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Can Sundance films change a polarized conversation about the environment?

PARK CITY — The Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday night with the premiere of "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power," which opened to a sold-out crowd at the Eccles Theater in Park City.

Former Vice President Al Gore said in a question-and-answer session after the film, "This movie gives me an extra burst of hope … (it) really effectively tell(s) the story of how much hope there is for transforming our energy system, changing our way of thinking. We're going to win this."

Like the earlier film "An Inconvenient Truth," which premiered at Sundance 11 years ago this month, the new documentary stars Gore in the role of road warrior and environmental champion, taking viewers to China, India, the polar ice caps and Georgetown, Texas, "the reddest town in the reddest county in Texas," as he advises political leaders and trains activists to organize in their communities.

The premiere coincides with a joint report from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, released Jan. 18, declaring 2016 the hottest year on record, breaking the record for the third year in a row.

Sundance also opened the day before the swearing in of President-elect Donald Trump, who once tweeted that global warming was a hoax created by the Chinese. And it comes at a time when 48 percent of Americans say they believe the Earth is getting warmer and that it’s due to human activity, according to the Pew Research Center — a figure that hasn’t gone up since “An Inconvenient Truth” was released in 2006, and has in fact declined significantly among Republicans.

The arts play a role in the environmental movement, said Patrick Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, because they can move beyond the technical aspects of environmental policy and bring things to life that are invisible to ordinary people. However, he added, "There's a danger that in dramatizing it you exaggerate it.

"There have been quite a lot of films on environmental themes which imply we’re right on the brink of the precipice, while in fact, they are really incremental problems which, although they might be very serious, nevertheless aren't going to sweep us away in the next few weeks," said Allitt, author of "Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism."

He noted intense polarization in the current debate over climate change, attributing it to a call for massive government programs that made some Republicans skeptical, compounded by global warming skeptics with scientific credentials whom Republicans could use to say it wasn't a serious problem but rather a power grab.

"By now, each side is capable of accusing the other of acting in bad faith," said Allitt.

The question is whether the newest slate of films at Sundance about the environment can transcend and bridge current divides, or whether they will continue to polarize the conversation.

Some films aim to rally the base of a largely liberal, young environmental movement. But several other Sundance films this year take a different tack, searching for common ground with heart-wrenching but honest stories of the Americans who are arguably closest to the land: rural farmers and ranchers — who also happen to be from counties that voted largely for Donald Trump.

Rallying the base

The idea for a special program at Sundance to highlight films about the environment bubbled up organically, said Hussain Currimbhoy, a Sundance programmer.

"This year we saw some amazing environmentally themed films that were just fantastic stories with brilliant characters. They were using technology in a really cool, cutting-edge way. They kind of screamed out, 'You have to put this on some kind of special platform,'" he said.

Al Gore appears in "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power" by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk. | Sundance Institute

So the festival introduced the New Climate, a program “dedicated to conversations and films about environmental change and conservation.” It consists of 14 documentaries, short films and virtual reality experiences — including the highly anticipated documentaries “Inconvenient Sequel” and “Chasing Coral,” in which deep sea divers unravel the mystery of coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef.

Other films have a different look and feel, as well as a different potential audience. “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” is a documentary of families working the land who must band together with political opponents to protect their way of life, and “Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” examines the impact of industrialized farming on rural America told through the eyes of writer and farmer Wendell Berry.

In spite of increased political polarization over climate change, Currimbhoy defended the original “Inconvenient Truth” as a “tremendous success” that won awards, performed well at the box office and “made something that seemed abstract and far away become immediate and personal.”

He reflected a sense of disappointment within environmental circles over the current political situation, referring to the movement as a “counterculture” poking the mainstream culture.

“Sometimes the base needs to be reinvigorated,” he said. “People criticize sometimes, saying you’re (preaching) to the choir. Sometimes the choir needs to be encouraged, too, when the outside culture is just saying the opposite all the time.”

A still from "Tree" by Milica Zec and Winslow Porter. | Jakob Kudsk Steenson, Sundance Institute

Preaching is precisely what Gore does in an emotional scene in "Inconvenient Sequel," invoking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech "How Long, Not Long" as he rallies crowds with images of the imminent success of solar and wind power and compares the environmental movement to earlier movements for abolition and civil rights. Like those movements, he says, this one, too, is in the process of resolving to a choice between right and wrong.

At the same time, Currimbhoy said, the environment isn’t a political issue, but a human issue, and the role of film is to tell stories that engage, inspire and tell “an emotional truth.”

He described “Tree,” a virtual reality project that puts the viewer into the role of a tree in a forest, growing from a seed to a sapling to a tree. Wearing a suit and virtual reality goggles that make the experience 3D, the viewer sways in the breeze and experiences tremors as loggers approach to cut the tree down.

“It’s incredibly confronting, very moving, and it gets the message across in only a few minutes with a story with an incredible arc,” Currimbhoy said.

