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The Ultimate Earth Day Watchlist: 30 Must-See Documentary Films from the Sundance Vaults

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“An Inconvenient Truth” premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and went on to win the Oscars for Best Documentary Feature and Best Original Song.

By Virginia Yapp

On April 22, 1970, a group of activists and politicians banded together to plan a nationwide event with the intent of promoting world peace and honoring the wonder and majesty of the planet we call home. More than 20 million people participated in that inaugural Earth Day in the U.S., and in the years that have followed, Earth Day has fittingly gone global — in fact, an estimated 100 million people celebrated the holiday last year.

The story of that first-ever Earth Day and the movement it spawned was told by filmmaker Robert Stone in his 2009 Sundance Film Festival documentary Earth Days, and it’s just one of the powerful, change-making documentaries that has premiered in Park City over the years. Today, as we commemorate the 51st annual Earth Day, we’re digging into the Sundance vaults to bring you 30 true stories that should remind us all of our collective responsibility to Mother Earth and the flora and fauna we share her with.

Read on to learn more about the films and see where they’re streaming.


ABOVE ALL ELSE

John Fiege’s 2014 doc — a 2015 release through the Sundance Institute’s #ArtistServices program — delves into a retired high-wire artist’s fight to keep the Keystone Pipeline from crossing his land in rural East Texas. [WATCH NOW]

A FIERCE GREEN FIRE

Narrated by Sundance Institute founder and president Robert Redford along with Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende, and Meryl Streep, director Mark Kitchell’s exploration of the environmental movement looks at 50 years of global activism and the battle for a living planet. A Fierce Green Fire received two Documentary Film Program Grants and premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. [WATCH NOW]

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

Extreme poverty, intractable wars, virulent disease, hatred of all stripes — these are a few of the scourges we live with today. And yet global climate change trumps them all; for if it’s not addressed, all life on the planet will be devastated, regardless of geography, class, race, or creed. Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 Festival feature An Inconvenient Truth is the gripping story of former vice president Al Gore, who became interested in this startling issue while at college and now devotes his life to reversing global warming. [WATCH NOW]

AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER

A decade after An Inconvenient Truth brought climate change into the heart of popular culture, filmmakers Bonnie Cohen and John Schenk brought a riveting and rousing follow-up to Park City. In the sequel, Al Gore continues his tireless fight, traveling around the world training an army of climate champions and influencing international climate policy. [WATCH NOW]

A RIVER CHANGES COURSE

In her feature directorial debut, Kalyanee Mam explored the damage rapid development has wrought in her native Cambodia. No longer able to provide for their families, and often accruing massive debt as a result, many Cambodians have been forced to leave their rural lives behind to seek employment in the industrial factories of Phnom Penh. Following her subjects for more than two years, Mam achieves a profound intimacy with them as they confront these challenges in this stunningly shot vérité portrait. [WATCH NOW]

CHASING CORAL

Coral reefs are the nursery for all life in the oceans, a remarkable ecosystem that sustains us. Yet with carbon emissions warming the seas, a phenomenon called “coral bleaching” — a sign of mass coral death — has been accelerating around the world, and the public has no idea of the scale or implication of the catastrophe silently raging underwater. Jeff Orlowski’s documentary won the Audience Award: U.S. Documentary at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. [WATCH NOW]

CHASING ICE

In 2013, Orlowski brought his debut feature documentary, Chasing Ice, to Park City. With the project, the filmmaker tells the story of a visionary artist who, in facing his own mortality, bequeaths the magic of photography and the adventure of the expedition to a new generation and captures the most visible sign of climate change on the planet today. [WATCH NOW]

CLIMATE REFUGEES

Before bringing his film to the 2010 Festival, Michael Nash spent two years traversing the globe, visiting regions where rising sea levels are threatening millions of people’s survival. Strong visuals and potent testimony from the victims of climate change, politicians, scientists, relief organizations, and authors help sound the alarm for instituting new policies and working together to create solutions to cope with this imminent crisis. [WATCH NOW]

CRUDE

Can 30,000 plaintiffs from five Indigenous Ecuadoran tribes find justice from Chevron, one of the world’s largest oil producers? Who is responsible for the unconscionable dumping of 18 billion gallons of toxic oil waste in the Ecuadoran Amazon, poisoning the most biodiverse place on the planet? Joe Berlinger’s 2009 Festival doc picks up the thread of the infamous “Amazon Chernobyl” case, a 13-year-old battle between communities nearly destroyed by oil drilling and development and one of the biggest companies on earth. [WATCH NOW]

