Street lamp at film festival
(Photo: Courtesy of Daisy Simmons)

NEVADA CITY, CALIF. “It’s not easy to watch.”

That was a recurring introductory remark at screenings during the recent 2020 Wild & Scenic Film Festival. Held each year in the bucolic foothills of the Sierra, the five-day festival screens more than 140 environmental films, from artful meditations on the beauty of nature, to distressing stories of people on the frontlines of climate change.

The latter category held enough short and feature documentaries to fill up an entire weekend – and more. Throughout these diverse pieces was a common probing of the disproportionate impacts of climate change on the health and wellbeing of indigenous communities, people of color, and economically disadvantaged individuals.

Several films shared intimate stories of people who have lost, or will soon lose, their homes and customs to rising seas and oil and gas development in coastal Louisiana.

Others examined hard-hit communities in fire-ravaged California, including how fire compounds other pressures of daily life for immigrant families. In one film, for example, a woman says some families she knows plan to evacuate who, in an upcoming mandatory evacuation, think they simply will drive to the coast, climb down the cliffs, and take their chances on the shoreline itself, rather than risk running into customs officers at a shelter.

Several films also criss-crossed the globe to reveal connections between, for instance, climate refugees in Bangladesh and air pollution in Texas.

But even the most sobering films contained glimmers of hope, a theme the festival organizers took great pains to nurture – from activist workshops held throughout the weekend, to simple action-oriented steps available at each screening and at booths outside, such as signing a petition.

Seven films to add to your climate watchlist*

There were too many standouts at the 18th annual environmental film festival to list here, including several “Yuby Award” winners (named in honor of the Yuba River, which the festival was launched to help protect). Following are a few highlights that exemplify the human impact of climate change, in alphabetical order:

After the Fire (18 min. documentary, see trailer below)

For some, Sonoma Valley is the glamorous wine-studded landscape we see in movies. But for real-world residents, it’s just home – or, it used to be, before the recent fires destroyed their own homes. This film follows several locals as they try to rebuild not just a home but a life. For example, there’s the young immigrant mom struggling to find work, because the restaurants where she’d normally work have no customers. There’s the senior sculptor who’s lost his life’s work, along with all his family heirlooms. The only thing he has left from his mother is a potted hibiscus plant, which he nurtures tenderly. Skyrocketing rents plague both their efforts. The sculptor must move in with his daughter, and the young mother says she’s had to choose between rent and food. Neither is alone: “We’re all scared, whether or not we have our papers,” says the mom. This is a story of loss, but also of resilience – as evidenced perhaps best by the hibiscus not just once, when it miraculously survives the fire, but again later when, with care, it begins to bloom again.

Blowout: Inside America’s Energy Gamble (79 min. documentary, see trailer below)

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“We’re the sacrifice zone,” says a resident of Port Arthur, Texas, where soaring cancer rates have been linked to nearby oil, gas, and petrochemical development. From there, through the Panama Canal and across Asia, the film connects global oil and gas activity to human life around the world. From a family displaced by sea-level rise in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to one considering moving from hurricane-soaked Panama City, Florida, Blowout packs in data of rising emissions and temperatures without sacrificing the human side of the equation.

Available to watch online at Amazon Prime, Fire TV, Roku, Vizio, and Apple TV.

The Condor and the Eagle (82 min. documentary, see trailer below)

Punctuated by vivid animation and music, this film opens with an old prophecy, one that’s been recorded by indigenous communities across the Western hemisphere: “When the eagle of the North and the condor of the South fly together, the spirit of the land will reawaken.” Now, as the 21st century unfolds, we see four indigenous environmental leaders helping bring this prophecy to life, working to reduce the impacts of oil and gas production across great distances, from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Amazonian jungles of Ecuador. They come together at global climate summits and marches, returning with new insight to work in their own communities. Their work ranges from crusading against “environmental genocide” in the Amazon, to fighting toxic emissions in a Texas town where too many kids are growing up with asthma and leukemia. It’s an onerous journey, but by sharing traditional wisdom and conviction, these leaders offer hope to communities well outside their own domain.

