Are Environmental Films Making a Difference?

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According to The Guardian, 2023 is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded. Various countries have documented their hottest record temperatures, causing events such as the death of a Taylor Swift concert goer in Brazil

Our world is continuing down a path of destruction. Highlighting some of the world’s most devastating environmental realities are filmmakers, who use documentaries as a unique way to increase awareness of subjects.

Documentaries such as “Seaspiracy”, one which uncovers a world-wide scandal about the fishing industry, have recently been the highlight of global recognition. With thousands of positive reviews and a wide international audience, environmental films have prompted responses from major corporations, academics, and politicians. 

Additionally, almost every major international film festival, including Toronto International Festival, the Venice International Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival all have films or campaigns surrounding environmental topics and sustainability. 

Yet, even with hundreds of environmental films our institutions continue to dive deeper into a green depression. What is it all worth? Do environmental films actually create change?

Ali Tabrizi, Director of Seaspiracy, holding up an illegal shark fin Photo Credit: BBC  

What Makes Films Different?

To understand the impact of films on climate action, we must first understand why they are uniquely important in generating change. 

Firstly, according to Maggie Burnette Stogner, Director of the Center of Environmental Filmmaking at American University with 3 decades of filmmaking experience, “films have the ability to reach wider audiences, bringing often unknown stories to light”. Stogner asserts “Environmental issues are often relatable. This relatability can allow films to reach greater audiences.”

Secondly, with a bigger audience, film directors can leverage storytelling to convey their message. Professor and seasoned environmental filmmaker Larry Engel, boasting 40 years of experience and over 300 films, asserts “Storytelling is a critical component of our culture…and science communication.” 

By using narrative, whether it be environmental or otherwise, films establish an emotional connection with the audience. According to Engel, this emotional engagement, driven by storytelling, encourages viewers to question their actions. 

Third, unlike other forms of communication, film has the ability to motivate individuals towards change.  

Stogner argues that with the overwhelming amount of information about climate doom we are facing, “people feel overwhelmed and disempowered creating paralysis within individuals.”

“Documentaries can activate people, bring them together into a positive community,” Stogner states. Unlike news articles or broadcast television, “successful environmental films generate hope.” It is with this hope that people feel the importance of environmental topics and look to take action.  

Thus, films finish with a hopeful “call to action,” motivating the audience to act beyond passive observation and take action. 

What is the Impact of the Movies?

It is crucial to recognize that the primary goal of these films is not necessarily to create immediate transformations. According to Engel, “their most significant impact lies at the individual level.”

 “You have to look at the middle,” Engel contends. The emphasis is to  “change those that are uncertain?”, altering their perception and understanding of environmental issues. 

The overarching objective of these films is to sway those on the fence; those that are disengaged. By reaching this demographic, films look to create a sufficient change in political consciousness within individuals to “enact change through voting.” It is with voting that we are able to change our world. 

ECU’s Commitment

It is true that our world continues to go down a path of destruction, but without films and the activists making them, the change that has happened would be non-existent. 

By documenting environmental realities, the potential to influence political priorities increases. And with this change, climate voting and climate action occurs. 

Dedication to revealing hidden environmental realities is ever more urgent and important. Here at ECU, we are dedicated to this mission, giving environmental films a platform to send their message to the world.


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