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Sundance Film Festival Highlights Best-In-Class Green Docs

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PARK CITY, UTAH -- The glaciers are melting, temperatures are rising, nuclear disaster is just around the corner, the sky is falling. Most of us have read and studied environmental topics enough to understand that many of these oft-repeated epithets are true. So, why would I want to sit through long movies covering more of the same? Especially at eight in the morning, no less?

I'll tell you why: because it's the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and the movies range from very good to great, no matter what the topic. It so happens that several particularly memorable environmental documentaries were screened this year and I was lucky enough to see a few of them.

First, a word about environmental documentaries in general: they are generally a labor of love and personal passion by their creators. How do I know this? Because almost always, they are destined not to make any money and won't be widely screened because the core 18-25 year old mass audiences would rather watch reruns of That 70s Show than sit through an environmental documentary. There are (few) exceptions, such as the Al Gore epic An Inconvenient Truth, but let's just say the major studios are not waiting for the next one with bated breath.

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Chasing Ice by Michael Brown

Chasing Ice is a compelling title and probably has the best chance of attracting an audience beyond the usual green movement sympathizers. It centers around a crusade by noted naturalist photographer James Balog, whose work is often prominently featured in National Geographic, to chronicle the melting and evaporation of large glaciers on the northern polar icecap. Brilliantly shot and directed by Jeff Orlowski, we get to see a "live" sequence in which a glacier about the size of the Pentagon literally rolls over on its side and disappears into the Arctic Ocean. The pain and suffering, patience, outrageous cost and enormous difficulty of transporting the necessary people and equipment to Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and the Arctic over a period of three years comes to life and we feel Balog's pain when things go wrong. Challenges include cameras that won't record because of the elements, storms that prevent their helicopters from landing, Balog's own knee injury that makes extreme hiking outrageously difficult, and constant fund-raising needed to keep all the moving parts going in the same direction. But overcome them he did, and the results are very worthwhile. To validate this assessment, it won the Sundance Film Festival's Excellence in Cinematography Award for U.S. Documentary Filmmaking. Most important about Chasing Ice is its compelling presentation of undeniable facts surrounding the polar ice melt and the cause -- global warming. "This is the movie every environmentalist has wanted to show" to doubters of the reality of global climate change. They see it as proof that "the science is certain, and the images are inarguable" said Sean P. Means of the Salt Lake Tribune.

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Chasing Ice by James Balog

Next up was The Atomic States of America which is a history of nuclear power in America. This well researched piece, by Don Argott and Sheena Joyce, takes "no nukes" to a whole new level. The "star" of this disturbing portrait is Kelly McMasters, who researched and wrote a critically acclaimed book Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir About an Atomic Town, which chronicles what it was like to grow up in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. The timing is impeccable as the film also revisits the Japanese Fukushima Power Plant disaster, leaving us with the burning question: if atomic power is too dangerous, how do we break our addiction to foreign oil? Clearly, The Atomic States of America proffers no doubt that until such time that nuclear power plants are 100 percent leak-free, the attendant risks they bring are simply too great.

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The Atomic States of America by Noah Musher

On the last day of the festival, we screened A Fierce Green Fire which is an ambitious history of the entire environmental movement, from its roots with Sierra Club founder John Muir in the late 1800s through the present. Conceived and directed by Mark Kitchell, it traces unconditional love of the planet by activists including Greenpeace, through decades of resistance from the Establishment, until today, where the movement still struggles in the face of the Recession and ensuing shortage of funding and widespread support. One comes away with a feeling of hope, however, as Kitchell leaves us with an optimistic tone about the future despite the damage we are doing to our environment across the globe.

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A Fierce Green Fire film showcases the fires of the Amazon

It would be terrific if all climate change doubters were required to watch these three films. There is no question that some of them, even those of a "don't confuse me with the facts my mind is made up" mentality, would soften or even change their viewpoints after seeing these flicks. All three present compelling, scientific proof points that provocatively question how any intelligent individual can deny the obvious: without dramatically changing how we manage and protect our resources, a day of reckoning is coming and it will not be pretty.

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A Fierce Green Fire by David Brower

Finally, a word about Sundance itself. I urge anyone who enjoys quality movie making to visit the Sundance Film Festival. You will experience true commitment, love and passion for the craft -- without much commercialism, as sponsors are happy to take a classier, less in-your-face role to keep within cultural bounds. I can attest to this as I perused Park City's Main Street tents and found myself in the Brita "FilterforGood" tent. By providing complimentary Nalgene green bottles at Sundance water stations, Brita diverted more than 40,000 plastic bottles that would otherwise be headed for the landfill.

Most importantly, try to see these films! Some of them will make it to the cineplex, and many will have a video release and can be found on Netflix or equivalent. The festival even highlights when films become available to a wider audience on its website at www.sundance.org/nowplaying. Use the net to research and discover Sundance Film Festival films -- you'll be glad you did.

Read more of Jennifer Schwab's Inner Green.

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