THE DEVIL WE KNOW

In 1945, DuPont introduced Teflon to the marketplace and changed millions of American households. Today, a biopersistent chemical used in the creation of those products is in the bloodstream of 99% of all Americans. A compelling and ultimately terrifying watch that will make you question everything in your kitchen, Stephanie Soechtig’s 2018 film The Devil We Know comprehensively lays out the history of the DuPont corporation’s use of the chemical C8, examines its environmental and health impact, and celebrates the everyday whistleblowers and fact finders who helped bring this crisis to the public’s attention. [WATCH NOW]

DIRT! THE MOVIE

Inspired by William Bryant Logan’s book Dirt, the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, with their 2009 film, Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow employ a colorful combination of animation, vignettes, and personal accounts from farmers, physicists, church leaders, children, wine critics, anthropologists, and activists to learn about dirt — where it comes from, how we regard (or disregard) it, how it sustains us, the way it has become endangered, and what we can do about it. [WATCH NOW]

EARTH DAYS

Robert Stone concocts an inspiring and hopeful work in Earth Days, a 2009 documentary that recounts the history of the modern environmental movement from its beginnings five decades ago. Environmental activism really began with the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and precipitated an unexpected and galvanizing effect on the national psyche. [WATCH NOW]

ECOLOGICAL DESIGN: INVENTING THE FUTURE

The changing nature of architecture and design is comprehensively explored in Brian Danitz’s 1995 treatise on the emergence of ecological design in the 20th century. Beginning with pioneers like R. Buckminster Fuller in the 1920s, the film examines the ideas and prototypes of iconoclastic thinkers who have trailblazed the development of sustainable architecture in cities, energy systems, transports, and industry. [WATCH NOW]

EVERYTHING’S COOL

Against a distinctly American backdrop of denial, deception, and delay, a group of global-warming messengers/prophets fervently searches for the right language and strategy to propel a reluctant, disaster-fatigued citizenry and its elected officials into action. Daniel Gold and Judith Helfand’s character-driven, behind-the-scenes tale had its premiere at the 2007 Festival after receiving a Sundance Institute Documentary Fund Grant in 2006. [WATCH NOW]

THE GREAT INVISIBLE

Margaret Brown’s 2014 documentary — which went through the Institute’s 2011 Creative Producing Summit and was made with assistance from a Cinereach Project at Sundance Institute Grant — delved into personal stories behind the 2010 BP Oil Spill. Through her project, Brown uncovered how government and corporate interests respond in the wake of an environmental crisis, and the way this affects a region and culture so rooted in nature. [WATCH NOW]

HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD

Before it was the world’s largest activist organization, Greenpeace was the love child of an eclectic group of Vancouver neighbors. United in their opposition to a U.S. atomic test on an Alaskan island, they sailed an aging fishing boat straight for the test site. Armed only with cameras and faith in the power of images, the rainbow warriors were born. Jerry Rothwell’s gripping chronicle of Greenpeace’s early history premiered at the 2015 Festival after receiving support from the Institute’s Documentary Film Grant. [WATCH NOW]

IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT

Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman’s 2011 documentary tells a timely story of political action and environmental beliefs at loggerheads. Their reconstruction of the recent history and unraveling of the Earth Liberation Front is a fascinating exploration of a modern revolutionary movement and its efficacy. [WATCH NOW]

THE LAST MOUNTAIN

It’s easy to forget that each time we turn on a light, we’re contributing to the ecological damage caused by the coal that generates electricity in this country. Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain — which focuses on the devastating effects of mountaintop coal removal in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley — gives us plenty of reasons to remember. Contaminated air, soil, and water; coal dust, cancer clusters, and toxic sludge are all byproducts of this widespread energy source. [WATCH NOW]

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS

When it premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Luc Juquet’s project was titled The Emperor’s Journey. By the time Juquet and co. accepted their Best Documentary Feature award at the 2006 Oscars, it was titled March of the Penguins, and it had become one of the highest-grossing docs of all time. Narrated by Morgan Freeman (in the English-language version), the project offers an epic look into one of our planet’s near-endangered species. [WATCH NOW]

MARMATO

Every day in Marmato, Colombia, families pray for safety as their men walk out their doors and down into the mines, scratching out a living with little more than shovels and outdated sulphur lamps. Beneath their village lies one of the largest gold reserves on the planet. In 2006, the Colombian government invited foreign investment to the region to stimulate economic growth, unleashing a corporate gold rush. Filmed over the course of six years, Mark Grieco’s 2014 documentary offers a gripping, breathtaking, intimate portrait of resistance and a community bravely teetering on the precipice of change. [WATCH NOW]

