Environmental films tend to be black and white and green all over. The tree huggers are the heroes, the developers make up the Earth-spoiling bad guys, and no gray areas separate the two camps.
This year's Atlanta Film Festival, closing Sat., April 19, features several entries about environmental issues. I didn't have a chance to see Renewal, Marty Ostrow's exploration of the religious environmental movement (Thurs., April 17, 2:30 p.m.), but the three I watched all faced narrative challenges in presenting the righteousness of their causes.
In When Clouds Clear (3 stars; Wed., April 16, 5 p.m.), directors Danielle Bernstein and Anne Slick offer a beautifully shot portrait of Junin, a small town in the jungles of Ecuador, where the residents band together to resist local mining development. Bernstein and Slick take an in-their-own-words approach to the film, and Junin's residents display immense dignity when they speak of preserving the land for future generations. The film's early tranquility gives way to explosive confrontations between villagers and mining representatives in shocking sequences involving arson and gunfire.
When Clouds Clear tends to sacrifice local color for clarity in its portrayal of the Junin situation, and it's often difficult to sort out the order of events or the specific roles the primary interviewees play in environmental activism. Though the villagers frequently make eloquent points, they tend to repeat the same platitudes, and audiences not already familiar with the case would probably identify with stronger individual stories.
Todd Darling struggles to unify some eye-opening but disparate examples of Bush administration deregulation and environmental "rule changes" in A Snow Mobile for George (2 stars; Wed., April 16, 1:30 p.m.). He begins by wondering why his snow mobile's smoke-belching "two-stroke" engine was banned, only to see the ban lifted shortly thereafter. The audience has to pretend that Darling couldn't answer his question with a few minutes on Google and some phone calls. Instead, he hitches the snow mobile to a trailer and drives it across America, sniffing out dirty governmental tricks along the way.
Darling doesn't have the hucksterish streak that Michael Moore uses to sell such contrived concepts, making the snowmobile shtick feel like labored humor. As a muckraker, however, Darling presents compelling tales in which the Bush administration shoots down pro-environmental causes in the name of Karl Rove-style electoral advantage, and in the face of scientific merit. Perhaps the most powerful example involves Manhattan air pollution following 9/11, and Darling's assertion that the Environmental Protection Agency used stricter standards to test its own Manhattan office compared with other buildings in the area. Alas, Darling's most powerful segment also has the most tentative ties to his thesis.
As part of the AFF's Dramatic Competition, Woodpecker (1 star; Wed., April 16, 9:35 p.m.) isn't exactly a documentary, but it uses nonfiction content to explore a real place and controversy. In the early part of this decade, sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought extinct, boosted morale and tourism in the struggling town of Brinkley, Ark. Woodpecker addresses the debate over whether the rare bird has returned or not, and most interviewees look like the actual people (although Ken Parham, listed as Monroe County Sheriff, has multiple entries on the Internet Movie Database).
Woodpecker briefly touches on the bird-watching community's friction with local loggers and hunters when the woodpecker's habitat is protected. The vast majority of the film, however, follows Johnny (Jon Hyrns), a fictional loner who spends weeks wading through the swampland to find the bird while reciting bad poetry and rambling incessantly. Johnny becomes increasingly unhinged and shows similarities to Grizzly Man’s unstable Timothy Treadwell, only played for mockumentary-style laughs.
Despite the charm of the nonfiction scenes and its grasp of bird-watching's naturalist appeal, Woodpecker offers the tedious execution of an unappealing premise. The faux-documentary element doesn't make the fiction seem authentic; it makes the facts suspect: It's neither fish nor fowl.
For more on environmental activism, check out next week's Green Guide cover story.