Shadow films:
picturing the environmental crisis

by Claudia Springer

One certainty exists in our global crisis: we respond to the possible demise of life on Earth based not only on what we personally experience but also on widely distributed pictures.

Disturbing images of environmental degradation populate our screens: dying animals, people struggling to survive in inhospitable conditions, disfigured bodies, floods, toxic water, devastated land, and mountains of trash. We also encounter greenwashed images of vehicles that supposedly protect our environment by using less gasoline or reducing plastic in their production or transporting bicycles to remote locations or contributing to clean-up projects. Pictures now constitute our world more than actual landscapes, and while they expand our reality into infinite realms, they also provide ammunition in ideological battles over the environment.

Mountains of garbage. [iStock.com/neenawatt] Car manufacturers claim to benefit the environment. [iStock.com/j-wildman]

We inevitably accumulate eco-imagery in our minds. New imagery merges with what we have seen in the past in what I call shadow films. This internal collection conjures up relevant pictures from all sources without necessarily distinguishing between actuality and fantasy, documentary and fiction. Our personal eco-imagery has implications for film viewing: both fiction and documentary films rely on the organization of ideas regardless of the mode in which they are delivered. When we watch documentary films, they encourage us to consider our internal archive of gripping and memorable fictional sequences, and we blend the restrained evidence in front of us with familiar fictional plot lines. Likewise, fiction films can conjure up documentary evidence of threats to our planet. Knowing about the actual existence of a frightening scenario makes it more compelling, and knowing that a fictional response to environmental crisis could have real-world applications boosts its believability and importance. Our shadow films expand each time we watch a film of any kind, giving our viewpoints elaborate storylines to support or challenge them.

Research shows that we understand stories because our minds create models of their events, explains psychologist Jeffrey M. Zacks (21). He uses the term event model to refer to the "representation in your head that corresponds systematically to the situation in the story" (21). While an event model is not identical to the story we are following, it is "accurate enough that you can use it to run simulations that can tell you about parts of the situation you may have missed and to infer what might happen soon" (21). The event models we create to make sense of a film draw on information we have accumulated from all sources (Zacks 25). I propose that when we watch an eco-film, our event model enables us to comprehend it, and its story joins all of the other stories and images in our minds to create an elaborate shadow film with both documentary and fictional components.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of climate change and global environmental destruction, deniers like to rely on doctored images to make claims to the contrary. A fine line separates the trickery that makes the photographic and digital arts possible by creating the illusion of three-dimensionality and movement, and the trickery that misrepresents urgent environmental issues. Anyone can create or find pictures to support any view. For the powerful forces invested in preserving the status quo, even limited environmental protections that threaten traditional modes of corporate profit-making provoke fierce opposition. Corporate stakeholders wield political power through lobbying and donations, and, increasingly, they hold government positions. A 2016 study by the Center for American Progress Action Fund found that 34% of American Congress members denied climate change and had been paid over $73 million in contributions by oil, gas, and coal companies. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who famously claimed that climate change is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," has reportedly accepted more than $2 million from the fossil fuel industry (Herzog). The fallout from political inaction means that people have lost their lives in the U.S., China, Nigeria, Ecuador, and Peru, among other countries, because of the oil, gas, and mining industries' toxic practices and attacks on opponents. The propaganda battles fought with images inflame a war with catastrophic consequences.

Even those with noble intentions freely manipulate visual evidence or cause unintended consequences. Environmentalists often hold individuals accountable for the ecological crisis, writes historian Finis Dunaway, obscuring the much greater role of industrial practices and policies put in place by our elected officials: "Deflecting attention from corporate and government responsibility, popular images have instead emphasized the idea that individual Americans are personally culpable for pollution and other environmental problems" (2). Dunaway argues that saturating people with guilt-inducing images in a "moralistic cleanup crusade" has not been an effective way to build a movement for an economic and political overhaul (6).

The environmental wars heated up with the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in 2016 on a platform hostile to environmental regulations. Not surprisingly, he filled his cabinet with corporate leaders and announced American withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement within his first few months in office. Just as quickly the Interior Department redesigned its website to emphasize human use of federal land and water instead of preservation. Stewardship, according to the new website, means "ensuring that these lands are available for recreation, job growth and creation, and responsible energy development." Gone are the extensive photographs of wild animals and glorious landscapes that graced the previous administration's website. Instead Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is center stage on the website's galleries with image after image of him visiting national parks and monuments, riding horses, shaking hands, striding over scrubby terrain, posing with individuals and groups, and giving the thumbs-up. Meanwhile the Environmental Protection Agency eliminated all of the pages on its website documenting the scientific climate change research conducted by previous administrations. Needless to say, conservationists held no hope that the Trump administration would meet environmental challenges successfully.

Effective legislation fails to exist in part because poor people and people of color disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental deterioration. Wealthy white communities avoid the worst consequences of climate change, a temporary privilege of status and money. Journalist and social critic Naomi Klein puts it clearly when she writes that "The reality of an economic order built on white supremacy is the whispered subtext of our entire response to the climate crisis." She goes on to argue that the inequity is not random, but rather "the result of a series of policy decisions that governments of wealthy countries have made—and continue to make—with full knowledge of the facts and in the face of strenuous objections" (Klein "Why"). Klein reports that the far right goes so far as to cast climate-change casualties as desirable by gloating that death and destruction in vulnerable regions strengthen wealthy centers of power ("This Changes" 52). These deniers dismiss the first victims of climate change as troublemakers.

