Ecology and Francophone Cinema

Professor Maryse Fauvel teaches a freshman seminar, Ecology and Francophone Cinema. She invited me to speak to her students today on any topic of my choosing. This is often a difficult decision. Out of all the things to talk to a group of freshman about, what do I want to discuss?

After a few email exchanges, Maryse asks if I could maybe bring examples/excerpts of good environnmental or ecological movies. She sends me her syllabus and I see the films they have already watched: Home, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse by Agnes Varda, Darwin’s Nightmare by Hubert Sauper, and the list goes on. There are maybe 20 on the list. There are some phenomenal films on the list and I’m pleased to see the caliber of films she selected. She mentions that they have discussed the difference between “efficient documentaries on environmental issues and bad ones”. This statement is what I choose to focus on.

What is the criteria to determine whether a film is successful? Who determines whether a film is successful or not? Critics might agree that a film might be stronger than another, a better piece of art, but if it doesn’t motivate a general public to action, what good does it do, as an environmental film? This in itself makes me wince, saying that the craft of the piece is not as important as it’s outcome. The ends are more important than the means.

How is a film deemed successful? From the point of view from a producer, here are some criteria: (1) Ratings:  Ratings are both very important, and yet, not the be-all-and-end-all of how your film has been judged.  What’s really important is how many people see your film – after all, there’s no point if no one sees your work! (2) Profitability:  How much money did your film make from ticket sales?  A movie that is commercially successful can considered successful simply on the virtue of having made a great deal of money.  However, a movie that loses money can also be considered a success if it is triumphant in other ways.  Just remember that making money on one film perpetuates further filmmaking! (3) Impact:  What sort of impact does your work have on average citizens, law makers, activists, etc.?  What sort of action does it inspire?  Maybe a law is passed, or a species is put on or taken off the endangered species list.  There are two distinct impacts your work could have: an impact on policy, and an impact on human behavior.  An example of human behavior could be the smaller scale impact of ordinary viewers volunteering their time and getting involved in conservation. (4) Objective:  As a filmmaker, did you accomplish your objectives?  Sometimes, this can be more important to an individual filmmaker than the commercial success or reviews of their work.  Remember, “success” is subjective! (5) Sustainability of work:  How long does your film run in theatres or the festival circuit?  Is it played on multiple platforms? (6) Awareness:  Does your film raise public awareness?  Does it start a dialogue?  Does it get people to think?  These are the first steps to inciting action! (7) Awards:  Is it acclaimed or recognized at festivals or award ceremonies?  What sort of professional honors does your project receive? (8) Fulfillment:  Do you have an inner sense of fulfillment at the completion of your project?  Do you feel as if though it is a success to you? (9) Popular culture:  Does your work have a strong influence on/reflected in the popular culture?  Think “An Inconvenient Truth.” (10) Reviews:  Positive reviews can make a positive impact on how your film is perceived by others.  A bad review can often deter viewers from watching your project. (11) NGO:  Is your cause adopted and/or propelled by a non-government organization?  Does your work propel the efforts of conservationists and activists? (12) Business:  Does the project lead you to work on future projects?

This list is problematic, of course. Filmmakers are pulled in too many directions. How can one balance the artistic aspirations of making a solid film, with the fact that such a film might not reach as many people. A film that reaches more people might be deemed more successful. If the purpose of the film is (1) to get people to see the film; (2) to get people to talk about the film; and (3) to get people to act upon watching the film; does it matter how artistic an environmental documentary film is? Wouldn’t this encourage more filmmakers to forego the pull to make solid films?

It’s a question I am still answering and one that creates a lot of problems for me with a lot of environmental films.