Sundance film festival: Underwater treasures | The Economist

Sundance film festival

Underwater treasures

Documentary makers look for the next eco-blockbuster

Jan 22nd 2009 |From the print edition

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IT IS hard to overestimate the impact of “An Inconvenient Truth”, not least on the film industry. Al Gore’s 2006 feature-length admonition on the effects of global warming grossed nearly $50m, making it one of the most successful documentaries after “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “March of the Penguins”. Judging by the films on offer at the Sundance film festival this month, every documentary maker now wants to be the next Mr Gore.

“Eco-documentaries tell the stories of our time,” said Rupert Murray, director of “The End of the Line,” another feature-length film based on a 2004 book by Charles Clover, the environment editor of London’s Daily Telegraph. Mr Clover’s research exposes the effects of overfishing on oceans and those who depend on them for food. In a similar vein, “The Cove”, which documents the slaughter of dolphins in Japan, explores how human beings have upset the sea’s ecosystems, putting people at risk as well as marine life. “There is a general feeling that things are changing faster than they ever have, ” says Mr Murray. “Eco-documentaries are a reflection of that.”

“The End of the Line” uses the same lyrical underwater footage as nature documentaries, such as “The Blue Planet”. But rather than lulling the audience into a false sense that all is well in the oceans, it catches the viewer’s attention with meditative camerawork and lush, dramatic music and then reveals the inconvenient truth about the impact of over-fishing on the oceans. The film unfolds like a mystery, with Mr Clover as detective. The film-makers travel to Nova Scotia, the Bahamas, Tokyo and the Mediterranean, as well as to a small village in west Africa whose supply of fish has been halved in recent years as a result of over-fishing. Ignorance, corruption and greed all play a part.

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“The Cove” follows Richard O’Barry, who trained the dolphins in “Flipper”, a popular 1960s television show. Ever since, Mr O’Barry has worked to stop dolphins from being captured and sent to amusement parks. In “The Cove” he focuses on trying to prevent the slaughter of 23,000 dolphins a year in a bay off Taiji, Japan. Local fishermen, who believe dolphins are responsible for their shrinking catch, do all they can to thwart Mr O’Barry’s efforts.

For eco-documentary makers it is not enough just to screen films in cinemas. Both these films also put out a call to action. As Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance festival, says: “Just explaining the problem isn’t enough. You have to show what people can do about the problem.” At its conclusion, “The End of the Line” offers suggestions for helping to stop overfishing: creating marine reserves, putting pressure on the fishing industry to reduce capacity, and persuading consumers to eat only sustainable fish. The film’s website provides links to campaigning organisations such as Greenpeace and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. “We plan to go from city to city with our campaign,” says Mr Murray. “A massive outreach was part of our intention with this film from the start.”

via Sundance film festival: Underwater treasures | The Economist.