Recently I saw Leonardo DiCaprio’s eco call to action, the documentary The 11th Hour. I found myself intrigued and illuminated, frustrated and ultimately unsatisfied. But I’d still recommend seeing the film (in theaters, if you still can, or on DVD when it’s out). Why? Because it is a compelling catalogue of the litany of environmental woes human activities, and particularly human industrial societies, have brought about. To make its case, the film relies on extensive stock footage and a host of expert talking heads. Most of the latter are older white men and Americans at that. (One welcome exception is Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai.) They do know a lot, but there are too many of them and the lack of real diversity (including age diversity, a strange oversight given the demographic DiCaprio appeals to and presumably would want this film to reach) makes the film feel pretty 20th century.
The stock footage, cut together expertly in some places and somewhat ham-fistedly in others, reveals the complexity and reach of ecological crises, and who’s affected. Images of factory farms make it in, as do seal hunts and industrial fishing. That’s unusual for an environmental film, albeit strangely so. And as my friend and colleague lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project, also pointed out, the 11th Hour engages with other issues that don’t usually make it into the mainstream discussion, such as environmental racism. That’s important, too. And DiCaprio himself, when he appears, unaccountably always squinting into the camera, is good. The film, funnily enough, could have used more of him, particularly at the end.
Even though The 11th Hour has been billed by its creators as a call to action to save the planet, the final section runs quickly over a range of technological fixes, particularly to replace or reduce our use of fossil fuels. All well and good, but the images and the techno-talking heads, left me feeling almost excluded from the cause. Let them get on with their work, the film seemed to be saying, and the planet will be saved. My question: oh yeah, so then where do we fit in? Shouldn’t we all be doing all we can in our own lives to stave off environmental catastrophe while the scientists and inventors and entrepreneurs do their thing?
The 11th Hour seems to be moving into and out of cinemas rapidly. Is it the subject matter? Too depressing to see in the summer? The strange lack of buzz (despite emails from Al Gore and other environmental leaders urging us to pack the theaters)? Cynicism about Hollywood “greens?” I don’t know but I wish it would stick around longer. Imperfect as it is as a film and a manifesto, it still could move viewers. But they have to be watching.
One other media note: rent, borrow or even buy the BBC’s magnificent series, Planet Earth. Unlike The 11th Hour, the human footprint on the planet is almost wholly absent from this nature series like no other I’ve ever seen. The images are simply spectacular (I, too, was skeptical until I started watching). The programs, well paced and absorbing, don’t deal with environmental crises, except in a few pointed instances. But by demonstrating the amazing habitats and inhabitants of Earth, they underscore more than most films can exactly what we risk.