NO IMPACT MAN

GLOBAL WARMING! The headlines scream it; the thermometer confirms it; but few of us do much to address it. Author Colin Beavan and his family are pictures of liberal complacency — sophisticated, takeout-addicted New Yorkers who refuse to let moral qualms interfere with good old-fashioned American consumerism. Then Colin turns things upside down. For his next book, he announces he’s becoming No Impact Man, testing whether making zero environmental impact adversely affects happiness. Filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein document the experiment over the course of a year. [WATCH NOW]

RACING EXTINCTION

Louie Psihoyos’s 2009 Festival doc The Cove exposed viewers to the brutal practice of dolphin slaughter. The Academy Award–winning director followed that up in 2015 with Racing Extinction, in which he bears witness to a global problem — mankind’s role in precipitating mass extinction, potentially resulting in the loss of half of the world’s species. [WATCH NOW]

SEA OF SHADOWS

The Sea of Cortez is facing total collapse because of a war at sea. Mexican drug cartels have discovered the “cocaine of the sea,” a valuable fish called the totoaba — which is at the center of a multimillion-dollar business with the Chinese mafia. To find the fish, these cartels are destroying the ecosystem with illegal gill nets and, in doing so, are killing the Earth’s smallest whale, the vaquita. Richard Ladkani’s project won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at the 2019 Festival. [WATCH NOW]

SILAS

In their 2017 documentary, filmmakers Hawa Essuman and Anjali Nayar tell the story of Liberian activist Silas Siakor, a tireless crusader, who fights to crush corruption and environmental destruction in the country he loves. The project was supported via the Stories of Change Content Fund and a 2019 Documentary Film Grant. [WATCH NOW]

THE UNFORESEEN

The American Dream of owning a house with a white picket fence goes head to head with environmental sustainability in Laura Dunn’s lyrical and beautifully crafted 2007 documentary The Unforeseen. Dunn tracks the career of Gary Bradley, a west Texan farm boy who went to Austin and became one of the largest real estate developers in the state. In the ’80s, Bradley had plans to transform miles of pristine hill country into large-scale subdivisions. But the development jeopardized Barton Springs, a watering hole treasured by locals, and served as a lightning rod for mobilizing environmental activism that flourished under Governor Ann Richards. [WATCH NOW]

UP THE YANGTZE

Upon completion in 2012, China’s mammoth Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River became the largest hydroelectric power station in the world. Progress, though, came at a price: the dam displaced more than a million residents and destroyed numerous cultural and archaeological sites, upending a way of life. Four years earlier, in his 2008 Festival documentary, filmmaker Yung Chang sensitively examined the effects of this massive project on personal lives as he follows two young people, each one transformed by the construction. [WATCH NOW]

WASTE LAND

Brazilian artist Vik Muniz creates photographic images of people using found materials from the places where they live and work. When acclaimed filmmaker Lucy Walker trained her camera on Muniz in her 2010 Festival feature, he was cultivating a new idea for a project. He knew the material he wanted to use — garbage — but who would be the subject of the new series? Waste Land is a wonderfully resonant documentary that chronicles Muniz’s journey to Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. [WATCH NOW]

WATER & POWER: A CALIFORNIA HEIST

This thrilling investigation uncovers the high-level corruption behind California’s long-standing water crisis. Sweeping cinematography of California’s harsh, dry landscape asks us to visualize a fight for water in what feels like a modern day Chinatown. Filmmaker Marina Zenovich peels back the layers of California’s convoluted water structure — wealthy water barons show their guilty hand in exploiting the state’s resource, while small farmers and neighboring towns endure debilitating drought. [WATCH NOW]

WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR?

Fashioned like a tongue-in-cheek murder mystery, Chris Paine’s 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car? sets out to uncover just who is responsible for the demise of this ill-fated vehicle. The spirited film runs through the prime suspects, including car companies, oil companies, the government, and consumers. Featuring an always-timely subject, the film serves as a potent reminder that the powers that be will stop at nothing to maintain their position in the world. [WATCH NOW]

YAKONA

Yakona means “water rising” in the language of the Indigenous people of the San Marcos River in Texas. Anlo Sepulveda and Paul Collins’s award-winning 2014 film is a visual journey through the crystal clear waters of the San Marcos River and its headwaters at Spring Lake, which is home to seven threatened or endangered species. [WATCH NOW]


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