Leaping lemurs, the flamboyant cuttlefish, and the pure blue orchid are among the photogenic stars of three visually arresting documentaries that take viewers around the world.
By offering an expansive and eyebrow-rising overview of climate change, two activist filmmakers ring the alarm, but unlike many environmentally themed films, which usually list websites at the closing credits, they offer onscreen examples of community-based, kid-friendly actions for change.
Now available from distributor Video Project, Revolution (Gr 9 Up) begins as a salute to a 400 million-year-old survivor, the shark, the dominant ocean predictor, now faced with possible extinction. The amicable and boyish host, director and marine biologist Rob Stewart, takes a deep dive into the shark’s ecosystem, zeroing in on the fate of the rapidly disappearing coral reefs, an essential part of the food chain. The carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, absorbed into the water in the form of an acid, has become detrimental to organisms that build a skeleton of any kind, thus causing reefs to corrode.
Besides the acidification of the ocean, the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide is caused by the deforestation of tropical forests, which produces one-third of Earth’s oxygen. Already 75 percent of the world’s forests have been destroyed. However, Stewart doesn’t just lament. He highlights one way to initiate change, through policies, such as at an elementary school in the island of Saipan in the western Pacific Ocean. The kids successfully petitioned their government to ban shark finning. [“To describe this documentary as eye-opening would be a complete understatement … This film is important, inspirational, and at times devastating”: SLJ 8/15 starred review.]
Academy Award nominated filmmaker Josh Fox (Gasland) begins his How To Let Go of the World: And Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change (Bullfrog Films; Gr 9 Up) dancing to the Beatles in an impromptu celebration of the banning of fracking in his rural Pennsylvania homestead. Soon after he notices that the hemlocks are dying in the woods, a victim of a parasite that has flourished because of decreasing freezing temperatures. The following 127-minute overview of global warming can be viewed chapter by chapter to suit specific topics: “Hurricane Sandy Hits NYC,” “Iceland and Melting Glaciers,” or “How Bad Is Climate Change?” His film evens out the talking-head interviews of scientists with musical interludes and montages of environmental devastation as well as an incredible journey into the Amazon rain forest (“the lungs of the earth.”).
Besides touching upon the bleaching of coral reefs, Fox spotlights other environmental dangers, such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The outlook is dire; according to one scientist, the carbon dioxide that is already present in the atmosphere will continue to warm the planet for several more decades. Additionally, when Fox ventures into China, viewers receive a crash course in international studies. He and his team are followed by police in a country where the government heavily controls information. So that his footage is not confiscated, Fox finds an ingenious hiding spot for his hard drive containing his footage: his banjo.
At their most telling moments, these two films link together many social and environment issues—how what occurs on land affects the oceans. Noted experts, such as Van Jones and Bill McKibben, cofounder of 360.org, pop up in both films. (McKibben posits that the Hurricane Sandy should called Hurricane Exxon instead.) The two documentaries point to peaceful protest as a means of taking a proactive stance; Fox also suggests divesting in the fossil fuel industry and believes in the “moral imagination” to come up with solutions. Loaded with statistics, these films will aid in report research and as prompts in environment and social studies.
For a close-up look at botany, the back-to-basics two-part Plants Behaving Badly (PBS; Gr 6 Up) provides the fundamentals of biology, while acknowledging the groundbreaking work of Charles Darwin. The attention-grabbing title misleads; don’t blame the plants for their behavior, it’s just natural selection. And talk about eye-catching; the flora here are burnished with nearly all of the colors in the spectrum.
In the first segment, “Murder & Mayhem,” the victims are insects, the perpetrators are pitcher plants that catch and kill their prey by entrapment, such as sundews, which have a sticky substance like fly paper to snare their victims. It was through experiments with these plants that Darwin discerned that the presence of nitrogen triggered a reaction from a pitcher plant.
The second episode, “Sex & Lies,” is not as lurid as it sounds. This peek at “the private lives of orchids” is a “world of trickery and fraud,” all in name of pollination, according to the perennial nature film narrator David Attenborough. The program presents a wonderful example of the diversity of plant life by focusing on the largest species of any plant (at approximately 25,000).
Abundant with unique species of all kinds, Madagascar is featured in all three film selections. (It’s home to the lemurs, mesmerizing in action in Revolution.) Unique to the island, the comet orchid can be pollinated by only one insect, the dragon-horned moth with its foot-long tongue. It took scientist more than 150 years to capture this finding on film; Darwin theorized that there had to be one particular insect that the comet orchid depended upon for reproduction. The program is a strong introduction to biology and evolution and a revelatory supplement in units on Darwin.
The productions discussed in this article:
How To Let Go of the World: And Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change. 127 min. Bullfrog Films. 2016. $390. $95 (rental). ISBN 1941545742.
Plants Behaving Badly. 110 min. PBS. 2017. $24.99. ISBN 9781531700164.
Revolution. 86 min. Video Project. 2016. $89. ISBN unavail.
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