A still from "Melting Ice" by Danfung Dennis. | Danfung Dennis, Sundance Institute

Likewise, “Melting Ice,” another VR film, places the viewer on an iceberg as it collapses and begins to melt.

“It’s terrifying, and it hits your brain in different ways that perhaps an article or a film can’t do,” Currimbhoy said.

Cultural grief

The Wendell Berry film opens much the same way “An Inconvenient Truth” did 11 years ago: Images of country landscapes, slow-rolling rivers and leafy trees float across the screen as a man’s voice, tinged with a Southern drawl, describes the relationship between humans and nature.

Where “An Inconvenient Truth” was heavy on data, “Look and See” relies on gently flowing visual and verbal imagery. Berry describes in one of his poems the large, 40-paned window above his desk as a graph through which he looks out on a natural world that doesn’t conform to the structured lines of graphs.

The film paints a respectful and sympathetic portrait of the people whose stories it tells: men in plaid shirts and ball caps whose families farmed for generations who then watched as mechanization made family farming obsolete. Those few who remain take on massive debt each year to seed their crops, hoping against hope they’ll make enough money to come out ahead this time around. But the costs of farm machinery grow faster than the revenue from crops, and worst of all, Berry says, the people have become disconnected from the land, working it with giant machines instead of their own hands.

What they’ve lost, according to Berry, is not just a livelihood, but an entire way of life based on their relationship to the land. There is a profound “cultural grief” in small communities for this lost way of life, he says.

Wendell Berry and Den Berry appear in "Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry" by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell. | James Baker Hall, Sundance Institute

Berry speaks the language of red America in a way documentaries about the environment usually don’t. The family farmer, he says, once independent, “stood at the convergence of traditional values — our values. Independence, thrift, stewardship, private property, political liberty, family, marriage, parenthood, neighborhood — values that declined as that farmer is replaced by technologies whose only standard is profit. … By policy, we wiped these people out.”

At first, said director Laura Dunn, she struggled to get funding for the film.

“My guess was that making a loving portrait of white male tobacco farmers from the South may not be politically correct,” she said.

But after Donald Trump was elected president, she encountered a sudden willingness to consider these stories.

“We’re desperate right now for some bridge building,” Dunn said.

A mother of six living in the heart of the Texas Bible Belt who also cares deeply about the environment, Dunn said she often feels alone, but she sees a path forward in the way Berry’s writings tie together ideals of family and community with environmental ideals.

“You literally are of the land, you are the land — an ecological worldview that this is all interconnected. You have the community, and part of the community is the land,” she said.

In fact, she said, Berry — known for his environmentalism — doesn’t like the word “environment” because it implies that people’s surroundings are separate from them.

A still from "Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry." | David Peterson, Sundance Institute

He also writes theologically, referring to the apostle Paul’s teachings in the New Testament about the body of Christ.

“That’s where you bridge the gap,” she said. “You cite scripture itself and look for the interconnections in your own lives rather than make it some heady political thing that has all this baggage attached to it.”

Putting it back together

Even with efforts to broaden the conversation over environmental issues, Allitt said, it's not likely to resolve soon.

"We live in a political climate which has been polarized on all kinds of issues. What's so odd about this (issue) is that it's such an incredibly technical question. Most people can't possibly know enough information to have a credible point of view. What everyone does is decide who they're going to believe," he said.

Gore, however, expressed optimism on Thursday night that Americans can and will "expand the limits of what is politically feasible," citing the politically conservative town of Georgetown, Texas, which is on the verge of operating on 100 percent sustainable energy. Business leaders and investors are also recognizing the wisdom of addressing the climate, he said.

"I won't give all the evidence for why I'm so confident, but I am," Gore said. He ended his remarks with a signature line: "The will to act is itself a renewable resource."

Dunn hopes “Look and See” will expand viewers’ understanding and respect for rural people and farmers, opening a conversation about environmental topics they can further engage in the way they distribute the film through activities like grass-roots tours in Kentucky.

Beyond that, she said, if the film inspires viewers, she hopes they will read more of Berry’s work and find ways to engage in their own communities. “You don’t need big picture solutions. You need small moments in your own life where you can be accountable.”

Berry’s advice is not to try to put everything back together at once, but to start by putting just two things back together — any two things.

“That could be anything in your life. It could be the way you raise your child, joining a CSA, it could be the way you eat, it could be countless things,” Dunn said. “That is very helpful for me. I’m a mom of six kids, I have a busy life, it’s easy to get very despairing.”

Currimbhoy also said small changes are what the New Climate program aims for.

“It’s up to people to take films that jibe with their personal narrative, take films that they can believe in and be touched by and share them with their friends,” he said. “People now more than ever have to take responsibility and get charged and get together and start to make small changes within their immediate circles. … To do it through film and visuals is a more exciting way of doing it — it’s more fun, it’s more beautiful, it’s more communal."

At the core of it, Currimbhoy says, is helping people feel something.

“You want people to empathize, and the last stage of empathy is action. If people can take a little bit of action in some small way, it’s a success,” he said.