The Awareness Paradox

By Jake Kheel, guest blogger. Vicepresident of Grupo Puntacana Foundation and co-Director of the documentary Death by a Thousand Cuts

“There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, ‘It’s all over, don’t bother trying to do anything, it won’t make a difference,’ and an optimist who says, ‘Relax, everything is going to turn out fine.’ Either way the results are the same. Nothing gets done.”

Yvon Chouinard, Founder Patagonia

In late 2017, the Grupo Puntacana Foundation and the Dominican Republic Environmental Film Festival (DREFF) hosted screenings throughout the Dominican Republic of the documentary film, Chasing Coral, with the film’s impact team. Chasing Coral has stunning photography, a compelling narrative and manages to summarize a complex subject, coral bleaching, so that a lay audience not only gains a basic understanding of corals, but feels deeply concerned about their impending plight. The film’s success has garnered a nomination for the Academy Awards Best Documentary.

However, like many documentary films that explore complex global challenges, Chasing Coral confronts the difficult challenge of converting “awareness” of a problem, into tangible actions to solve it. How can the average person watching Chasing Coral actually contribute to reducing coral bleaching, a global phenomenon caused by large-scale changes in the planet’s oceans and climate that cause the corals to die? How can Directors of powerful films like An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary about global climate change, inspire people not only to act, but to produce effective change. This awareness paradox is one of the greatest challenges the environmental movement faces today.

Unfortunately, most environmental films struggle to provide guidance. At the end of An Inconvenient Truth the viewer is told that the climate crisis is imminently solvable. We are advised to buy energy efficient appliances and lightbulbs, to turn down our thermostats and to recycle. We are told to buy a hybrid car, if we can afford one. Yet this list of recommendations seems unreasonably small in the face of the monumental changes occurring around the planet, and their catastrophic consequences, all depicted in the film. (Apparently the filmmakers recognized this shortcoming and felt obliged to make a sequel, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power).

Similarly, Chasing Coral offers a message of hope to close the film. After painting a dire and downright depressing outlook for the future of coral reefs around the world, the audience is told that the transformation that will save the corals is already underway. The films’ protagonist, Zack Rago, is shown teaching school kids about corals reefs through virtual reality headsets. The audience is told that cities are being greenified and climate action is well underway. This despite over 50% of the Great Barrier Reef having been decimated in a matter of months. Is a transformation really underway?

Having produced and co-directed the documentary film Death by a Thousand Cuts, which explores the emerging conflict between the Dominican Republic and Haiti over their disappearing border forests, I am intimately familiar with the unique challenge of making an environmental documentary film. Besides having an engaging story, filmmakers have to think about fundraising, producing, characters, narrative and eventually, distributing their product. All this while trying to create an accurate, thought-provoking, and change-producing piece of artwork. Making a film is a major undertaking, never mind trying to provoke the audience to take action to help solve complex environmental problems.

Our team struggled with how to end our film. We grappled with whether we should present solutions to the challenge of deforestation on Hispaniola. Instead of making charcoal from the forests, Haitians could be convinced to use other less harmful fuels, like propane. The Dominican government should crack down on deforestation. We should all recycle. Ultimately, we decided that the audience should be allowed to decide for themselves the best course of action. We hoped that the film, and it’s unsettling ending, would create angst, possibly rage, and ultimately, action. Rather than a recipe for what to do, we hoped to produce enough concern that the audience would be compelled to figure it out what needed to be done on their own.

This is by no means an open criticism of Chasing Coral, Inconvenient Truth, or any other of a dozen groundbreaking environmental films. These films are exceptional works of art that have created significant public awareness about critical environmental issues. All of their numerous awards are merited. We were honored to be have the opportunity to present Chasing Coral in the Dominican Republic.

Ironically, after five years of production and a massive effort to promote our film, probably the only measurable impact it had was to put enough public pressure on the Dominican government about its deteriorating forests, that it was forced to replace the acting (and completely ineffective) Minister of Environment with a more committed, dynamic leader. But had the film left the audience with a kernel of hope at its conclusion, it might also have left an excuse for inaction. And just maybe the pressure to make this change never would have occurred.

What if, instead of leaving the audience with a smidgeon of hope, these powerful environmental films left us with something other than hope: despair. The author Derrick Jensen argues in his essay “Beyond Hope,” that “when hope dies, action begins.” Jensen contends that despair is a perfectly reasonable response to a desperate situation, and, more importantly, it is empowering. When you give up on hope and “relying on someone or something else to solve your problems…. you just begin doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.”

Perhaps the environmental movement, more than messages of hope, and assurances that a transformation is already underway, needs to employ despair, outrage, and profound trepidation of the consequences of business as usual, as a strategy to inspire action. Would environmental documentaries be more effective at prodding audiences into defending the planet if we didn’t give them a reason not to? I don’t know the answer, but at the very least, if we are going to become real changemakers, we have to reflect on why creating public awareness alone has not led to more effective environmental protection.

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