Last Call for the Bayou: Five Stories from Louisiana’s Disappearing Coastline (53 min. documentary, see trailer below)

Shot on location in the Louisiana delta, this film boasts a diverse crew of real-life characters, from the self-proclaimed “Duck Queen” fighting for wetland preservation and the mud-tasting scientist (yes, he actually nibbles mud as part of his testing), to the third generation shrimper who’s running out of work, and the aerial photographer documenting environmental change. Each in their own way is grappling with Louisiana’s diminishing wetlands – every hour an area the size of a football field is lost. Can they find a way to restore the coastline without sacrificing the local economy? Together, their stories show how sea-level rise is already threatening livelihoods. As the photographer ponders, hovering a thousand feet above the shrinking barrier islands in a jetpack, “One major hurricane and we’ll all be looking for a new place to live.”

Lowland Kids (22 min. documentary, see trailer below)

Coastal Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles is sinking, creating the first climate refugees in the U.S. mainland. To go behind the headlines, the filmmakers introduce Howard and Juliette, aka “the last teenagers” on the island, and their uncle, who’s raised them here since they were small children. They’ve each grown up enjoying freedom and peace here, from late-night alligator watching and water fights to quiet sunset conversations. And they’re not looking forward to moving: The teenagers worry about what it will be like to have close neighbors. Chris, the uncle, has lived his whole life on the island, and mourns that “part of me will always be here, because this is where life began for me.” Asked how he feels about being called one of the nation’s first climate refugees, he says it’s strange, and yet, with rising seas and the forced move upon him, admits he hasn’t been able to find a better word.

Mossville: When Great Trees Fall (75 min. documentary, see trailer below)

Winner of the festival’s Spirit of Activism award, this film explores the deeply troubling impacts of industrial petrochemical development in Mossville, Louisiana – a community founded in 1790 by ex-slave Jack Moss. For generations, people of color lived here in peace, geographically insulated from the rest of the Jim Crow South. Today, however, the southwestern Louisiana community has been “erased,” replaced by massive petrochemical plants, including the nearly complete new multi-billion-dollar project projected to produce more greenhouse gases than anywhere else in the state. The toll has already been dire, with mechanic and father Stacey Ryan reporting he’s lost most of his family to cancer and other health impacts he blames on the plants’ toxic emissions. But the losses aren’t over. The company behind the new plant has forced most residents to move out, and Ryan is unwilling to budge. The audience sees his home become a surreal holdout in an increasingly decimated landscape: The neighbors are all gone, as are their houses. His fenced-in yard is suddenly dwarfed by sprung-from-nowhere industrial roads and buildings. We watch as his power and water are shut off, his mailbox eerily poking into relentless truck traffic. And we watch as his health and vitality slowly decline, all because he refuses to give up the home his grandparents built for a plant whose greenhouse gas emissions stand to threaten far more than the homes that once surrounded it.

The Story of Plastic (94 min. documentary, see trailer below)

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When people think about plastic as a problem, they often think just about its end state: as waste carelessly strewn into the ocean, killing off seabirds and other creatures tragically having mistaken the inedible trash for food. But The Story of Plastic makes a strong case for rethinking that narrative. With global reporting, archival footage, and simple storyboard animation, this Yuby-winning film presents plastic as a primary contributor to climate change throughout its lifecycle, as a carefully orchestrated byproduct industry of oil and gas production. To lay out the global impact of plastic production, the film carries viewers across the U.S. South, to Belgium, Indonesia, India and China, exposing in each place the human and climate impacts of rapidly escalating plastic production and use.

Films about real-world people struggling with the effects of climate change may not be easy to watch. But as one filmmaker said in response to the comment that her film was sad, “I personally find these stories incredibly inspiring – there are a ton of people around the world working together to address these issues – and that gives me a lot of hope.”

Editor’s note: Not all of the above films are available yet online. Keep an eye out for a local edition of the Wild and Scenic On Tour program, coming soon to roughly 250 events across the U.S.

Daisy Simmons is a freelance writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience in research-driven storytelling. In addition to contributing to Yale Climate Connections since early 2016, she also...