The Sundance Film Festival has long been a celebrated venue for environmental documentaries, due in part to Sundance founder Robert Redford‘s green sensibilities. An Inconvenient Truth, TheCove, and Who Killed the Electric Car? all attracted critical buzz at Sundance before they made their way into theaters around the country. The festival’s 2010 lineup continues this trend with a handful of well-crafted, compelling films that address crucial environmental themes not yet in the public consciousness.
Avant garde filmmaker Josh Fox grew up in Pennsylvania on a pastoral stretch of the Delaware River, which happens to sit on the natural gas-rich Marcellus shale formation. When he got a $100,000 offer to lease his property for natural-gas exploration, Fox felt compelled to chronicle the impact that the natural gas-extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing has had on the American landscape.
Gasland begins by deftly explaining the complicated practice of hydrofracking, which involves injecting toxic chemicals into the ground—often not far from drinking-water sources—to force natural gas to the surface. This allows the film’s central theme to emerge: that average Americans are under siege from toxic water and air contamination while cavalier energy executives brush aside their concerns.
With his untraditional filmmaking background, Fox elevates the often-dry conventions of environmental documentaries into a persuasive, mood-driven piece. But this is no art film. Fox travels across 25 states, including the drill-punctured lands of Colorado and Texas, to document the debilitating health effects endured by people who have had the misfortune of living near natural-gas wells.
Gasland‘s subjects aren’t crunchy types ensconced in eco-conscious enclaves like Boulder. Most are rural families and ranchers who could easily have cast a McCain vote in the last election. Yet they seethe at an unsympathetic natural-gas industry that clings to the eroding notion that its product is safe and environmentally friendly, and that fights tooth and nail to protect its Bush-era exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
And then there’s the flammable tap water. In one home after another, Fox and his subjects put lighters to faucets to show how sloppy drilling has let gas leak directly into drinking water. The pyrotechnic parlor trick is good cinema; combined with images of endless parades of heavy trucks to and from drill sites, it makes the visually quantifiable point that the natural-gas industry has engaged in a rabid, decade-long expansion without much thought to the consequences.
Fox is hopeful that a distribution deal is imminent for Gasland. Robert Koehler’s swooning review in Variety—which says Gasland is so “potent” that it could be the rare film that forces social change—could help make studio distribution a reality. At Monday night’s screening at Sundance, Fox was greeted by a roaring crowd and choked-up audience members during the Q&A session. If that’s any indication, the future of Gasland is as bright as flaming tap water.
Director Michael Nash’s alarming documentary, which details the impact that a billion humans displaced by climate change will have on global security, should goose even the most fervent climate deniers into reconsidering their positions. Nash uses lush cinematography and first-person accounts to chronicle hellish experiences of displacement caused by increasingly severe weather-related events like the ones expected to be triggered by global warming.
Climate Refugees begins with the tiny sliver of Polynesian islands that make up the country of Tuvalu. Tuvalu is expected to be the first sovereign nation to become a casualty of rising sea levels. This raises a central question of the film: What happens to the political identity of people when their country no longer exists? In a world of tightly controlled national borders, climate refugees have many more barriers to relocation than political refugees.
And what will happen when larger groups, in the hundreds of thousands or even millions, are displaced and have no country in which to relocate? Will they pour over borders and destabilize already shaky governments in Asia and the South Pacific?
When the film pivots from the recent Bangladesh cyclone to the U.S. disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, it makes the point that America is also in deep danger from displaced refugees. Crime rates have spiked in towns and cities where Katrina survivors relocated. Viewed in the context of tens of millions of refugees potentially rushing our border from the South, our current immigration problems seem trivial.
The film alternates between heart-wrenching accounts of survivors of climate disasters all over the globe and interviews with leading environmental experts such as Lester Brown. Political leaders like Sen. John Kerry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also provide insight and commentary, with Gingrich saying he became concerned about climate change in part because the U.S. military has warned that the phenomenon threatens to become a serious destabilizing force around the world.
Climate Refugees doesn’t address the causes of climate change, opting not to get bogged down in that distracting debate. But Nash makes a frightening point near the end of the film. If climate change is human-made, we have a chance to head off the global threat of climate refugees. If it’s naturally occurring, we’re screwed.
Watch the trailer:
Oscar winner Cynthia Wade’s short film Born Sweet follows Vinh Voeurn, a 15-year-old Cambodian boy suffering from arsenic poisoning. Arsenic occurs naturally in Cambodia’s volcanic soil and has been poisoning Vinh’s village water supply for years, recently causing the death of a young neighbor girl. The arsenic is permanently in Vinh’s system, leaving him anemic and with ugly dark spots on his body. Yet in this moving but hopeful short, Vinh comes to terms with his illness and potential mortality, all while nursing the normal teenage hope of meeting a girl.
