02/25/2011 02:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Green Films Going for the Gold

Crossposted with

Several green films are going for Oscar gold this year, continuing a long tradition.

Maybe you've bought the popcorn, invited guests, and entered a pool (for hints, see here). Maybe you've set up your Tivo. Or maybe you're boycotting them this year because you're miffed at the new field of 10 "Best Picture" nominees up from five, or maybe you're just not a movie buff.

If you fall into that last lot, here's a heads up: this year's Oscar winners will be announced Sunday night, and this short column is going to take a brief look at these cinematic awards through an environmental lens.


Movies As Celluloid Fingers on the Nation's Pulse

While the popularity and relevance of the Academy Award ceremony have waxed and waned over the years, movies, especially those with Oscar nods, have remained a good bellwether of America's interests.

Best Documentary nominees from the 1940s by and large focused on war. The story lines and themes of many Best Picture contenders in the1960s focused on social upheavals and challenges to the establishment: West Side Story (winner, 1961), To Kill a Mockingbird (nominee, 1962), Lilies of the Field (nominee, 1963), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (nominee, 1964), In the Heat of the Night (winner, 1967), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (nominee, 1967). Indeed, the power of film, as I've written about more broadly here, with its keen ability to make visceral connections is behind the Nicholas School's newly announced sponsorship of our own award for best environmental film at the annual Durham-based Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

There has also been a tradition of the environmentally themed Oscar contender, ranging from The Secret Land (1948) -- the man-against-nature documentary on Admiral Richard Byrd's Antarctic expedition produced by military personnel  -- to Roman Polanski's Chinatown (a 1974 Best Picture nominee and L.A.-based film noir whose "biggest crime," as critic Roger Ebert wrote, "is against the city's own future, by men who see that to control the water is to control the wealth") and of course the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006). (More on this theme here.)

The 2011 Contenders

This year, two green-themed documentaries are vying for Oscar gold.

Gasland, directed by Josh Fox (and covered more extensively here), tells the tale of strange goings on in homes across the United States apparently impacted by the seepage of gases and/or chemicals into people's water supplies from the controversial natural gas drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing (or hydrofracking or just fracking for short). (More on fracking here and here.)

Lucy Walker's Waste Land (also discussed more fully here) chronicles the journey of Brazilian artist Vik Muniz whose search for art leads him to the recyclers of Brazil's largest landfill -- and it's these "Brazilian artisans, flinty and charming," Richard Corliss writes in Time magazine, who "steal the show."

Two films up for Documentary Short Subject are also framed in an environmental context. In "Sun Come Up," Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger follow the inhabitants of the Carteret Islands (which are located about 50 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea), who are being forced to relocate from their homeland because of rising seas. As one of the men facing relocation puts it, "Most of our culture will have to live in memory."

In "The Warriors of Quigong," Chinese-American filmmaker Ruby Yang, along with cinematographer Guan Xin and collaborator Thomas Lennon, follows the fight against the pollution that is wracking villagers in eastern China. To quote one of the film's "warriors": "We are concerned for the next generation. There is too much pollution." The following image shows a sign that reads: "We're going to stand up and fight."

And finally, rounding out this year's environmentally themed Oscar contenders is the animated short "Let"s Pollute!" -- which certainly gets the prize for most tongue-in-cheek title. Here's a snippet that gives a taste of the clever cartoon by illustrator and Pixar veteran Geefwee Boedoe: "Yes, the machine was a wonder of waste. It took many natural resources to make and constantly consumed fuel to operate."

My pick: Waste Land. And the winner is ...