In Depth

Films That Have a Point

New Documentaries to Be Previewed at Roanoke Conference

Documentaries about the environment have struck a chord with audiences in recent years, whether it be the awe-inspiring photojournalism of the television series “Planet Earth” or the more pointed global warming call-to-action of the feature film “An Inconvenient Truth.”

A new round of projects to be previewed at SEJ runs the gamut as well, from the hybrid BBC/Discovery series “Oceans” to an environmental history series on Appalachia and a film that examines the thorny issues of coal-powered energy.

Blending spectacular underwater photography with on-site chronicling of some of the ways in which global warming is transforming the environment is “Oceans,” a high-definition co-production of the BBC, which is airing it this fall, and Discovery, which will show it in the spring. Unlike Discovery’s “Blue Planet,” which also looked at the earth’s ocean life, this production “is people front and center; it’s a more personal look,” said John Ford, president and general manager of Discovery Channel.

Mixing underwater archaeology, geology, marine biology and anthropology, the series, he said, takes a “pretty comprehensive look at the state of our oceans,” compiled over several years in a series of global science expeditions led by explorer Paul Rose.

“You can make a case with a show like ‘Planet Earth’ that it’s an environmental program with a little e, not a capital E,” said Mr. Ford. Viewers captivated by the lush photography of shows like “Planet Earth” and “Blue Planet”—and “Frozen Planet,” about life at the North and South poles, which is in the pipeline for 2012—“fall in love with the Earth all over again,” he said. “That sets the stage, if you will, for more pointed environmental journalistic efforts. Anybody who sees our ‘Oceans’ show is going to be more interested in the health of oceans.”

Expedition members, tackling an ocean at a time, explore shipwrecks and underwater caves, search out endangered species, test new shark repellent technology and techniques for nursing damaged coral reefs, and chart the impact of humanity on marine life.

Time is Right

The current focus on environmental issues, Mr. Ford said, makes it easier to tackle the subject in a show such as “Oceans.” “With the table already set, you can go a step further,” he noted. “Oceans,” which looks at disappearing Tasmanian kelp forests and Arctic melt, “brings to life things you may have read about or heard about.”

Also merging natural and manmade history is “Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People.” PBS has set a tentative February airdate for the four-part series, 10 years in the making, that its filmmakers, Jamie Ross, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., and Ross Spears, a native East Tennessean based in College Park, Md., call the “first environmental history series ever made.”

The filmmakers knew they wanted to tell a history of the region, but at some point early on, said Ms. Ross, they realized that “the only way this makes sense is if we make the mountains the main character,” and not just a backdrop.

Appalachia, they noted, is the most biodiverse temperate forest in the world, with “more species of trees in a square mile of the Smoky Mountains than in all of Europe,” said Ms. Ross, as well as the densest diversity of fungi, salamanders and birds.

That more people aren’t aware of that, the filmmakers contend, “may have something to do with the fact that everyone thinks they know everything about Appalachia,” said Mr. Spears. With the prevalent stereotype that it’s a region of hillbillies, poverty and coal mines, “They don’t really look more deeply,” he said.

Added Ms. Ross: “It served extractive industries well not to advertise” the natural diversity of the land. She noted, “You can’t do that and rip coal out of the side of it or deforest it.”

Untold Story

Narrated by Sissy Spacek, their story is broken into four parts, starting with the geological birth of the mountains, and the arrival of the first humans some 14,000 years ago. “Over time they created their own way of relating to the landscape,” said Ms. Ross. “There’s a rich, complicated story there that has never been told.”

In part two, the filmmakers chronicle the arrival of Europeans, “who were not there to adapt to nature so much as to figure out ways to control it,” said Mr. Spears. Part three tells the story of industrialization and the arrival of the railroads, which allowed timber and coal to be carted out. The series wraps up in the 20th century, as residents begin to realize what they are doing to the mountains, leading to the first school of forestry in America and the emergence of parks such as the Great Smoky Mountains, all of which help forge a “new Appalachian identity,” said Mr. Spears.

While plenty of documentary work has looked at Appalachia before, “We really were tired of this old version of the story,” said Ms. Ross. “Both of us have lived in the region for decades and we don’t recognize the picture of it.”

Also touching on issues central to Appalachia is “Blackout.” Filmmaker Peter Bull has teamed up with the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, Calif., to examine the increasing use of coal to produce electricity at a time when concerns about global warming are front and center.

“Coal is the elephant in the room in terms of global warming,” said Mr. Bull. “Just as the world is really coming to grips with the reality of climate change, there is a resurgence of coal.”

Cheap and abundant, the fuel is offered as a solution to skyrocketing oil prices, even as environmentalists want it phased out as quickly as possible to avert more damage to the environment. The central dilemma, he said, is, “How are we going to both solve the climate problem and meet energy demand?”

The film examines arguments on both sides surrounding the promises of clean coal technology, including carbon capture and sequestration, and whether it can be done on time and at the scale necessary, at a reasonable cost, said Mr. Bull. And the filmmakers look at the alternatives: wind, solar and geothermal.

The unfinished 90-minute film is scheduled to be completed this fall, and the producers are hoping for a theatrical release. The film is meant to “engage the debate and help educate the public,” Mr. Bull said. “It’s a debate we’re going to have to engage in,” he said, adding, “I don’t really think it’s possible to draw a firm conclusion.”

Even just a few years ago, news organizations were reluctant to tackle such thorny issues, he said, but now, “It’s a really exciting time for environmental journalists, who have a big responsibility to make these issues clear to the public.”

In a follow-up e-mail message, he said: “I think the challenge for environmental journalists today is to show the general public that ‘the environment’ is not something ‘out there’ with the spotted owls and endangered species and wilderness areas and so forth. It’s where people live, where we all live.”

He added: “As our collaborator, journalist Jeff Goodell (author of “Big Coal”), puts it, it’s important to make the invisible visible.

“As he says in the film: ‘If you could look behind the light switch; if you could get into the wire and follow it out to the coal plant and see the particles coming out of the stack. And if you could see somehow the carbon dioxide … and you saw the little particles going out into the atmosphere and you saw them being inhaled in people’s lungs … and if you could then follow the railroad back and go back to the coal mine and ... watch the explosions go off, and see the creek that had been there being filled in by a mountaintop removal mine. And you could look at all of the impacts of this, would you have the same feeling about electricity?’”