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:

The other side of Reality TV: When Cicadas kill innocent people…

I have nothing against reality television. It’s a TV programming format that, according to Wikipedia, presents purportedly unscripted dramatic or humorous situations, documents actual events, and features ordinary people instead of professional actors.

In fact, I’ve been telling my friends who are factual film-makers that we can learn a thing or two from the recent successes of some reality TV shows.

But everything has its sane limits — and evidently these were exceeded in the recent controversy involving a British TV production company that stands accused of starting a ‘flu epidemic that left four people from a tribe of isolated Peruvian Indians dead and others seriously ill.

Matt Currington (in photo above, on the right), a London-based documentary maker, has been blamed for triggering a “mini-epidemic” in the village of 250 people which led to the deaths of three children and one adult of the Matsigenka people, who live in the isolated Amazonian Cumerjali area of south-eastern Peru.

The 38-year-old was employed by Cicada Films as researcher when he travelled to the area with a guide last year to scout for locations for the World’s Lost Tribes series, which airs on the Discovery Channel.

Here are some extracts from the story that appeared in The Guardian newspaper in the UK on 27 March 2008, written by its environment correspondent John Vidal:

The regional Indian rights organisation Fenama, government officials and a US anthropologist working in the region said in statements seen by the Guardian that a two-person crew working for London-based Cicada Films had visited groups of isolated Indian communities despite being warned not to. Fenama said the film team travelled far upriver and provoked an epidemic. It accused them of threatening the lives of Indians and called for Cicada Films to be barred from entering the area again.

It is understood the company was scouting for a location to set a TV show for Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds, in which the two British presenters would live with a remote tribe, in exchange for gifts. The company has already filmed episodes in New Guinea.

According to the Peruvian government’s protected areas department, Cicada was given a permit to visit only the community of Yomybato. It expressly prohibited visits to uncontacted or recently contacted Indians. “The Cicada team entered [remote headwaters] which are part of the strictly protected zone,” it said.

Read the full story: British reality TV crew accused as flu kills four in isolated Peruvian tribe

In case you think this is some left-wing or liberal conspiracy, read also The Times London story: TV researcher brought fatal flu to Amazon tribe.

The American anthropologist, Glenn Shepard, who met the film team on location, said he had urged them not to make the trip to the Cumerjali settlements, “where people were vulnerable to western illnesses”. “Reality tv seeks ever more dangerous, remote and exotic locales and communities,” he said.

Stephen Corey of the international tribal rights organization, Survival International, agreed. “There has been a whole rash of bizarre and extreme programmes on tribal rights. The key issue here is sensitivity which is not often a priority for television companies,” he said.

Survival International news: British TV company accused of bringing ‘epidemic’ to isolated Indians

British TV company deny allegations about Peru visit

Image from Survival International Image from Survival International

According to Survival International, Cicada Films previously caused controversy with a documentary about an expedition to visit Indians in Ecuador, which allegedly provoked an attack from uncontacted Waorani Indians.

But Cicada is certainly not alone when it comes to exploiting marginalised people in the global South in the course of film-making. And reality TV is not the only format of TV film making that often oversteps the ethical boundaries in search of a ‘good story’.

As I have been saying for sometime now, documentary film-makers and TV news gathering crews are equally guilty of many excesses, lapses and gross abuses all perpetrated in the name of media freedom.
Aug 2007 blog: Wanted – Ethical sourcing of international TV News

Nor is this sinister trend entirely new. I opened a September 2007 blog post with this bizarre request: “Can you help us to film a child’s leg being broken?” This was made by a visiting Canadian TV crew in the 1970s to my friend Darryl D’Monte, one of the most senior journalists in India and former editor of the Times of India.

This was in connection with a brutal practice that was believed to exist in India, so that forcefully maimed children could be employed as beggars. When Darryl was outraged, the film crew had shrugged off saying: “It’s going to happen anyway”.

December 2007: “Hands up who’s poor, speaks English – and looks good on TV!”

Film-makers and TV journalists roam the planet exercising their license to protect and promote the people’s right to know, and in the public interest. But this privileged position is grossly abused when they allow the end to justify their highly questionable means.

Commenting on TV’s latest crime against voiceless people, India’s Down to Earth magazine (30 April 2008 issue) says:

“These forays of reality tv perpetuate an imagery conceived by a 19th century alliance of anthropologers and photographers, that of tribals in their “innocent” state. It’s another matter these images were taken after the tribal groups were ravaged by colonialism.

“Today in the era of digital images when computer games mimic real wars, it might be hard for even the most naive eye to believe what it sees. But tv casts an enormous sway over audience perception and digitization has, in fact, aided it. We know of the images, not the circumstances in which they were taken. We believe them though they might be contrived. That’s why reality tv is dangerous.”

Read Down to Earth leader: Television has new stars