropping stunt footage, part love letter to John Muir’s conservation work, the film follows Jones and two-time Olympian Elena Hight on an action-packed, 40-mile winter camping/snowboarding expedition into California’s High Sierra mountains.

Together, they stun the audience with thrilling descents, but also contemplate the possibility that this could be their “last descent” here, as climate change stands to cause even more snow loss. And despite stereotypes people may have, this pro boarder isn’t just taking his energy to the “sick line” of these slopes; he’s taking it to Washington, D.C., too, testifying in front of Congress and participating in climate marches. “I’ve climbed a lot of mountains,” he says, “but nothing as challenging as Capitol Hill.”

Available to rent online.

5) Wilder than Wild: Fire, Forests, and the Future, Kevin White, Stephen Most (2018), 57 min.

When wildfire tore through Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, fast-spreading flames left only minutes to evacuate – and no time to save the nearly century-old camp. Thousands later gathered in a candlelight vigil, singing the camp anthem to mourn the communal loss. And that was just loss from the Rim Fire. Since then, a number of other major fires have devastated the state, but many people still cling to the idea that these fires are unusual.

This documentary turns that notion on its head: “We are experiencing now the fires of the future,” comments former CAL Fire Chief Ken Pimlott. The film offers a mix of evidence of how fire suppression and climate change have combined to make forests and wildland-urban landscapes more vulnerable than ever to large, high intensity wildfires, including cold, hard facts: like how before 1995, less than one megafire (>100,000 acres) per year burned in the U.S., but the average shot up to 9.8 megafires a year between 2005 and 2014. But it is also deeply personal, sharing stories not only of individuals affected by these fires, but people who are taking action, from indigenous communities sharing their historic knowledge of the land, to scouts working to help restore forests.

Check for upcoming screenings near you.

Climate change is happening before our very eyes – including on the big screen. Watching a well-informed high-quality documentary can help bring the issues to life in a way that feels personal, enlightening and, yes, empowering.

So go ahead, grab a seat and prepare to be inspired.

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