After a thoroughly educational talk with Mike Scott, a farmer from Billings, about the effects of an oil spill on his land and the surrounding community, we went inside his relative’s house to watch a film. On screen we’d see a younger version of Mike and his wife Alexis from seven years prior when they were impacted by Exxon’s pipeline break on the Yellowstone River in southern Montana. Less than one percent of the 63,000 gallons of crude were recovered, and Mike is still trying to get his land back into farming shape all these years later. I thought they would be making a one-time appearance in the film, but they’re actually interspersed throughout “This Changes Everything”: a documentary that looks into different communities around the world and their relationship with fossil fuels and renewables.
I had never heard of the film and would rather have been sightseeing Billings on the touring bike, but that was not on the agenda of the day. As we sat down and started watching the film, it was apparent from the beginning by its quality that it was one of those blockbuster environmental documentaries that tend to streamline complex issues and present a singular narrative.
Immediately I became apprehensive to the proceeding time the film would occupy, yet the film got off to a solid start with an insightful presentation of the tar sands in Alberta. I was previously unaware of the size of the operation so this was good insight. The film continues, and subsequently arrives to Mike Scott’s farm and shows him traversing his land with his wife after the spill. It was a bit surreal to see the man on screen we had just met with, and it was valuable to see the situation from this angle. The visual documentation added depth since we’re so far removed from the situation years later. It’s through a screen, but seeing the situation as it occurred gives a more personal experience than listening to someone talk or reading an article.
Unfortunately the film proceeds to gradually fall into the trap that these blockbuster enviro-docs do. We’re given a superhero narrative. Fossil fuels become the bad guy and renewables the good guy. Simplicity enters and complexities exit.
Really these films seem to have a predisposition to draw a conclusion before filming begins; fossil fuels are the devil and renewables the savior; renewables are perfect beings that can do no wrong. This thought process is quite unlike the amateur student documentary we watched, “Battle of the Bulls: A Conflict in Cattle Country.” In this film, one-on-one screen time is split between the rancher and the coal miner, both receiving plenty of camera time, and the coal miner isn’t painted with broad brushstrokes through footage and techniques that serve to smear his morality. In “This Changes Everything,” whenever fossil fuel footage is shown, ominous and foreboding music plays while upbeat music cues for renewables. People with relations to the fossil fuel side are presented as aloof, sinister characters. Between interviews, gratuitous shots of people in poverty are thrown in, and we see protesters shot dead by police. Furthermore, should someone do something that the audience could perceive as objectionable, it will be a prime focus on camera. For example, we see a worker in Canada blow his nose into currency and the camera really zooms in during the town hall meeting when the VIP’s are on their phones. There also seems to be a lack of transparency here, as the tar sands workers seem to think they’re on reality tv, and it’s hard to tell if they know they’re being interviewed for this documentary.
So the big danger of these blockbuster enviro-docs is that complex subjects are stripped down to black and white. The answer to the problem is simple, easy, and given, and was decided before any filming began. This is problematic because global issues are far from simple and don’t have simple solutions. Film is a highly visual medium, which is good for transmitting scale, emotions, and animated diagrams of the ways things work, such as the longwall mining in “Battle for the Bulls,” but is less suitable for transmitting facts and presenting multiple sides of a subject objectively. Visuals are highly interpretive while text is not so. Film synthesizes vast amounts of information, so the audience is unaware of what is left out or what was selectively chosen to be included. A well-informed citizen reads articles and does research. He does not simply get the gist from headlines and talking heads on tv. Moreover, after a portion of the public has been exposed to these films, they buy into the repeatedly drawn conclusion and believe they’ve been empowered with the answer. Consequently, they become close-minded and are unwilling to have their viewpoint challenged, furthering division.