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The world is ending.
“Post-apocalyptic” is a term we usually reserve for elaborately conceived, nightmarish fiction cinema. Mad Max, Waterworld and Planet of the Apes all come to mind. Post-apocalyptic nonfiction, on the other hand, sounds like an impossibility. The world still exists, after all. Society has yet to completely collapse. Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner still wear normal clothes.
Yet we live in a collapsing ecosystem. Global climate change has unleashed dramatic and devastating weather events. Seas are drying up, methane is springing up from the ice in the Arctic, and countless species are going extinct. We’ve known this for some time now, and it’s already had an impact on nonfiction cinema. The wave of environmentally motivated films did not crest with An Inconvenient Truth, nor The Cove three years later. It’s become difficult to imagine a documentary landscape without these targeted pleas for environmental awareness.
That said, none of these can really be called apocalyptic. They do frequently include a lot of doom and gloom, but there is always a third-act pivot toward solutions. All is not lost; here is what we can do to save the planet; here is where to donate. And occasionally, here is an uplifting song that may find its way to the Oscars. Some of these films are worthwhile, in spite of their lack of artistic ambition.
Take Racing Extinction, the new film from The Cove director Louie Psihoyos, as an example. Its subject is the coming Sixth Extinction, the first of its kind to be caused by human behavior. To illustrate this catastrophe, Psiyohos uses some astonishing sounds and images. The final chirps of the world’s only remaining Kaua’i O’o are particularly compelling, singing his unique melody for a mate that will never come. But by the third act of the film these touchstones of loss make way for a determined appeal, mostly taking the form of awareness-raising efforts designed to energize the public and thereby fix the problem.
The films of Hubert Sauper are not so optimistic. They aren’t even documentaries, a term that Sauper himself rejects. “It is a very ugly word,” he says in an interview with Nonfics’s Jamie Maleszka. “It comes from document and proof and a rational delivery of information usually from groups without power to groups with power.” The assertion of objectivity and its agreement with preconceived notions of power, that Western philanthropy can solve the world’s problems, is dishonest even when it’s endorsed by someone as articulate and well-meaning as George Clooney. Sauper’s two feature films dive into the economic, political and environmental realities of two different African nations. Yet they are not documentaries, at least not in the conventional sense.
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