In this clearly written and structured work, Helen Hughes offers us the first book-length survey of the eco-conscious documentaries that crammed theatres in the first decade of the new millennium. The films she considers range from Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006) to lesser-known ones such as Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s agribusiness-themed Unser täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread, 2005) and Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfand’s “toxic comedy” Everything’s Cool (2007). Hughes, a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Surrey, divides her analysis into three strategies that the films adopt – “The Contemplative Response,” “The Ironic Response” and “The Argumentative Response” – which each get a chapter. They are preceded by an introductory chapter and another outlining the institutional context that fostered the extraordinary outpouring of nonfiction cinema exploring humankind’s impact on the planet over the ten years in question. The three “response” chapters are followed by a conclusion entitled “The Material Response,” in which Hughes discusses Agnes Varda’s film Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 2000). In her mind, Varda’s portrayal of people who painstakingly salvage capitalism’s detritus for reuse braids elements of the contemplative, ironic, and argumentative responses all together.
Hughes applies theoretical frameworks derived from diverse sources to each of her three main “response” chapters. In “The Contemplative Response,” for example, she draws on Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space in order to examine films dwelling on “the ambiguity of contemporary responses to changing landscapes” (p. 14). These films, like Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread, are marked by sparse commentary, dialogue, and music. As a result, they open up a quiet expanse for the viewer in which she has time to reflect on the images presented, engaging, per Lefebvre, with the problem of photographic representations of reality reproducing existing political and economic orders, as well as the possibility of those photographic representations admitting “genuine alternative interpretations and emotional responses” (p. 44). In “The Argumentative Response,” on the other hand, she introduces a theory of reasoning developed by cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber to get to the heart of films lying “somewhere between exposition and propaganda” (p. 16). Mercier and Sperber contend that conscious reasoning is an attempt to retrieve intuitive steps that have already led to a particular conclusion. Films like An Inconvenient Truth,by linking their argument to the life story of one of their participants,are an audio-visual enactment of this personal process of arriving at a certain point of view. Family, education, and professional triumph and failure are all cited in the explanation for why Al Gore began campaigning against climate change.
Hughes is at her most compelling in “The Ironic Response.” In this chapter, she makes the innovative case that one of language’s building blocks, irony, niftily expresses “the ambivalence of implication in environmental issues” (p. 88). “The ambivalence of implication” is a dilemma fundamental to ecological activism: how to preserve the sanctity of the environment when merely to exist in the modern world involves contributing to its damage? Because irony “both says and unsays what it says” (p. 88), it perfectly captures the quandary of a solution itself being part of the problem. A documentary may educate audiences on a key environmental topic, for instance, but the fact that filmmaking technologies are complicit in industrial society’s vast material waste ensures that the eco-doc is fraught with contradictions. Hughes’s contemplative and argumentative responses encompass relatively straightforward films either pondering a problem or showcasing the often urgent need to solve it, but her “ironic” films nestle in the gap between image and mechanism, wherever there is “something askew” (p. 118) with approaches to a problem. Everything’s Cool’s deliberately ironic premise features the directors Gold and Helfand driving a gas-guzzling truck across the United States to poll local opinions on global warming. In doing so, they show that it is precisely by burning carbon-based fuels that we begin to grasp and eventually, hopefully, mitigate the debilitating effects of that very pollution. Everything’s Cool identifies prevailing “toxic” cultural attitudes and creates an oppositional take on them seeking a different relationship with the ecosystem, mirroring the way an ironic statement establishes a distance between speaker and utterance via tone.
Hughes would have done well to push her investigation into language’s interaction with the environment further. She notes the difficulty still or moving images face when trying to represent long-term developments like climate change, and observes that “the central debate in visual communication and environmental education contexts has been about whether the visual is in fact the appropriate sense to focus on” (p. 24). If the visual falls short, would the linguistic be a better fit for representing entities so temporally and spatially complex that they almost elude comprehension? Amitav Ghosh would probably disagree. In his essay “Petrofiction,” Ghosh speculates that literature pertaining to the production and consumption of oil is so scarce because the conventions of the novel as they have evolved over the past century are monolingual and never more comfortable than when revelling in a sense of discrete place, whereas the energy industry’s territory spans the globe and is bafflingly multilingual. (1) Climate change is likewise planetary in scope, largely beyond the reach of individual human perception. Hughes cites Jacques Rancière’s argument that changing the relationship between perceptible and invisible is the “central function of any form of radical cultural practice” (p. 24). Can language encapsulate climate change’s slow-moving, Earth-girding imperceptibility by rewriting the conventions of literary forms themselves? Can a constantly roving camera like that found in Bernardo Bertolucci’s La via del petrolio (The Petroleum Route, 1967) invoke the perpetually shifting physical surfaces of the energy industry – its pumpjacks bobbing, its tankers traversing the seas, its infrastructure being built, maintained, and dismantled – and thus, by extension, the constantly fluctuating atmospheric patterns set in motion by this selfsame always motile industry? Hughes’s skill in highlighting irony’s handiness for conceiving of the environment leaves her reader wishing she had more to say on how language and image can represent the ostensibly unrepresentable. In Rancière’s words, “Nothing is unrepresentable as a property of the event. There are simply choices.” (2) What, then, are the artistic choices at our disposal for evoking what Timothy Morton would call a “hyperobject”? (3)
Despite Hughes’s hesitation in tackling such challenging questions, hers is a valuable contribution to the field of ecocriticism. Her review of academic literature in the introductory chapter points to several other stalwart texts covering the documentary resurgence and ecological theme in film studies, and her second institutional context chapter has a useful list of environmental film festivals worldwide for public humanities-minded scholars who want to partake in debates happening beyond higher education. Hughes manages to balance history, theory, and close frame-to-frame reading with a light touch, underscoring nonfiction cinema’s ongoing importance in helping us negotiate the dynamic conditions surrounding us.
Helen Hughes, Green Documentary: Environmental Documentary in the Twenty-First Century (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2014).
- Amitav Ghosh. Incendiary Circumstances: A Chronicle of the Turmoil of Our Times (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005).
- Jacques Rancière. The Future of the Image (New York: Verso, 2008), p. 129.
- Timothy Morton. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).