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Earth Day Viewing: Suggestions and Strategies

from "The Frozen Planet" (photo credit: © BBC/Discovery Channel)

No question that the period around Earth Day represents the perfect opportunity for trotting out some engaging nonfiction media. But I beg of you, please, as tempting as it may be, let’s not forget that the use of media allows us to address a range of topics and literacies beyond those suggested by the content itself. A relatively simple way of enriching instruction might begin with noting the overlap between what are generically called “nature videos” and other genres, curricular areas, and, of course, media literacy objectives.

So with this in mind, let’s take a look at some recommended recent releases on DVD and Blu-ray. Possible avenues inquiry of appear in italics.

On the surface, Jane’s Journey might seem like the perfect antidote to Chimpanzee, which is now in theaters (and of which I was highly critical). Actually, though, it’s for a much older audience, and covers ground far beyond the chimps of Tanzania, thoughtfully chronicling Jane Goodall’s environmentalism (and community-based initiatives) for the past quarter century. As the title implies, it’s actually both a biography and a travelogue, and employs narrative strategies from both genres. How does the film alternate between the message and the messenger, and how does each strand “strengthen” the other? How does narrowing environmentalism to a spotlight on an individual humanize issues and make them more accessible? How does the presence of movie star Angelina Jolie in a brief segment (and a longer interview on the DVD) add a bit of “glamour” to the proceedings, and is it appropriate? Why or why not?

Frozen Planet follows in the tradition of Planet Earth and The Blue Planet by presenting jaw-dropping visuals captured via state-of-the-art tech. And the Blu-ray, released last week , ups the eye-candy factor even more. From an educational perspective, though, what really sets an informational text like this apart are the seven “making-of” featurettes presented after each episode. As with earlier BBC productions, these behind-the-scenes segments show the both the labor and the decision-making that goes into the finished product, and so are quite valuable in terms of teaching “production”—because, remember, media literacy also encompasses how messages are made, not just their values and intentions. How is “drama” created or sustained in the presentation and/or narration of events? Although legendary naturalist David Attenborough no longer acts as producer or writer on such series, he’s still onscreen and narrates—so how does his presence and participation signify prestige and credibility?

An unequivocally great film for a school or library screening, Anna Sofia Joanes’s Fresh continues a train of thought found in the documentary Food, Inc. and the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and in fact features author Michael Pollan as one of its talking heads. As such, this effective persuasive text falls within what can be termed the “activist doc” subgenre.  Yet its approach is much less strident (and far more upbeat) than many others, although it does provide the standard call-to-action at the ending that seeks to get audiences involved in its cause. In this way, then, Fresh’s profiles of individuals such as urban farmer and MacArthur recipient Will Allen and celebrated master of sustainable farming Joel Salatin are not meant simply to enlighten us, but to inspire. But which voices are not included in the documentary? Also, in many ways the film’s structure mirrors that of a problem-solution essay—but does it do a good job of providing evidence for its argument, or is most of that evidence too “anecdotal”? Finally, when a documentary clearly advocates changes in behavior or consumption, in essence making its biases transparent, does it gain credibility with you? Why or why not?

While Bag It is also an activist documentary, it doubles as a first-person or personality-driven investigative report. This means that it happens to function as a personal narrative or video memoir of narrator’s Jeb Berrier’s efforts to learn more about the multiple health and environmental hazards posed by plastic. And this in turn means that the informational and persuasive aspects of the doc are interrupted (or “supplemented by,” depending on your take) by things as frivolous as some mild off-color humor and as serious as the birth of his first child. Does Berrier’s personality and direct address of the camera make the material more human-scale, as in a biography? Or does it represent a reach into another genre such as comedy? Do the jokes that appear periodically undermine the film’s credibility by changing the tone, or do they ease the delivery of what is often a very grim message? Check out the innovative packaging of the DVD—how does the medium (or at least its container) perfectly fit the message in this case?

Bhopali is easily the most bracing—make that most heartbreaking—documentary on this list. However, it’s also one which you will need to think about before screening for younger children, given that much of it is in Hindi, and yes, corpses are shown in still photographs. A winner at Sundance, the meticulously constructed Bhopali covers the ongoing (yes, ongoing) tragedy of the Union Carbide gas leak of 1984, and as such is a history—in fact, a gripping one. As such, how does it make clear or convincing use of primary source texts (both print documents and original footage), oral histories of survivors, and reenactments? Regarding the latter, does the artful animated sequence represent a mostly neutral, or highly biased, portrayal of the facts? Why? Since much of the documentary concerns legal and political responses to the disaster, to what degree is the study of the environment inherently cross-curricular? What is lost when we try to address Earth Day and what it stands for from the context of a single discipline?

Certainly there are other titles that deserve inclusion on a list like this, but these are the ones that both made an impression on me, or have a tremendous amount of teaching-and-learning potential, or, in most cases, both. The point is, Earth Day isn’t just for showing pretty landscapes and exotic animals—after all, when we fully accept such images in place of the real, or they function merely as a form of entertainment, that means it’s already too late for the planet we’re ostensibly celebrating.

About Peter Gutierrez