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Addressing climate change on the big screen

Movies have tremendous potential to shape the discourse and affect public understanding of climate change. Researchers found that after having seen popular climate-focused films, people became more concerned, more motivated and more aware of climate change. Although it’s questionable if movie-inspired awareness can fuel long-term changes in behaviour, films can definitely help to visualise the consequences of environmental degradation and confronts us with the harsh realities, which otherwise might be too abstract.

Given the grim scenarios drawn up by scientists and activists, it’s rather surprising that climate change is still underrepresented in cinema’s major narratives. In a New York Times article about Hollywood’s attempt to depict climate change on-screen, author Per Espen Stoknes reminded that as opposed to terrorism or drugs, there is no clear enemy with climate change. “We’re all participating in the climate crisis — if there is an enemy, it’s us, and it’s hard to go to war against ourselves.”

Even if climate change is depicted on screen, it’s often in the context of disaster movies with grim apocalyptic visions (The Day After Tomorrow, 2004) or dystopias depicting ravaged worlds frozen under ice (Snowpiercer, 2013), reduced to a desert by drought (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015) or completely desiccated, forcing humans to abandon Earth and seek a new home elsewhere (Interstellar, 2014). This angle leaves practically no place for a positive human response. Cli-fi disaster movies have been criticised for their reluctance to embrace positive fictional stories about human adaptation to the climate crisis enforcing a sort of hopelessness and inevitability about the destruction of Earth.

day after tomorrow
In “The Day After Tomorrow”, directed by Roland Emmerich a sudden international storm plunges the planet into a new Ice Age. Source IMDb

In Avatar (2009), director James Cameron took another approach reaching the audience with a much softer and diffused message. “The Avatar films are meant to create a sense of wonder and connection to the natural world. (…) You can’t feel that you are ready to make a sacrifice in your lifestyle to protect something unless you respect and love it,” he said in an interview with NBC News.

Departing from Hollywood, respect towards nature is a central element of the animated feature films of the renowned Japanese animation film studio, Studio Ghibli. Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) or Princess Mononoke (1997) shed light on the fragile balance between nature and humans and push us to reconsider our – typically Western – relationship to the Earth.

Although climate change is generally indirectly linked to the plot and children may not see these movies in the first place for their environmental complexities, even subliminal messages are able to convey the universal values of respecting and caring for nature and our Planet. A recent study conducted by the American cable television channel Cartoon Network found that 91 per cent of kids are concerned about climate change and 83 per cent want to do more to fight it.

There are several great kid-friendly movies that can help to start the conversation on climate change. For instance, the charming, eco-friendly animated adventure, WALL-E (2008) or the cautionary tale of Sammy, the turtle about the dangers of ocean pollution and oil spills (A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures, 2010) are great movies that provide lots of food for thought on our relation to Mother Nature. However, the movies themselves are only jump-starting discussion, bringing up questions that should be addressed properly, otherwise, it just feeds into climate anxiety.

Central and Eastern Europe is also catching up, starting to acknowledge the role of cinema in educating and raising awareness. Although you probably won’t find much of the Hollywood-type cli-fi disaster movies, Central-Eastern European filmmakers contributed with several interesting documentaries, short movies, animations and feature films to the ongoing climate debate.

Bosnian film Blue Heart (2018) takes place in the Balkans, where Europe’s last wild rivers form an extraordinary network of biodiversity and which is now on the brink of an ecological disaster. In the coming years, 3 000 hydroelectric dams will be built here, threatening to cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem and to devastate communities that hold on to the river as the lifelines. The movie brings these people together. In different countries, independently of each other, they began to defend their river. “Hydropower projects will completely and irrevocably destroy this unique river ecosystem,” explains Theresa Schiller, who coordinates the ‘Save the Blue Heart of Europe’ campaign at EuroNatur, established to safeguard this vital territory.


As corporations are focusing more and more on organic, green, fair-trade and sustainable products, the Austrian movie Green Lies (2018) seeks to find out what is behind green marking. Can we trust green labels and ultimately is it possible to save our planet this way? Director Werner Boote follows the trail of corporate green lies to the sites of the most catastrophic environmental disasters and interview renowned experts, such as Noam Chomsky, who analyse the intrinsic bond between ecology and economy.

We can also find some refreshingly positive and inspiring examples, such as the first story about Renewable Energy Source Cooperative movement, Human Energy (2019), which is a co-production of 12 European countries (including Poland, Croatia and Greece). What are the benefits of the circular economy in the energy sector? How to cooperate with state decision-makers in that matter? What would happen if instead of wasting money on obsolete thinking and technologies, spend them together to build small, distributed wind farms, solar or biogas plants – producing energy, which we will consume ourselves? Human Energy creates a modern chronicle that courageously breaks the stereotypical green utopian approach to change climate business. This movie is for everyone, especially for those who don’t know or don’t care about energy and climate change.

There is a great number of eco-conscious films from Central and Eastern Europe. You can discover them through green film festivals (yes they also exist in our region) such as the International Film Festival about the Environment EKOFILM, held under the auspices of the Ministery of the Environment of the Czech Republic. This year more than 200 documentary films have been submitted to the 47th edition of the festival, which was launched this year with the motto: Address: Planet Earth.

Russia’s ECOCUP is an annual international green documentary film festival. Since 2010, ECOCUP has brought the most interesting documentaries from around the world about ecology, environment and sustainable development to Russia and the CIS countries. The screenings are followed by discussions with local and international experts. In addition, the festival regularly holds workshops on documentary filmmaking for Russian filmmakers.

Movies have always helped us to process complex issues and as we know problems cannot be solved if we don’t talk about them. These movies prove that cinema can be a unique instrument in keeping up the momentum for awareness about climate change, helping us to better understand: our future lies in our hands.

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