Standing on Al Gore’s Shoulders: Moving images in the climate debate

And the winner is...

And the winner is...

Al Gore used to have a reputation as a very smart man who was very stiff and aloof especially in his public speaking.

I didn’t notice this the only time I listened to him in person, at an environmental journalists conference at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts, in the Fall of 1995. Perhaps because he was speaking to a group of over 200 journalists, Gore was especially charming. He delivered a well prepared speech passionately, and then took a dozen questions.

I still remember one incident during question time. A Bangladeshi participant lined up to ask him something and started addressing him as ‘Mr President’. Gore smilingly interjected: ‘Not yet!’. The journalist, not the least shaken by his slip of the tongue, said: ‘Well, I hope you will be one day!’.

Well, that day came…and it was not to be. Gore won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election but lost the presidency in a bizarre series of events that had the rest of the world gasping.

All that sounds so long ago, now that Gore has emerged as the world’s best known climate crusader. There are many who feel that he is more effective in his current role than as a politician.

His 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, helped move the climate change debate forward in a decisive manner.

Whatever we might think about the film’s artistic and technical merits, I’m glad it has settled one question: can a single film make a difference in tipping public opinion about a matter of global importance?

The answer, where climate change is concerned, is a resounding yes!

For sure, the film arrived at a time when the climate change debate had been going on for nearly two decades. Scientific evidence was mounting for human responsibility for accelerated changes in our climate. Political and business leaders, in denial for years, were finally beginning to take note — perhaps sensing votes or dollars.

Official film poster

Official film poster

Coming in at the time it did — in the Summer of 2006 –- Al Gore’s film tipped the public opinion to agree that climate change was for real and responses were urgently needed.

“It is now clear that we face a deepening global climate crisis that requires us to act boldly, quickly and wisely,” says the former US Vice President introducing his film.

An Inconvenient Truth focuses on Al Gore and his travels in support of his efforts to educate the public about the severity of the climate crisis. Gore says, “I’ve been trying to tell this story for a long time and I feel as if I’ve failed to get the message across.”

The film closely follows a Keynote presentation (dubbed “the slide show”) that Gore presented throughout the world. It intersperses Gore’s exploration of data and predictions regarding climate change and its potential for disaster with Gore’s life story.

An Inconvenient Truth is not a particularly stunning or dramatic documentary. Some have called it a ‘dramatised PowerPoint presentation’ (although Gore actually uses Apple’s Keynote presentation software). There aren’t cuddly animals, deadly chemicals, forest infernos or gory animal hunts that make environmental films appeal to a mass audience.

In fact, it hangs together — and sustains for nearly an hour and a half — due to the sheer star power of Al Gore. And when we take a closer look, we see how hard Gore and his team at Participant Productions have tried to engage audiences.

The film, made on a budget of around US$1 million (modest by Hollywood standards) went on to earn US$49 million at the box office worldwide. As at late 2008, it ranks as the fourth-highest-grossing documentary film in the United States, after Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins and Sicko.

I first saw An Inconvenient Truth at a cinema in Virginia, USA, while it was still on its initial theatrical release in the Fall of 2006. I reviewed it in early 2007, and recently returned to discussing the film during a presentation I made to our Asia Pacific regional workshop on changing climate and moving images, held in Tokyo in early October 2008.

My thrust was: now that Al Gore and his film have helped turn the climate debate, how can we continue to use moving images in search of solutions? In other words, how do we stand on the shoulders of Al Gore?

Another excellent film on climate change

The Great Warming: Another excellent film on climate change

I looked back at Gore’s film and another excellent Canadian film that came out the same year, The Great Warming. Discussing their merits, I noted how both films appeal as much to our emotions as they do to our rational intellect. “Facts, figures and analysis alone cannot engage a diverse, sometimes sceptical or indifferent audience. That’s why they try a different approach: appealing to the emotions.”

Here are some excerpts from my remarks:

We often see environmental documentaries failing to engage audiences because they pack too much information, or worse, preach too heavily and directly. Some film-makers feel strongly that they must ‘inform and educate’ their viewers at all costs.

To engage people, both are needed

To engage people, both are needed

It’s story telling that works best with moving images –- and what better stories to tell than the personalised ones of real people dealing with real world problems and challenges?

With ‘moving images, moving people’ as our slogan, we at TVE Asia Pacific believe in the power of well-made films to reach out to people’s hearts and minds.

Our experience shows that moving images can indeed move people, but only when:
• They are used in the right context;
• They form part of a bigger effort or campaign;
• Audio-visual’s strengths are maximised; and
• Audio-visuals limitations are properly recognised.

It’s the combination of broadcast and narrowcast spheres that has a better chance of changing people’s attitudes and, ultimately, their behaviour.

Read the full presentation here:
standing-on-al-gores-shoulders-nalaka-gunawardene-speech-in-tokyo-4-oct-20081

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