Whether it’s documentary, pub-lic service announcements, commercials or even social media, media is all encompassing in terms of raising awareness about the climate change crisis and is considered an effective way to communicate climate crisis.
“Film is ubiquitous because it’s everywhere, whether it’s on TV, or streaming via digital platforms,” says Emmy award-winning producer, writer, director and cinematographer Larry Engel.
“Movies are an important and critical medium for communicating and sharing the deep concern, especially of youth, about climate change,” adds Engel, who has worked on over 250 projects for domestic and international broadcasters and cable channels, and is now in the fifth decade of his filmmaking career which has spanned all seven continents.
Currently an associate professor at American University’s School of Communication, associate director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking, and filmmaker-in-residence with the Investigative Reporting Workshop, Engel maintains that regardless of the film genre or topic, even average films can successfully raise audience awareness.
“When I go to the theater or when I’m watching a movie on one of the streaming services, the topic may sound really interesting but the film itself maybe dreadful."
“An Inconvenient Truth, the big-screen adaptation of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s slide-show lecture about the perils of global warming, won Academy Awards for documentary feature and best song despite it not being terribly compelling. I think it received Oscars because the Academy acknowledged that this topic needed to be recognized, it needed to be known, and therefore it was effective,” Larry explains.
Even Ted Talks can be remarkably compelling and it’s just the person on a stage with dramatic lighting, he says, adding that it’s the way the story is told that could make for a compelling climate crisis or climate change documentary.
“Broadly, our role in environmental filmmaking, wildlife filmmaking and conservation filmmaking is recognizing the importance of reaching a diverse audience, which means then that we need to have more people, more diverse voices on both sides of the camera. And I think that will help with making strong stories about climate change,” the filmmaker says.
In 2005 American University established the Center for Environmental Filmmaking with a focus on environmental filmmaking and wildlife filmmaking.
Today the center is paying more attention to environmental justice, environmental racism, and decolonizing the practice of documentary and environmental filmmaking.
“We are participating with several outside organizations to empower local people, local communities in environmental and wildlife filmmaking with a current emphasis on Africa,” Engels explains.
Looking back at his career, Engels says the documentary he considers a milestone is a film he worked on for National Geographic in the 1990s, titled Height of Courage: The Norman Vaughn story.
“It was a documentary about Norman Vaughn who was an 86-year-old adventurer living out of Alaska. Norman went to Antarctica as a dog musher, and he led a dog team to an area that was near the South Pole, so basically 66 years after Norman was in Antarctica, he had the opportunity to lead an expedition back to Antarctica,” he says, calling the movie “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
In 2009 Engels worked on a film for a public television station. “We did an episode called Bangladesh Water World, and it was the first time that the United Nations ever declared a climate change refugee status to the people of Bangladesh. It was the first, that was a long time ago. And we interviewed experts in Bangladesh who predicted where we are right now, where we have climate change refugees who are immigrating from water-laden countries, lands that are not viable for human habitation.”
That year Engels also published a book with a British friend about sustainable filmmaking.
“I recognized probably from the 1900s through the 2000s when I was going around the world filming environmental stories or wildlife stories that the world was really changing, so we published the code of best practices for sustainable filmmaking in 2009. Mother Earth doesn’t care about us, she’s just rotating around the sun. What we do to protect ourselves and other species is critical and it’s critical right now,” Engels highlights.
Thankfully youth are taking care of this planet better than his generation or generations before. To Engels, the role of youth in climate change is really simple as they have no choice. “I will not be impacted in the same way as my children, my grandsons and youth in general, so they have to lead the revolution. They will need to take power in countries around the world and wield the civic duty that we ought to be wielding right now. But they can’t do this because politicians and policy makers are greedy and don’t care. After World War II, many films reflected that adults gave up and it was up to the youth, the young people, the children, to be responsible. It’s the children who take on the responsibilities because the adults have abandoned their responsibilities to their children, to their society, so it’s up to youth.
Engels goes on to share his message at COP27: “My ultimate hope is to save our planet, cooperate together as countries and people to save ourselves through saving our planet. A direct message from a humble filmmaker and professor to the international climate community is make the change right now. The world is literally burning up. My message to political leaders is that you have an obligation to protect your citizens, not your institutions, not your power. You have an obligation to protect your people and the other inhabitants in your countries. It’s as simple as that, let the scientists do their job, let the environmentalists do their job, Let the youth, who know better than you, do their job.”