In Vinh’s village, the main source of entertainment is singing along with Cambodian karaoke music videos, and Vinh dreams of escaping his desperate future with a career as a karaoke performer. When aid workers connect Vinh with karaoke video producers in order to make an arsenic PSA, his life changes in a way he and his family could never have imagined.
And two more worth a mention: Mark Lewis introduced a 3-D update of his 1988 comedy/documentary about the misguided introduction of amphibians into Australia, called Cane Toads: The Conquest. And Wasteland, a film by Lucy Walker, shows how Brazilian artists use found objects, in this case from vast garbage landfills, to make inspired creations.
Founder Robert Redford’s high profile environmentalism and the Sundance Film Festival’s green-leaning movie lineup leave the organizers with little wiggle room when it comes to coping with the ecological footprint of some 40,000 festival-goers. Fortunately, they’ve worked hard on common-sense initiatives to meet the challenge of a massive influx of movie buffs to the small mountain town of Park City, Utah.
The biggest change this year was cutting way down on the mass of discarded water bottles. For the second straight year, Brita and Nalgene teamed up to give away 40,000 BPA-free, reusable plastic water bottles. Filtered water stations dispensing free water were also available at most venues. The free bottles, less visible in 2009, were omnipresent this year. And while there’s room to nitpick over the increase in manufactured plastic, it was a big improvement over the mountains of empty bottles that plagued previous festivals.
A Sundance fact sheet also boasted that 2010 was the fourth year that the “energy required to operate the Festival’s theaters and venues has been offset with clean, renewable energy through a relationship with Rocky Mountain Power’s Blue Sky Program.” According to RMP, the main source of the offset is wind power, and Sundance estimated that 216,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions would be offset.
Park City’s public transportation system has been a mainstay of the festival. The buses can get crowded, but festival-goers rarely wait more than 15 minutes for one to arrive at the many available stops. Venues and theaters are close enough together that using the bus to get from one screening to the next is usually the best option. The recent addition of the beautiful but geographically distant Temple Theater, however, has made relying solely on public transportation harder.
Recycling is also big at Sundance, and one need not look far to find bins of every flavor. Additionally, the organizers said that “the disposable items at officially sanctioned Festival events are contractually required to be made exclusively with 100% recycled paper or with plastics made of natural fibers such as corn, potato, and sugar cane.” Good steps for next year would be recycling the festival credential badges and doing something about the blizzard of paper tickets.
Using technology to cut back on the number of trees harvested for the festival’s weighty printed guide is another good green step. The online film guide is useful, but the iPhone app is even handier when making snap screening decisions or reacting to updates to the schedule.
The festival also announced Southwest Airlines as the official airline of the Sundance Film Festival and highlighted Southwest’s environmental initiatives, such as paperless tickets and eco-friendly cabin materials. Hopefully the partnership will make it possible for festival-goers to offset their air travel emissions.
For the first time the Sundance Film Festival has also commissioned a comprehensive environmental study of the festival’s impact by SWCA Environmental Performance Group. According the SWCA’s Richard Young, the assessment entails:
“SWCA is performing a detailed baseline assessment of the overall impacts, including identifying boundaries, collecting data, performing an analysis, identifying opportunities to make reductions, developing a sustainability plan and setting goals, and preparing a detailed report.
SWCA is focusing on the major environmental impacts of the Sundance Film Festival including energy use, transportation, material use, waste, recycling, water use, emissions, green benefits, etc. Once the data is collected and an analysis completed we can develop a baseline “footprint” of the Festival.”
As a founding member of the Vermont-born, Boulder-based theSamples, Jeep MacNichol saw his share of patchouli-soaked fans. The Samples sold millions of units in the late 80’s and early 90’s based on relentless touring and truly grassroots show-by-show album sales.
MacNichol’s reggae-influenced drumming propelled the Samples’ pop-hybrid sound, a driving factor of their early popularity, and a formula successfully employed by younger bands such as O.A.R. Their popularity was such that the Samples toured alongside Phish and Widespread Panic and hosted such flash-in-the-pan opening acts as the Dave Matthews Band.
