In Depth

Sundance Focuses on Green Documentaries

Cable Net Stays True to Its Roots

As cable channels and broadcasters scramble to make their mark with issue-oriented environmental programming, one network enjoying an already well-established reputation in that space is Sundance Channel. And it’s showing no sign of slowing down. Sundance recently reaffirmed its commitment to the cause by purchasing a slate of documentaries—seven feature-length films and three shorts—to premiere this fall. Almost all of them have at least some environmental elements.

Ranging in tone from a humorous look at the American lawn ("Gimme Green") to the nightmarish plight of artist Steve Kurtz, who called 911 when his wife died in her sleep and now finds himself awaiting trial as a bioterrorist after police decided his art looked suspicious ("Strange Culture"), the productions encompass a wide range of themes.

Christian Vesper, senior vice president of acquisitions and scheduling, said the network hopes to "broaden viewers’ perspective by getting more political and issue-oriented."

Laura Michalchyshyn, Sundance’s executive VP and general manager of programming, said the cable channel remains committed to its weekly block of environmental programming. "Our intention is to give people useful, intelligent ways to make small changes," she said.

The Green—the U.S.’ first block of prime-time programming dedicated exclusively to environmental issues—launched April 17 with original programming plus commissioned and acquired documentaries. Sundance just renewed the two mainstays of the Tuesday night block, "Big Ideas for a Small Planet" and BBC reality series "It’s Not Easy Being Green."

"Big Ideas for a Small Planet," produced by Scout Productions ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"), airs each week with a complementary documentary. This year’s episodes have dealt with alternative fuel sources and worldwide food production as well as lighter subjects such as fashion and sports.

"It’s Not Easy Being Green" follows England’s conservationist Strawbridge family to a three-acre farm in Cornwall.

The network also is airing a number of first-person interstitials showing celebrities such as Daryl Hannah describing the steps they’re taking to improve the planet.

Although it’s difficult to measure the impact The Green has had on viewers, Ms. Michalchyshyn said, "We’ve launched the ‘eco-mmunity’ on our Web site, and we’ve had an incredible spike in traffic on our online community. People are coming onto the Sundance site to find out how they can take that information to make it work."

National and global environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Oceana, TreeHugger and the World Wildlife Fund, along with local organizations such as Sustainable South Bronx, are partnered with the network and "share a commitment to enlighten and provide viewers with tools to get involved," she said.

The network hopes the recently acquired documentaries will complement and expand The Green’s impact.

"The original programming has direct things you can do; it’s solution-based," Mr. Vesper said, "while the acquired elements broaden the perspective even further. We’re getting more political and issue-oriented. We want the mix."

In addition to environmental groups, the network relies on the Green Advisory Committee as a sounding board for projects and series. The board includes Laurie David, who produced the Al Gore film "An Inconvenient Truth"; Pat Mitchell, president of the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television & Radio); and attorney and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

"We’ve been able to use them for vetting and also for resources," Mr. Vesper said. "They’re an advisory board in the truest sense."

Mr. Vesper acknowledged more networks are throwing their hats into the environmental ring, but said the competition is healthy. "We have a unique perspective and other networks have their own perspectives, and at the end of the day we all do truly care about the environment. The more people in place to get the audience to make a difference, the better. There’s room for a lot of players.

"We’ve been working on this block for a while, and we’re getting documentaries from Austria, Canada and Asia that involve stories and art of indigenous people," he added. "It gives the audience the full spectrum. It’s a year-round block for us, so we want to keep finding entertaining programming."

"The [Green] block is not disappearing," Ms. Michalchyshyn added. "The issue is sustainability, and the issue is not going away. What’s evolving now are the answers."

Coming Soon
Here’s a look at Sundance’s recently purchased documentaries for 2007:

Feature-length

  • "We Feed the World"
    Austrian filmmaker Erwin Wagenhofer traces the origins of the foods people eat, traveling the world to show poverty and plenty.

  • "Energy War"
    Filmmakers Shuchen Tan, Ijsbrand van Veelen and Rudi Boon look at energy supplies in a bleak future, where it’s every man for himself.

  • "Radiant City"
    Comedian Gary Burns and journalist Jim Brown co-direct a semi-mockumentary travelogue on suburban sprawl.

  • "Somba Ke: The Money Place"
    In the 1940s the Canadian government supplied the U.S. with Arctic-mined uranium to make bombs for the Manhattan Project. David Henningson’s film shows there are those who want the mines reopened.

  • "Wetlands Preserved: The Story of an Activist Nightclub"
    Director Dean Budnick looks at Larry Bloch and a team of novices who took over a Chinese-food warehouse just south of Manhattan’s Holland Tunnel and turned it into a nightclub—with an emphasis on saving the planet.

  • "Before the Flood"
    Climate change and rising tides harbor grim news for the tiny island of Tuvalu, which soon will be swallowed by the Pacific. Paul Lindsay directs.

  • "Strange Culture"
    When Steve Kurtz’s wife died in her sleep, he summoned police, who decided Kurtz’s art materials looked suspicious. Today the internationally acclaimed artist and professor and his collaborator, Dr. Robert Ferrell, a genetics professor, await a trial date on bioterrorism charges. Lynn Hershman Leeson directs.

Shorts

  • "Texas Gold"
    Filmmaker Carolyn M. Scott’s look at Texas shrimper Diane Wilson and her fight against toxins in the Calhoun County water supply.

  • "Gimme Green"
    Writer-directors Eric Flagg and Isaac Brown take a humorous look at the largest irrigated crop in America: the lawn.

  • "Fridays at the Farm"
    Filmmaker Richard Hoffman and his family participate in a community-based organic farm.


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