Sundance documentaries

Can film help save the world?

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PARK CITY, Utah–When Robert Redford speaks, people listen—to an even greater degree at the Sundance Film Festival, of which he is the founder. The actor-director-producer-entreprenuer has taken a clear stand as a proud, active philanthropist and environmentalist, fusing film and social impact through documentary films. He has executive produced, narrated, and brought into being over 100 documentaries in the course of his 50-plus year career.

To kick off the first weekend of Sundance, he introduced a panel on, put simply, “How to Save the World.” The lineup included: Josh Fox, filmmaker of Oscar-nominated “Gasland” and the brand new “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change”; Louie Psihoyos, director of Oscar-winning documentary feature “The Cove” and acclaimed “Racing Extinction”; and Beverly and Dereck Joubert, award-winning documentary filmmakers and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence. These filmmakers have used the power of the media to raise awareness, mobilize, activate and ultimately change opinion and public policy on environmental issues.

“You can’t forget the second part which is the really hard work of the grassroots movement.”

“It’s not just the film,” Fox said. “You can’t forget the second part which is the really hard work of the grassroots movement.”

Fox described his personal journey making “Gasland,” a film that detailed the dangers of natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, drawing attention to and mobilizing support behind the anti-fracking message.

“We never let go of our activist campaign,” he said, talking about the challenges of getting out and being IN the movement. From giving the film to 250,000 activist groups to helping introdcue the then-little known issue to 50 million people in 32 countries, Fox found ways to engage and “bring people in the door.” Citizens then sprung into action, helping establish fracking bans in New York state, France, and other towns across the United States.

Overwhelmed, depressed, and despaired—to use the filmmaker’s own words—by the dire climate situation, Fox sought to create a film about the unwavering virtues of people who have no choice but to live with the effects of extreme weather, rising water levels, and other upsetting truths. There are some things that climate change CANNOT change: courage, innovation, and democracy are among those values, said Fox. Inspired by “climate warriors taking action into their own hands,” Fox hopes that his new feature “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change” will ground people by showing them what is possible in a world that moves beyond the current systems based on “greed, competition, and violence.”

Like Fox, Louie Psihoyos seeks to mobilize his audience, not paralyze them through depressing information.

“I wouldn’t want to see a movie about a dolphin slaughter,” he firmly stated. For “The Cove,” his film about mass dolphin killings that centers on cruel fishing practices in Japan, Psihoyos studied what made Hitchcock’s movies such good horror stories. Instead of showing a harpoon go directly into dolphin flesh, he chose to utilize visuals of entire bodies of water turning from green to red over brutal sounds of dolphin screams.

“In your head, you’ve seen it all, but you haven’t,” he revealed of his thriller-style documentary.

When a person leaves a documentary, especially a social action one, “you’re only half way there,” according to Psihoyos. He and his team sent “The Cove” to Japanese embassies, consulates and investment firms to further spread information and make a sound case for alternative action. He is proud that the number of dolphin killings has dropped from 23,000 to 6,000 since making the film, yet still calls that quantity unacceptable.

People need to see or hear about a topic six or seven times in order for it to register; repeated media impressions matter. Only once 10 to 16.5% of the public knows about an issue does the rest of the population begin to “fall like dominos,” said Psihoyos, who added that subsequent change then happens more rapidly at societal and policy levels.

“Scale it up and keep the conversation going until you get grassroots affecting laws,” he added, noting that social media can amplify impact, but one must continue to “push through [and] keep on working until it becomes part of the lore.”

You don’t change people’s behavior based on what they know; you change it with their hearts.”

“You don’t change people’s behavior based on what they know; you change it with their hearts,” said Psihoyos. “Get people to care and then change habits.”

Beverly and Dereck Joubert use the power of filmmaking to protect animals across Africa. They too desire that the conversation begins at the end of their films, which have led to concrete action. In Botswana for example, the Joubert’s work has targeted and halted lion deaths in 2002, leopard hunting in 2011, and all safari hunting in 2014.

“With this platform, we can have real and important conversations,” they said of the power of the visual medium, calling their films “campaigns without pause.”

The couple have now turned to focus on elephants and rhinos to better raise awareness about poaching, ivory, and horns, aiming to eliminate demand entirely. If you “deliver a message with dignity, you can get there,” they said with hope, noting that young people specifically do not desire to be part of the problem, but rather the solution. Currently at a tipping point in history, the Jouberts assert that “things can go very bad OR we can change things.”

Fox repeatedly expressed his gratitude for the ability to make and sell films, but affirms that this is, in fact, a labor of love.

“You have to measure why you’re doing this…that you’d do it without rewards. It’s a calling,” the filmmaker said. A calling that he would pursue “at the pain of his own death or threats or being eaten by a lion… It’s an obligation beyond money.” Joubert seconded that notion, calling his work an ongoing protest in which he is deeply engaged: “we wake up in the morning and that’s what we want to do.”

Yes, the panel was entitled “How to Save the World,” but Fox says that’s really really hard, if not impossible. You can lose and save the world each day, and one has to reaffirm action and commitment every day.

“Voting doesn’t get these things done…what gets these things done is what happens in streets” on topics ranging from guns to climate change. Fox called for heightened movements and systemic change stemming from the grassroots-community level. Psihoyos affirmed that “climate change can be solved by everyone here” with existing solutions, highlighting the message that a person can make meaningful change today.

The filmmakers shared parting wisdom: Join the movement. Don’t just be an audience member. Be a participant. Show up. Give time, energy, and focus. Collaborate. Join forces. Change one thing.

Powerful storytelling, modern technology, informative offerings, risk-taking, and active involvement may just save the world.