Charles Musser on the environmental documentary

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Charles Musser is a filmmaker, film historian, and professor of American Studies, Film Studies, and Theater Studies at Yale University. Musser sees documentaries as important drivers of social and political change, and environmental issues as some of the most pressing of our time. He is the author of “Trauma, Truth and the Environmental Documentary;” recently reviewed Merchants of Doubt, a documentary about climate skeptics; and currently teaches the course “Documentary and the Environment” at Yale.

In this interview, he explains how the environmental documentary came to be, tells us what makes the genre so important, and shares some of his favorites.

You began working on documentaries early in your career, and though you’ve collaborated on fiction feature films, your body of work shows mostly non-fiction documentary pieces. What drew you to the medium in the first place? How do you see the intersection between the arts and activism, specifically in the realm of documentary film? 

I started off by designing posters for the Yale Film Society and then became one of their projectionists.  So I watched a lot of films and then one day someone suggested that one could not only watch them—one could make them.  A radical idea, but I tried it. Like a lot of 20 year olds, I aspired to be a director of feature fiction films. After all, in the 1970s we all agreed that cinema was the art form of the 20th century and the ideal mode for personal expression.  But many of us were also interested in making films that would have a political impact.  And there was this idea of a trajectory that goes from making documentaries to making fiction films.  It didn’t take me long to realize that documentary filmmakers had a special passport to the world. Find a topic and then make a documentary about it.  You can go places and ask questions that you could never do otherwise. If you are curious about the world, it might be the perfect profession.

My first professional documentary was An American Potter (1976), a 35-minute short about studio potter Gerry Williams.  There is a way in which crafts and environmentalism are linked, particularly so in the 1970s.  The film is very much concerned about our relationship to the land and the environment.  Lots of people wanted to be potters in the 1970s.  Their counterparts today are organic farmers.  It is the same mind set, the same desire to be connected to the land and act in a progressive way.

There is a big emphasis these days on linking documentaries to activism—to getting films out and reaching audiences in a way that will have an impact. It is often easier said than done.  Hearts and Minds was made in a spirit of activism, but it was released after the Vietnam War was over. As an effort to grapple with what the war had done to the United States as well as what we had done to Vietnam, its influence or its activism has been more indirect.  There was a theatrical re-release when the Iraq War was in full swing, but even then the film’s prescience was already too late.

The genre of Environmental Documentary specifically has become more prevalent in the last few years. Why do you think that is? What makes the genre different from other documentary genres?

When something is happening that is politically, socially or culturally interesting and important, people are going to be making documentaries on the subject.

I don’t think there is a more important topic these days than climate change and the future of our world environmentally speaking.

What is worth noting, I think, is that the emergence of the environmental documentary as a vibrant genre has coincided with the emergence of digital media for production, post-production and exhibition.  This has completely changed the way that documentaries are made.  They generally cost much less, so there are many more of them and they tend to be more ambitious.

In short, documentary has undergone this amazing Renaissance.  As a result of these developments there is a large network of film festivals devoted to this subject.  And we are lucky to have one of the best right here in New Haven—the Environmental Film Festival at Yale which happens every April.  So there is a convergence of factors that make the environmental documentary special.

What are some of the environmental documentaries that have resonated most powerfully with you? Are there elements of a documentary that make it effective in driving tangible change? 

It would be a challenge to come up with my top 10.  And it is worth noting that some of the very early environmental documentaries such as Pare Lorentz’s The River (1937) advocate for building dams in a way that we now see as destructive to the environment.  Today’s environmental movement wants to tear down dams, not build them.  So right now I am interested in this documentary made by a group of Yale graduate students back in 1972.  It is called The Flooding River.  This remarkable 30-minute film was made as the state was planning to build another 300 dams on the Connecticut River.  As a result of the film and the activism around it, none of these proposed dams were built.

There is a whole group of environmental documentaries about food which I like a lot and have gone out of my way to see again and again, including Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2001), Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis’s King Corn (2007), and Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. (2009).  I am a devoted fan of Judith Helfand:  she is really the Queen of environmental documentaries, having made A Healthy Baby Girl (1997), and then Blue Vinyl (2002) and Everythings Cool (2007) with Daniel Gold.

Then, of course, there is the landmark documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006). There are some problems with that film in that it politicized the climate change debate and made it a Democratic issue.  But it also had a big impact on the broader culture. It was a key turning point.  After that film the environmental documentary really took off.

Did a specific documentary or movie lead you to begin teaching Documentary and the Environment in 2012? If not (or, in addition), what drew you to begin teaching the class at that time, or at all?

I’d been thinking of teaching a course on documentary and the environment for a while.  I did a conference paper on this wave of documentaries that were at Sundance Film Festival at the very moment that Barack Obama was being inaugurated as our 44th president —Documentaries such as The Cove (2009) and Food Inc.   It was for a book I was calling Truth and Documentary in the Age of George W. Bush, which may or may not ever get finished.  EFFY [the Environmental Film Festival at Yale] was getting started—I had been on its jury in 2009.  It just seemed to me where the action was—the interesting and important questions.

Teaching the course for the first time was a little bit like jumping off a cliff.  I didn’t know what would happen.  I was pretty scared and came across as somewhat tentative to students.  I taught it as a seminar and brought in some outside experts on our topics—Flo Stone, who founded the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital (one of the oldest, largest and most prestigious film festivals of its kind) and a couple of faculty from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. I continued to learn from the course over the next two years. Then I decided to teach it again as a lecture course. It was exhausting but also pretty exhilarating.

How has teaching a class on Documentary and The Environment changed the way you see your personal role in environmental activism/sustainability initiatives? 

photo courtesy of Charles MusserIn teaching the course Documentary and the Environment, I certainly have come to feel more connected to the issues, particular through my students.  A number of them have been quite active around environmental issues on campus.  I’d like to think the course has made a significant difference for at least some of the students.  A few of them have become interested in making environmental documentaries, and a number of environmental documentaries have been made in my regular course Documentary Film Workshop. So there has been a feedback loop there.  Thinking through the issues in my critical studies class makes me a better teacher with these young filmmakers—and vice versa.

I don’t own a car.  I walk or bike to work.  We compost. These are, I recognize, very modest and in many ways insufficient gestures. At best you might characterize me as a fellow traveler.

More Charles Musser:

Read his biography

Visit his website

On history & film:  On the Creative Side: A History of Film and Media Production Courses at Yale

Film at Yale

 Yale Summer Film Institute

 Environmental Film Festival at Yale

 Yale Film Society

Looking for more films to watch?

Go back and scan the interview for links to mentioned films!