Among the objectors is the Black Lives Matter movement, which argues that inaction on climate change is part of systematic racist policies in the United States. Native Americans lead another protest frontline, as seen in North Dakota where the Standing Rock Sioux occupied land slated for the Dakota Access pipeline to call attention to its desecration of ancestral lands and threat to the Missouri River. In response, the Obama administration enacted a temporary halt to the pipeline's construction, but the Trump administration immediately reversed the decision and allowed the pipeline's completion. Media coverage, however, left indelible images of protesters marching with banners, standing with raised fists, engaging in prayer circles, riding horses, being threatened and attacked by law enforcement with police dogs, and getting shoved into police cars. On Instagram, YouTube, and Vimeo the images gained global currency.

Parched denuded land, vistas of trash, mountains of electronic refuse, putrid toxic waste: the catastrophic consequences of our failure to safeguard life-sustaining ecosystems appear in photographs showing evidence of damage on every continent. These photos at their best can induce us to advocate for radically changed priorities worldwide to protect the environment. They alert us to distant devastated regions and support passionate calls for change, such as Pope Francis's Encyclical on the Environment with its astute comment that "we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor."

Trash pickers in a landfill. [iStock.com/Brasil2] Pollution and garbage surround people's homes. [iStock.com/tbradford]

But photographic evidence of injustice has to compete with the massive number of images inundating us and exhorting us to buy more stuff. Historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote about image glut as early as 1961, noticing that images had superseded reality, that "what dominates American experience today is not reality" (x). To escape this deceptive reality, Boorstin advises us to "disenchant" ourselves, moderate our expectations, and "begin to suspect that there is a world out there, beyond our present or future power to image or to imagine" (260). Boorstin denounced our manufactured realities while acknowledging that they were inevitable given the rapid rise of advertising and public relations.

Now that we cannot return to life without media overabundance, we can assess how a steady diet of images has transformed us. I turn to the example of one of my students, who reported to me after spring break in the middle 1990s that he and a friend had taken a road trip from Rhode Island, where I was teaching at the time, to the Grand Canyon. After arriving late, they spent the night at a campground. Early the next morning they realized that they needed to return home for classes, so at dawn they went to the park's visitor center where they watched a video about the Grand Canyon, then got in their car and drove away. They had not seen the Grand Canyon. My student was unfazed by the substitution of the copy for the original or the fact that he could have watched the same video in his Rhode Island dormitory room.

The last several decades recalibrated our perceptions to a far greater extent than Boorstin could have envisioned. What does this mean for us as spectators, especially as viewers of documentary films that purport to tell us something about reality? Our responses cannot be pure and unadulterated. After all, as film scholar Patricia Aufderheide points out, "Media affect the most expensive real estate of all, that which is inside your head" (5). I ask: how do the images in our heads influence the way we engage with information?

Film scholarship tells us that we watch documentary films differently from fiction films. To understand the difference, film scholar Vivian Sobchack turns to Belgian psychologist Jean-Pierre Meunier's theory of cinematic identification, which suggests that we are most attentive when we watch fiction films because we gain new knowledge as we watch and cannot rely on our own experiences. Meunier observes that we are least attentive when we watch home movies because their images transport us into our own memories of people and events (Sobchack 244). Documentaries, according to Meunier, occupy a midpoint on a spectrum between home movies and fiction films, requiring us to pay close attention but also inviting us to consider what we already know. Nevertheless, these distinctions are flexible, making our identification "fluid, dynamic, and idiosyncratic" (Sobchack 253). I see this fluidity in the way that both documentaries and fiction films transport us into the stories and images they have each previously left in our minds.

In eco-documentaries, we find circumstances made familiar by fiction films, in particular, although not exclusively, genre films, which depend upon audience familiarity with their conventions. Documentaries evoke science fiction with global threats to our survival, horror with disfiguring diseases in humans and animals, detective or courtroom films with attempts to rectify an injustice, westerns with individuals pitted against each other and powerful institutions, and film noir with malevolent forces and convoluted explanations. These generic references contribute to our shadow films. And while we expect documentaries to adhere to facts, our personal shadow films can introduce any number of situations, however extreme, capable of heightening our concern or guiding us toward potential solutions to problems. Far from diminishing a documentary's capacity to move us, its shadow films can strengthen our understanding and intensify our response. [images below moved, due to various heights]

Science fiction depicts dystopian cities. [iStock.com/BertrandB] Westerns set individuals against corrupt institutions. [iStock.com/GaryAlvis]
Courtroom films accentuate the pursuit of justice. [iStock.com/RichLegg] Film noir traps characters in labyrinthine cities and plots. [iStock.com/Diane39]
Horror films raise fears of bodily damage. [iStock.com/Hakaba]

In the following pages I trace how two eco-documentaries— Arid Lands (Grant Aaker and Josh Wallaert, 2007) and Crude (Joe Berlinger, 2009)—reverberate with shadow-film implications by evoking fiction films. Many other films qualify for analysis, sometimes evoking each other even in their titles, as do the documentary Garbage Warrior (Oliver Hodge, 2007) and the fiction film Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981). Both films depict a time in which people scavenge the despoiled Earth, and they center on a resourceful "tragic eco-hero" (Murray and Heumann 91) who uses discarded objects in creative ways while battling hostile forces.  In Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior's chaotic post-nuclear-war world, survivors kill each other over access to scarce fuel. Max, played by the young Mel Gibson, transforms from a cynical loner into an ingenious savior after becoming involved with a rag-tag group of settlers struggling to survive. Garbage Warrior documents the efforts of an actual individual—the American architect Michael Reynolds—to prevent ecological catastrophe by radically redesigning the homes in which we live.These two films illustrate how dramatically the documentary and fiction film modes can correspond. From their combustion comes an energized viewing experience.