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Sustainability on Screen


My tearful daughter clung to me on one side and her nine-year-old brother on the other, as we watched the fires engulf the forest. Bambi’s life is changed forever. That Friday evening, way back in 2000, saw me struggle as a mother to explain man’s wanton destruction of the planet to my two-year-old. Twenty years later, the Australian bushfires today echo that same helplessness as our timelines, WhatsApp accounts and news feeds are flooded with heart wrenching videos of koala and kangaroo babies and their families torn asunder. Bambi as early as 1942 addressed the issue of sustainability of animal life one earth endangered by man’s inroads into their habitats.

Today the Amazon Rainforests, the Great Barrier Reef and the growing deserts of the world tell the story of Mother Earth reeling from the repeated assaults on her by her own children.

How has the film fraternity addressed the challenges of a choosing a sustainable global system and created awareness of crises experienced and yet to be unleashed on this planet?

The Big Picture

Films have a transformative effect on us as audiences since they address multiple issues using drama, emotion and a mix of rationale as appeals. The issues of environmental degradation, excessive industrialisation, a consumption-driven market oriented lifestyle have all been tackled by filmmakers via fiction and non-fiction formats. Often documentaries provide informative insights and people are made aware of issues and strategies while the  dramatisation of such issues through fiction drives home the imperative to action. Both have deep impact on us as we negotiate the terrain of evolving sustainable lifestyles.  

Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio, in 1982, the lyrical documentary, hailed as a visual poem, showcased brilliant natural landscapes juxtaposed with ambitious high-rise structures to underline the silent war being waged by construction on nature  

In a  similar vein, Home  by Yann Arthus-Bertrand in 2009, highlighted humanity and diversity across continents who are all somehow united by the destruction they wrought on their environment.

It is coming up to the 15th anniversary of the film An Inconvenient Truth, which became a clarion call of sorts for climate change activists across the globe. Davis Guggenheim directed and released the film in 2006, even though it is better known as Al Gore’s film.  The issues it dealt gained traction when with it won two Academy awards for Best Documentary Feature and Best Original Song.

Years of Living Dangerously, considered “the most important television series ever made”, won an Emmy in 2014 for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. Co-produced by James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub and Arnold Schwarzenegger for National Geographic, this film involved  Hollywood celebrities, journalists and producers in advocating change.

On contaminants and concealment

The interests of corporations and governments override the interests of the people and the worst affected by unsafe industrial practices involving dangerous chemicals and long term radiation are the workers in such profit driven factories. Communities that might otherwise espouse environment- friendly initiatives will prefer revenue over ethical considerations. Borders and continents don’t exist when it comes to such exploitative strategies.

An Enemy of the People by George Schaefer in 1978  plays with the tension between a tourist plan versus an environment plan to contain contaminants in the Hot Springs in a small town in Norway sees the protagonist trying to convince his hometown to back the latter plan and being ostracized for it.

In India, in 1982, the National award winning Ezhavadhu Manithan (The Seventh Man), the debut Tamil film of K Hariharan, is set against the backdrop of industrial pollution and the harmful impact on factory workers in Tirunelveli and the dramatic confrontation between the workers and factory owners.


Silkwood by Mike Nichols follows in 1983 creating a mystery of a missing whistleblower woman worker who threatens to expose contaminants in a plutonium factory. And as recently as 2015, the documentary on the Chernobyl disaster The Babushkas of Chernobyl echoes the women’s perspective of the far reaching effects of radiation on families


Closer home, Bhopal Express by Mahesh Mathai, made in 1999, 15 years after the infamous gas leak tragedy of 1984, traces the anatomy of a tragic  aftermath of the industrial disaster that left several families dead, diseased, traumatized and impoverished. The lasting chromosomal damage to children of the city cannot be understated. A meagre 2000 dollars were paid as compensation to each family 25 years after by Union Carbide.

Erin Brockovich  by Steven Soderbergh created quite a sensation in 2000. The part environmental film, part biopic, part courtroom drama, reveals the legal battle mounted to force Pacific Gads and electric company to recompense the damages to ground water and health of the community.