A handful of years after leaving the Samples, MacNichol embraced Jah by journeying to Jamaica to collaborate with preeminent reggae artists like Sly and Robbie. Those sessions became his first recording under the pseudonym Mr. Anonymous. The eponymous first release and 2009’s Mr. Anonymous 2 feature a bevy of reggae guest stars and a signature studio-knob-twiddling-sound.
Jeep McNichol: It is a studio animal but we do perform live and are planning on doing some touring this year. The way we do it live is with me on drums and my DJ/co-producer Ben Bussard on turntables. It is presented as kind of a live dub sound system, and sometimes we bring a singer with us and sometimes just the two of us. I approach the music, drumming-wise, as kind of a dub-meets-ministry vibe with a lot of tribal beats on toms to augment what the DJ is doing.
WCP: Mr. Anonymous 2 sounds like it has an added layer of studio craft than your first release. Was that intentional?
JM: The sound of Mr. Anonymous 2 is a huge step above the first album in terms of experimenting and pushing the limits of the music…and it WAS intentional in the sense of me working with Ben. He has an approach to everything he does as a live DJ (DJ Psychonaut) and as a producer (21 Dread) that is like nobody else I have heard… and I feel like he and I have the same ear for trippiness and psychedelia and “less is more”. His biggest asset as a mixer, first and foremost, is that he hears the beauty in the “song” and vibes off of that more than anything. My vibe on the Mr. Anonymous music is that it has to leave you with a feeling, kind of like watching a classic movie or looking at a beautiful painting and seeing new images every time you see it….and Ben steers the mixes with that same vibe!
WCP: So why reggae or dub? Why not find influence, say, in Stax or the punk movement?
JM: Reggae and dub have always been my favorite music. The vocals, drumming, etc…I love it all…and before that old R&B like Stevie Wonder, Zapp, and The Gap Band. The first album I ever bought was Talking Book by Stevie Wonder. I do listen to Minor Threat and Husker Du though…I would love to do a project with Bob Mould or Ian McKaye down the road…maybe Mr. Anonymous 7 will be a punk collaboration. I don’t have any preconceived limits on anything musically. I like to flow with what feels good to me at the time and the reggae sound has ALWAYS made me feel good!
WCP: You’ve written and spoken about working with reggae legends like Sly and Robbie. What’s something about working with a collaborator that surprised you?
JM: My biggest surprise was working with Ranking Roger from The English Beat. I went to Birmingham to do the tracks with him and instantly we felt like we were best buddies with the same views and taste for music and everything. We drank coffee, ate curries, and went to record stores and hung out for a couple days just as friends before we even did the first song…It felt like hanging with an old buddy from 3rd grade playing with G.I. Joes with Kung Fu Grip. He and I are planning on doing more music together for sure, and I’m in the midst of organizing a west coast tour with him as the singer…It was a pleasant surprise linking up with him.
WCP: Do you still have people who recognize you or contact you from the Samples?
JM: I do get emails from Samples fans for sure, and I’ve recently been reaching out to a lot of those folks. A lot of Mr. Anonymous fans remember me from my drumming days in that band, so it’s cool for me to still keep in touch, especially since I’m back on the drum throne when I play live. As far as walking down the street getting recognized I would say no. I’m actually opening for the “new” Samples in September down in Denver which will be fun because I can share my new vibe as a drummer and musician to a lot of folks who think I’ve disappeared over the last 10 years.
WCP: Do you look at the success a band like O.A.R has had and think the Samples were ahead of their time?
JM: I don’t know much about O.A.R. but I have heard the name…I assume they are kind of a jam band..? As far as The Samples, I don’t feel like we were ahead of our time necessarily. I think we started up with an original sound for sure. We were always linked in with the “jam” bands, but we had more of a pop sensibility with the songs. We also brought in a lot of world, ska, punk and reggae elements to the music. The biggest difference to me was that we were more of a non “noodling guitar solo” band than some of our cohorts at the time like Widespread Panic, Phish, etc….so maybe in that sense we inspired similar vibes that followed us.
WCP: You’ve got a regular spot DJing for a Boulder radio station. A look at your playlists shows a heavy dose of reggae. Is there a non-reggae band/ artist that you’re enjoying listening to?
JM: As far as my music taste, I am very seasonal with what I listen to. I am a huge fan of jazz and bebop in particular, so I tend to listen to a lot of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy, etc. in the fall and winter months…I also LOVE the band Sugar (Bob Mould’s former power pop band) and hip-hop like Tribe Called Quest, the fantastic new Mos Def, and some new dancehall artists.WCP: What’s your take on the current state of reggae music? Do you get a chance to listen to what the Easy Star All Stars are doing with their tribute albums?
