In the first of a series on the contribution of eco documentaries to public debate, editorialist Sandrine Lage, shares her research, carried out at Sorbonne University, involving French spectators and the French media.

‘The documentary has well succeeded where we, as scientists, have failed: it has inserted the climate problematic in the public sphere’,

declares Benjamin Santer, a former member of the IPCC2.

Understanding how and why documentary contributes to creating a frame for discussion and lets the argument on ecology take root in the public debate is the purpose of this set of four articles. This first approach will focus on the hypothesis defended by multiple researchers: in the next decades, the adoption and expansion of the ecological consciousness will occur through documentaries.

As a matter of fact, when the socio-economic context becomes more difficult, in general, the public tend to lose interest in topics like ecology (and the media, probably worried about its audience’s preferences, follows the trend). This became more significant in the context of the current crisis, which saw the collapse of the stock markets, the closure of banks and the transformation of consumer goods into luxury items, as well as multiple layoffs. This loss of interest in the subject of “ecology” can be explained by a combination of factors, including the disappointment caused by the Copenhagen Summit. Instead of leading to the signing of a new global climate treaty, it has resulted in a non-binding agreement with no exterior linkage to the United Nations.

Cinema benefits from a recall rate of 75%, against 15% for TV, 11% for internet, 10% for magazines and 5% for radio

But it is not only the crisis that is the origin of the indifference to the subject of ecology: according to several reports, the absence of “leading voices” may lead to the disappearance of the issue from the media. That is why there is a need for the presence of ambassadors, who can attract the attention of the media and the public to the issue of ecology – like the economist Nicholas Stern and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Indeed, as underlined by Joanne Parsont, Director of Education at the San Francisco Film Society: “In the era of Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary – An inconvenient Truth – climate change became mainstream.” The trend was echoed in France because the voices that were heard in the documentaries were those of mediatized figures such as “star photographer” Yann Arthus-Bertrand, and Nicolas Hulot. In 2011, Hulot was identified as being one of the French celebrities, as well as “most popular ecologist in the country” by the newspaper Le Point. Both these popular figures are “inseparable” from the documentary they were respectively featured in: Home (by Arthus-Bertrand, 2009, France) for Arthus-Bertrand, and The Titanic Syndrome (by Jean-Albert Lièvre, 2009, France) for Nicolas Hulot.

In fact, according to Sheldon Lu, author of Chinese Ecocinema: In the Age of Environmental Challenge, what is expected from the authors of films of eco-cinema is “to mobilize the audience to act at the level of their ecological consciousness”. Lu moreover believes that “in the coming decades, films will be one of the first channels through which countries will adopt and expand their ecological awareness”. As explained by his co-author, Yingjin Zhang: “Ecological cinema establishes this seventh art as a vital strength within the re-negotiation of the fractured relations between nature, history, technology and culture, acting towards the finding of an ideal common place of ‘Planetarism’”.

Furthermore, cinema (as opposed to television or the press) is recognized to be one of the most powerful communication tools among the media (when the viewing occurs in theatres), since the big screen requires all our attention and does not allow interruptions during viewing.

According to Quattro Saatchi, Brussels (2003), cinema benefits from a recall rate of 75%, against 15% for TV, 11% for internet, 10% for magazines and 5% for radio.

There is a sociological point of view that argues that the movement of eco-cinema is but a regroupment of commercial forces for the exclusive benefit of consumption. All the same, whether the public are only motivated by consumerism or not, the fact that a narrative procedure is developed that is assimilated by the widest audiences has to be acknowledged. There has been a change in cinematic subject matter towards ecological issues.

Ecology has become central in our society, and since 2000 it has had a remarkable presence in our daily lives. It “lives” in the concrete of our lives, the culture of the time, as well as in individual and collective subjectivities. We can’t live a single day without a reference to this reality and without admitting its global effects. Ecology has become a casual topic of conversation and part of the daily activities of individuals and professionals who, until recently, were not concerned about the subject. While awareness regarding the subject of ecology is undeniable in political, academic, intellectual, artistic and religious circles, it seems to have contributed more to its trivialization than to its theoretical and pragmatic evolution: “Triviality does not refer to the degrading process by which ideas lose value as they circulate but the enriching journey by which individuals ‘recreate them’ as they make ‘intellectual beings’ theirs””, Adeline Wrona, Dans la mêlée: ce que la société fait aux idées.

In the next decades, the adoption and expansion of the ecological consciousness will occur through documentaries.

Still, there is no doubt that the ecological topic is henceforth discussed in progressive governments, in international scientific conferences, in articles, in books, as well as within artistic productions. Undeniably, the ecological debate is present in the public sphere even if the general representation of lifestyles still remains far from being considered sustainable, and continues resisting and exposing unsustainable behaviors as “normal” and “natural”. In fact, the audience reached by fiction films remains significant, especially with respect to Hollywood, where fiction films are made at a crossroads between ecology, cinema and pedagogy and are using the same device to promote sustainable lifestyles.

In France, several initiatives point in this direction, where educational kits associated with ecological films and Film Festivals linked to ecology have been developed.

And France, recognized as one of the countries with the most diverse range of provision in theatres, encourages cinephilia in schools as a way to develop the critical skills of children and young people. For instance, the operation École et cinéma, brainchild of Perrine Boutin, lecturer in Pictural Mediation,

combines the experience of mediating young audiences and their engagement in environmental associations. The project – which is developed by the association Les enfants du cinéma – aims at developing the young audiences’ taste for theatre. Such initiatives contribute to the fact that cinema – here meaning fiction films and creative documentaries – prevails as one of the most widely shared cultural practices in terms of attendance and audience and is invested in our daily conversations.

According to a report produced by Nielsen and Oxford University in July 2007 as the conclusion of a survey conducted online in 47 countries via the internet, 67% of the viewers that claimed to have seen An Inconvenient Truth stated that the documentary has “changed their mind” about global warming, and 89% said that watching the film made them more aware of the problem. Three out of four spectators (75%) claimed having changed some of their habits after viewing this documentary.

It is in this context that cinema presents itself as a valuable tool to communicate new values and capable of using emotion to raise public awareness.

In the first decade of 2000 multiple documentaries on the topic of ecology emerged. We will comment on this emergence in our next article: Is documentary the privileged genre of eco-cinema? _


Directed by Davis Guggenheim,

USA, 2006, 97 minutes


Directed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand,

France, 2009, 120 minutes


Directed by Nicolas Hulot, Jean-Albert Lièvre,

France, 2009, 93 minutes


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