Blood in the Mobile by Frank Piasecki Poulsen is hard-hitting, forcing us to confront our complicity in unethical work situations by examining illegal cassiterite mining ( essential for making mobile handsets) in the North-Kivu Province of DR Congo. 

The crime of forgetting our past

The dangers of greed discounting the power of Indigenous communities and their sustainable lifestyle choices and knowledge is slowly being realised by many across the world today. Rainforests, rivers and resources are dying and we suddenly want to restore them all magically.

Avatar made at a whopping $237 million by James Cameron over almost a decade in 2009 is a powerful  plea for environmental protection and respect for indigenous lands. While the world gasped at the wonders of Pandora and the spectacular visuals as the fight against the Resources Development Administration RDA), we in India were struck by the parallels in a documentary that showed similar  struggles. 

Mahua Memoirs by Vinod Raja in 2015 makes an appeal through a bard, a young girl and a tribal movement as the tribal communities of six states of India in the mining belt get into  a head-to-head confrontation with Vedanta Mining, the local police and corrupt politicians. Winning the Best Resistance documentary was the least of its success and the filmmaker rejoined more when the protagonists won a stay order on all mining from the highest court in the land .

I cannot give you my Forest by Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl in the same year, displays the sentimental and filial attachment to the forest and land of the Khond tribes in Nyamgiri, using a poetic framework to appeal to its audiences.

Fern Gully draws our attention to the  the last of Australia’s rainforests by pitting  loggers—again against a magical, unseen world that lives deep within the woods. Ostensibly a children’s film, the world of Crysta and the fairies to celebrate the rainforests is as relevant as it was in 1992 when the film released.

Furious floods, fading forests, famines and droughts

Alarmists and activists are blamed for raising unnecessary warnings regarding climate change and the youngest of them, Greta Thunberg, was even taunted by not less than the President of the United States as a whinerHowever, we cannot be like ostriches and bury our heads in the and in denial of the effects of climate change in our times. Rising sea levels, recurrent floods, regular tsunamis, earthquakes under the sea and on land, raging forest fires and disappearing coast and islands  are an undeniable reality.

The Decade of Destruction by Adrian Cowell, produced by PBS, chronicles the devastation wrought by the systematic exploitation of the Amazonian rainforests and the resulting global repercussions. 

2012 warned us of a Biblical deluge in 2009, five years after the tsunami hit Asian coasts and we were slowly limping back to a semblance of normalcy. That the Indian scientist who forewarned the powers that be of the pending disaster perishes is a testimony to the blind eye and deaf ear sustainability activists face in their work.

H2Woe India’s water crisis  a short news feature by RT and TV Novosti in 2016, focuses on the drying up of water tables and the slow but surely deteriorating  water situation in India

Soylent Green by Richard Fleischer in 1973 is set in 2020 ironically shows no real food available in a dystopian New York City and people queuing up for supplies of a food substitute. Eerily, we see media  reports today of micro plastics in our sea food and even salt and also plastic rice, artificial vegetables and so on.


Food Inc. by Robert Kenner won an Emmy in 2008 and focuses on the aggressive, intensive farming and transgenic method used by the American food system and industry spreading throughout the world unmindful of consequences.

In contrast, Horn of Africa; Famine Fault lines and What causes famine in Africa?, both by Al Jazeera in 2011, laments the collective failure to fix a broken continent that grapples with famine, drought and starvation stalked by disease and death. All man-made and completely avoidable.

Changing course

Are we then, as a race, doomed?  Do we either abandon Earth or learn to struggle in a post apocalyptic world that seems more and more real and imminent? Not really.  

Princess Mononoke  by anime master Hayao Miyazaki in 1997, set in the 14th century, is a dramatic presentation of the struggle to reconnect with nature and animal life by the human race led by the Princess

Waterworld (1995) features a post apocalyptic world after polar ice caps melting in a submerged world chasing ‘Dryland’ through the vision of the  woman Enola .

Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), the romance between a trash cleaning robot and a reconnaissance femalebot leads to a mutiny to restart and save life on earth. That humans have abandoned the earth with the  overflowing trash of consumption 

An Endless Revolution, a film I made as a training manual featuring case studies of Diversified Alternative Farming Techniques (DAFT) in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, documents the use of bio inputs, natural pest repellants and vermicomposting to transform agriculture and our food chain as a result. Commissioned by Oxfam such nature-centric  initiatives to empower small and marginal farmers in South Asia have resulted in a shift in farming strategies that will yield better soil fertility and alleviate the food security crisis that looms large.

The 11th Hour  by Leila Conners & Nadia Conners in 2007, narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, encourages us to seize the initiative toward sustainability and reject destructive ways.

Mad max: Road to Fury by George Miller in 2015 has a climax of the liberated fleeing women carrying seeds in their pouches after throwing off the yoke of domination by the men hell-bent on destruction. It is left to us to imagine that they will lead the regeneration of life in a peaceful world.

The Seed Keepers by Farida Pacha (funded by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, India) echoes this through portraits of the rural women of Andhra who safeguard our ‘seeds’ for the food security of future generations.

Tomorrow/Demain,  the French documentary by Cyril Dion and Melanie Laurent, made in 2015, exhibits the shades of optimism in the face of catastrophe as we traverse.

Minimalism showcases the  dimensions of a ‘simple’ life  and the truly important things by making us journey with men and women from all backgrounds – families, entrepreneurs, architects, artists, journalists, scientists, and even a former Wall Street broker – all of whom are striving to live a life of conscious consumption.

Catching the Sun by Shalini Kantayya made its public debut on Earth Day 2016 , and it follows diverse actors in the race to new energy solutions and counters the narrative that we need to sacrifice economic prosperity for clean energy.

The boy who harnessed the wind is the heartening true story of boy who saves a village in Malawi from famine and offers hope and lessons out of the mouths of babes. 

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk in 2017, follows Al Gore, this time not as a doomsday prophet by as a chronicler of positive change tracking initiatives, interventions, inventions invested by climate change activists and revolutionaries across the globe.

Middle Earth: the fight to save the Amazon’s soul, a short feature by The Guardian in 2019, depicts the image of tribal women celebrating the victory of the legal battle led by Nemonte Nenquimo and other representatives of the Waorani people fighting the illegality of selling their lands to oil companies in  April 2019 are small steps to success.

Harnessing female energy, overpowering love for the planet and a conscious determined effort at relearning to live in harmony with nature will show us the way forward as shown through these films.

Realistic, nuanced narratives of change and the potential to turn around our ‘fate’ is the true contribution of the concerned among the film fraternity. In equal parts warning and hope, the films on sustainability scare us, make us think, and hopefully will spur us into action.

This is by no means an exhaustive look at films that have created a space for discourse on the diverse subjects related to sustainability. However, it is a good start to get the conversation going around issues that affect all of us going on screen. 

That two year old is now a young woman of 22, pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Economic Policy, who seeks to frame policies that are cognizant of the challenges faced by developing nations as they counter the decades of the lopsided vision of development.

The cameras and microphones will be waiting to record for posterity how this generation responded to the threats of extinction of the third rock from the sun.

Individuals, Institutions, Corporations, Governments, Private and Political  – all need to come together to form partnerships in this life-sustaining enterprise that could mean the difference between life and death on Earth.  Literally.

Key sustainability issues

Climate change
Food production
Water scarcity
Changing demographics
The global development agenda
Inequality and global equity
2030 Sustainability Development Goals
No poverty
Zero hunger
Good health and well-being
Quality education
Gender equality
Clean Water and sanitation
Affordable and clean energy
Decent work and economic growth
Reduced inequalities
Sustainable cities and communities
Responsible consumption and production
Climate action
Life below water
Life on land
Peace, justice and strong institutions
Partnership for the goals
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