no. 27: A (Very Brief) History of Environmental Filmmaking

While environmental films have definitely gained popularity since the start of the millennium, the past twenty or so years just represents a recent boom in a nearly century-long tradition. Its storied history began with the work of Pare Lorentz in the late 1930s.

no. 27: A (Very Brief) History of Environmental Filmmaking
The River (1937), directed by Pare Lorentz

by Sydney Bollinger

Environmental films are everywhere now. The immensely popular March of the Penguins (2005) and the BBC’s Planet Earth (2006) docuseries have made lasting impacts since they first premiered. More recently adventure film Free Solo (2018), about American rock climber Alex Honnold, has been in the zeitgeist. His Earth Day Special for Disney+ Explorer: The Last Tepui is featured at this year’s Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital (DCEFF).

Climate change films have also gained a following in the past twenty years, with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and the Naomi Klein-inspired This Changes Everything (2015). There seems to be no shortage of films meant to incite action, with each one — Cowspiracy (2014), The True Cost (2015), Dark Waters (2019) — spawning years of water-cooler talk. I’ve lost track of how many times someone has asked me, “Have you seen Cowspiracy?” Even though I haven’t seen it, the film is part of our shared understanding of the climate crisis and potential mitigation strategies.

While environmental films have definitely gained popularity since the start of the millennium, the past twenty or so years just represents a recent boom in a nearly century-long tradition.

Pare Lorentz, The New Deal, & the Beginning of Environmental Filmmaking

In the late 1930s, director Pare Lorentz released two environmental films — The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937) — both of which showed the long-term effects of America’s poor land management brought on by capitalist greed and Industrialization.

Film title card for The Plow That Broke The Plains

To drum up interest and support for The New Deal, the Lorentz-led U.S. Film Service produced and released films showing how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR’s) New Deal benefits the American people and — quite literally — American soil.

The River, about the Mississippi River, its catastrophic floods, and then eventual flood mitigation due to the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps, sets up the future approach to environmental filmmaking, especially those focused on inciting action from the viewers. Stunning displays of nature followed by shots of egregious devastation let Lorentz deftly show the promise of a restorative future in America with FDR’s New Deal.

In the film, Lorentz juggles the spread of information, eye-opening visuals, and artistic flair to make something both interesting and persuasive. Creativity definitely left a mark; Lorentz’s script was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and the film’s score is unforgettable. In combining the need for serious action and art, Lorentz made an incredibly effective environmental film, one that continues to be influential on the environmental film genre today.

Decrying politicization of the outdoors is a moot point in Lorentz’s filmmaking, effectively reframing what environmental filmmaking is for future documentarians and storytellers. The environment, the outdoors, nature — whatever we want to call it — is inherently political because human treatment of the land is political. As Lorentz shows, the Earth is humanity’s responsibility.

The Beginning of the Modern Environmental Movement: Silent Spring and 60s - 80s Environmental Films

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) launched the modern environmental movement. Carson’s hard-hitting writing about the effects of DDT and other pesticides became a foundation for environmental activists everywhere looking for leadership and direction during what may be the most progressive era for environmental policy in American history.

A Redwood tree in the middle of smoke.
Still from The Redwoods. The surviving footage is of poor quality.

In the 60s, films focused on forest conservation and endangered animals were common. The Sierra Club, in an effort to bring attention to their campaign for a national park, distributed The Redwoods. Even today, the conservation and endangered animal protection movements owe so much to this period of environmentalism and environmental filmmaking.

In the next decade, increased pollution and the effect of toxic chemicals were major topics. Japanese filmmaker Noriaki Tsuchimoto made documentaries about mercury poisoning in Minamata, a city in Japan. His films, including Minamata: The Victims and Their World and The Shiranui Sea, were well received.

A diagram shows the width of an atomic bomb's total devastation as 3,500 yards
Still from If You Love This Planet

Unsurprisingly, the 80s brought myriad documentaries dealing with the nuclear crisis spurred on by anxiety around the Cold War and imminent nuclear destruction. Terre Nash’s 1982 film If You Love This Planet received massive backlash and was even labeled propaganda by the U.S Justice Department. Despite this, the film won an Academy Award and continues to be influential.

Most of the films in this era dealt with specific environmental issues that needed to be resolved, whether it was deforestation or nuclear devastation. These were films with specific agendas, hoping to enact change from audiences and follow in the footsteps of their predecessors — all the way back to Lorentz.

Rise of the Nature Documentaries

Nature documentaries, like the aforementioned March of the Penguins and Planet Earth, represented a new era in environmental filmmaking — one that separated humanity from the subject. Decentering human experiences in relation to the world and all of its life and processes is important, however, the approach many of these documentaries take is that of observing “untouched” and “wild” nature. The idea that nature is some other thing and humans are separate from and dominions over it is a messy idea rooted in capitalistic and colonial narratives.

Wilderness doesn’t exist, so these films romanticize the “natural” world, even when they try to make a point about climate change or other environmental disasters. Netflix's recent nature docuseries Our Planet (2019) does claim to share the effects of climate change on non-human-species, but it still offers a separatist view of the natural world.

Two adult penguins stand on either side of a baby penguin
Still from March of the Penguins

These documentaries are beloved to the point that some climate change-focused environmental films have taken a bait-and-switch approach. Terra (2015) begins as a nature doc, but eventually takes a turn to confront the audience with the horrors of our worldwide capitalist economic system.

As a personal sidenote, when I taught 7th Grade Reading, I played Our Planet for my homeroom class every morning (we watched about 15 minutes a day). The school district I worked for was fairly about discussing “political” issues in the classroom, which stupidly included climate change. With this docuseries, though, I never found myself concerned that if an administrator walked in and saw what we were watching, that I would be reprimanded for discussing climate change with my students.

Climate Crisis, Indigenous Sovereignty on Screen, and Where We Go From Here

As climate change increasingly becomes a major political issue, more and more films dealing with the fallouts of the climate crisis are released. Cowspiracy, The True Cost, and Dark Waters are just some of the films that shed light on serious issues of resource management, greenhouse gas emissions, and unethical working conditions — all of which are related to climate change.

A young teen (Beans) and her mother stand cross-armed as a soldier inspects their car off screen.
Still from Beans

Additionally, many films in recent years speak to issues of Indigenous land rights, sovereignty, and other issues of Indigenous justice. Environmentalism and climate change are tied closely to Indigenous justice, especially as restorative justice for Indigenous people across the globe means reestablishing Native connections to land and traditional land management practices. At DCEFF, films like Beans (2020) and Arctic Summer (2021) add voice to these issues which have been overlooked for centuries.

The environmental films released in the past two years are trending towardclimate justice — a justice that encompasses racial justice, Indigenous sovereignty, LGBTQ+ rights, workers’ rights, and anti-capitalist activism.

In many ways the environmental filmmaking of our current moment is the continuation of Lorentz’s work in the 30s and the activists of the 20th century. Film festivals like DCEFF are a place to share these stories, build community, and start action on these issues. Moving forward we can’t just let films be films. Without action, these stories are just stories. Make past and present environmental filmmaking be a launchpad for action.