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Environmental ethos

CINE Festival focuses on the nature of energy


The Montana CINE International Film Festival raises its curtains to a whole new set of environmental and cultural documentaries this week. This year, a hearty portion of the films focus on people who are affected in some way by energy issues—whether alternative or old-school extractive. Others float broadly under CINE’s general banner of being about cultures and/or issues of nature and the environment. Here’s a sampler platter of what you might expect to see: cornered crustaceans, rabbit skullduggery, toxic trash, and all.

Daniel and Our Cats

I found this one very off-putting at first. The first 10 or 15 minutes essentially watch like an E! piece on a French supermodel who falls in love with a horse whisperer and settles down on his self-styled big cat refuge on the edge of the Namib Desert. A bit hard to swallow as serious documentary, not least because the camera rarely breaks from Daniel’s gorgeous wife, Catherine, as she stage-manages her grief for the actual reenactment, not so innocently upstaging Daniel and the cats. Little spritzes of foreshadowing and Catherine’s consistent use of the past tense indicate that the Karen Blitzen/Christy Turlington fantasia will not last, but even so, it took the word “tragedy” to rouse my interest. Really, what tragedy? Anthropologie won’t FedEx to Namibia?

The idyll does end unhappily after a chain of unfortunate events, and ultimately Catherine is the one affected by personal tragedy. But the viewer never really gets a feel for her tragedy, and in the end it becomes, as my wife observed, an oddly unemotional one.

The Crayfish in the Jam Jar
How many wildlife documentaries can you think of that don’t adhere to this basic scheme: Show some awesome species or ecosystem. Show how humans are somehow screwing it up. Offer glimmer of hope and vague call to action at the end. Nature documentaries, as a genre, are as predictable in their trajectory as the real-life events they describe are depressing in their likely outcomes. They differ only in the particulars of scale and scope.

The Crayfish in the Jam Jar confines itself to one 45-mile-long river in Bavaria, yet reinforces the old adage that it’s possible to see the whole world without ever leaving your own backyard. The sluggish, winding Isel in this film’s narration is full of the small comings and goings of coots and curlews, peawits and plovers, the mating of damselflies and the nibbling of muskrats as observed by a 60-year-old man who never left the place of his childhood.

And, of course, it’s under attack. As a consequence of Germany’s alternative energy mania, farmers receiving government subsidies are putting more of the surrounding land under corn cultivation and filling the river with coffee-brown runoff. New bird species are moving in thanks to climate change. Eels abound.

It’s the usual story. What The Crayfish in the Jam Jar has going for it is its smallness, the mist-shrouded beauty of the valley and some excellent slow-motion cinematography. Damselflies look like great flapping ravens, frogs look like athletes in Leni Riefenstahl’s movies, and a snorkeler coming up for air makes a far more convincing water monster than the Kraken in Clash of the Titans.

Calici: A Rural Conspiracy
Fascinating cloak-and-dagger stuff from New Zealand’s South Island, circa 1997, when an explosion of rabbits gave rise to an agrarian guerrilla campaign to infect the animals with a rabbit-killing virus banned by the New Zealand government. Faced with the loss of their livelihood, the farmers simply took matters into their own hands and started propagating the calici virus using food processors and plastic soda bottles, quite unconcerned about the potential human health risks. They just did what they had to do, say the participants, who describe anonymous calls in the night informing them of secret drop-off locations. Animal husbandry at its most exciting! 

Burning the Future: Coal in America

The title hints at a broad view of fossil fuel extraction and consumption, but the makers of this doc focus instead on a relatively small part of the United States affected by coal extraction in a very big way: the people who live, work and send their kids to school in the toxic shadow of mountaintop mining. Millions of acres of woodland in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky have been despoiled by the practice, in which the tops are literally blasted off of mountains as a cost-saving way to get at the coal seams. The rubble is later sculpted with bulldozers into simulated mountains, which contribute to massive flooding and infiltrate groundwater with noxious black discharge.

These are extremely poor people, many of whom have lived in the same houses and worked in the mines for generations. Very religious, too: One miner dates the coal seams to Noah and the floods and claims God put it there for people to use, while the antis counter that God never said anything  about atomizing His mountaintops to get at it.

Burning the Future is an engaging look at consensus and rationalization, as well as a sad retelling of a familiar tale: Where there are extractive industries, there are poor people taking it in the shorts. At one point, on a mission to present their case at the United Nations, one waitress-turned-activist looks aghast at the lights of Times Square, shouting vainly at New Yorkers that it’s killing West Virginians. Powerful stuff!


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