A man looks mournfully at a 40-metre mountain of rubbish. His view of the historic port of Saida, Lebanon, is obscured by layer upon layer of household waste. Rows of dead chicken eyes meet his gaze and wonder at his presence.
The man is Hollywood and TV star Jeremy Irons. He is fronting the feature-length documentary Trashed, bringing attention to the global escalation of waste and pollution. The multi-award-winning film added the Palme Verte to its bounty at last week’s UK Green Film festival. But can environmental documentaries such as this actually do anything to change people’s behaviour? Or do they serve to further polarise already staunchly held convictions?
The writer and director of Trashed, British filmmaker Candida Brady, explains that her aim is to raise awareness. As well as focusing on the sheer scale of the waste problem – 58bn disposable cups, countless billions of plastic bags, 200bn litres of water bottles annually – Brady’s film highlights the catastrophic effect of plastic debris on sea life. Beached whales that must be disposed of as toxic waste due to the amount of plastic they consume.
But the biggest baddie in the film is incineration – often touted as a green solution via waste-to-energy plants, Brady highlights the issue of dioxin pollution – a by-product of incineration, which in high doses can cause a range of health problems including cancer, reproductive difficulties and birth defects.
“I wanted to raise awareness generally for people to understand a very difficult, endlessly complicated topic,” says Brady. “And any change that comes out of it is great – I’ve had so many people come up to me and say they’ll never touch a plastic bag again. The really easy answer is, if we all just did one thing, let’s recycle.”
Asked about any potential backlash to the issues raised by the film, Brady says: “We tried to address that by putting all the science together in one place … we’ve got 84 peer-reviewed published studies, so that you couldn’t dispute it. I think a lot of the problems that films have had in the past were things that don’t stand up when you look a little further. We made sure we had at least two or three different studies on every point that we made.”
She admits that a film about trash “is not something you’d rush to see really”, and so enlisted her secret weapon, Irons, to pull in a bigger audience. It has been a hit on the international film festival circuit and secured a limited UK release. But reaching a mainstream audience for such films remains elusive.
The UK Green Film festival started three years ago to help break down such barriers and bring environmental films to a wider audience. Now with 50 screenings a week across 17 UK venues, festival founder John Long explains: “The key to the festival is that people leave the screening feeling that there needs to be a change, and that you want to be a part of that change.” He says audience figures are unlikely to reach blockbuster levels, but adds: “That’s no reason not to do it – if we only reach a niche audience to start with then that’s better than not reaching them at all.”
The festival’s director and video producer for Friends of the Earth, Daniel Beck, believes that films such as Trashed have the power to effect change: “Film is a universal platform. Everyone can appreciate films, they are a great way of introducing topics to people. They are great conversation starters.
“That’s at the heart of what people are trying to get going around most environmental issues, that the more people that know about them and are talking about them, the more chance you’ve got of effecting some kind of change. That’s where I see film acting as a real catalyst.”
Reaching a more mainstream audience is “almost an endemic problem”, says Beck. “A long-held criticism is that NGOs and their supporters … spend a lot of time talking to each other. What we’re trying to do with the festival is find films that communicate to new audiences … and we’re not necessarily looking for the traditional environmental documentary. Our programme had films such as Valley of Saints, which is less of an environmental film and more of a love story. It deals with the issue of home and how close our connection to it is … Using these more subtle films and then encouraging debate on what the deeper meaning of the film is, can be a really powerful thing. I think that’s the way you can bring in audiences that aren’t already your concerned environmentalist.”
The Green Film festival also precedes each feature film on its programme with a short film. Once the exclusive realm of students, short films now carry a potential to spread sustainability messages far further. “Short films are going through a renaissance,” says Beck. “The explosion of YouTube over the last 10 years is incredible. NGOs perhaps haven’t done enough to take advantage of that. A big part of what I do for Friends of the Earth is try to find new ways of engaging an online audience … film [is] going up in the list of priorities when it comes to promoting a campaign.”
Film is Brady’s medium. Being able to show the reality of individuals’ lives and global problems, in 90 minutes, retains a real magic for her. “When you see the size of that trash mountain, in a beautiful, historic place – you can smell it wherever you go. Seeing how this was affecting everyone’s livelihoods … I think the combination of being able to show the huge scale of this problem, and hearing people tell their stories, is extremely compelling.” And if one of the people telling their story is Jeremy Irons, so much the better.
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