JM: Yeah I like the Easy Star stuff for sure. As far as the current state of reggae music and dancehall in particular, I think there are a lot of hugely talented singers with amazing skills…Sean Paul has some SERIOUS skills along with Beenie Man, Buju Banton, etc. My biggest complaint with a lot of it though is the music behind what they are doing. I feel the same way with hip-hop in this country. This is partially why I do what I do with Mr. Anonymous because I try to showcase that vocal talent in a different context with melody and depth. Some of the grooves coming out of Jamaica are slamming for sure but a lot of them for me get a little boring and redundant, at least for my taste. I hate saying anything is good or bad when it comes to music because it’s all just art and as long as even one person enjoys it, that’s everything!
Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney andguitarist-vocalist Dan Auerbach are currently continuing the experimentation heard on 2008’s Attack and Release through their respective side projects. Beforeregrouping for this fall’s Blakroc project with Mos Def and RZA, Auerbach is touring in support of his solo album, Keep It Hid, and Carney is playing bass in his new side band, Drummer.
Do the extracurricular projects signal a new direction or broadening of sound? Or could it prompt them to draw back to the purer elements of the Black Keys?
“Dan and I started the Black Keys when we were very young and our first record came out when we were both 22,” says Carney. “In the past seven years we have grown a lot as musicians and have started to feel comfortable changing and doing what we want. Neither of us would ever want to feel like we need to sound a certain way to be pure.”
“I think what is truly pure is being honest and that is what we have been doing since we started playing music together.”
Drummer, a musical cabal formed by drummers from various bands, released the album Feel Good Together on September 29th. “I played the bass and helped write and arrange the songs, but keep in mind the other four guys are some of the best musicians I have ever met,“ Carney says.
Drummer’s debut merges harmonies with something akin to the layered playing of Built to Spill, but Carney is elusive when talking about the origin of the sound.
“The blues are to the Black Keys as hot dogs are to Drummer.”
A direct album title like Feel Good Together combined with the giant sundae cover art projects a positive message that dovetails with the often buoyant tone of the album. How much thought went into post recording marketing?
“I think we are all positives guys most of the time and we also like coming up with idiotic ideas and then following through,” Carney says. ” We have been talking a lot about opening a Wright Brothers themed sushi restaurant called Kitty Hawk. As I imagine you know 90% of all airplanes are filled with meat and in fact the plane was invented to carry fish meat to Dayton.”
Feel Good Together was released by Carney’s label, Audio Eagle Records. While on tour, label mates the Royal Bangsare opening for Drummer, though Carney brushes aside questions about schooling them in the ins and outs of touring.
“All my ‘road’ stories involve Marriotts and Arby’s.”
Much of the BLK JKS’s press to date invokes afro-beat tinged comparisons to TV on the Radio, Bad Brains and Living Colour, though guitarist Mpumi Mcata brushes off the comparison game by encouraging “the reader to seek out and envision” rather than relying on, you know, critics.
The four-man group has erupted from South Africa as evangelists of any-influence-goes prog rock. Their latest, After Robots (Secretly Canadian), is a rousing yet challenging post-apartheid free-for-all. Such a frenetic melding of different styles, tempos, and instrumentations, though, can threaten to bury the central idea of a song.
“Funny you should say that,” Mcata said. “We used to have talks about a return to innocence… We hope people follow and see and feel this music as we do; music—and not its mathematical sum, which in any case is just guitars, vocals, bass, brass drums, and piano.”
D.C. residents will get their second chance to hear BLK JKS on Tuesday night at the Black Cat with openers Laughing Man. (After a coast-to-coast tour, BLK JKS will move on to Europe in support of After Robots.
“We are totally into D.C.,” Mcata said. “Really interesting and suprisingly mixed open communities even if it was kind of together but not together together, which is kind of the case in most places, it’s still beautiful to see people making an effort….re-imagining society in everyday mundanities; we’re looking forward to it.”
Prog-rock band Secret Machines frontman Brandon Curtis helped produced After Robots, and Mcata’s said of his contribution, “He was there to mediate—expedite the process so to speak. The brother really helped us get to the sounds we wanted…. He was a little bit of amazing.”
With so much going on, it must be difficult to reproduce After Robots onstage, no?
“The show is its own beast.”
The BLK JKS also project a positive image of post-apartheid South Africa, a role they believe artists have in interpreting the political and social events that transpired in their country.
“Oh it’s a major role…our part is to be ourselves; no preaching or politiking—at least not yet. [Laughs.] You know, most of the world is unaware that such youths walk the streets of Africa.”