What to Watch at the 2023 Festival: 7 Films on the Environment

An underwater scene with a young woman in snorkeling gear observing a large fish

A marine biologist returns to her seaside home to care for her ailing mother, who advocated for the protection of their bay, in “Blueback,” playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

By Meghan Keeley

Before mankind walked the Earth, the natural world told the first stories of life and death. As we press on and invent new narratives, we mirror the world itself: breaking apart in great storms, weathering the change of seasons, and celebrating regrowth and renewal. But with the environment at risk of being forever harmed across several fragile biomes, now is the time to realize and appreciate the starring role the environment has in lives around the world.

Whether you barely see greenery beyond the succulent in your bedroom window, you live in the heart of the forest, you’re landlocked into the never-ending horizon of rich farmland, or the ocean is just down the street, our individual relationships with nature vastly differ. Through film, we can experience the incredible sights and sounds beyond our windows and delve into the small slice of earth someone else calls their backyard. 

Read on for a selection of films in the 2023 Sundance Film Festival that highlight the environment as an essential component of the story. 

Blueback (Kids): Based on Tim Winton’s 1997 novella of the same name, Blueback follows marine biologist Abby as she returns home to the seaside town she grew up in to care for her ailing mother. But returning home means reliving the complicated childhood of her mother’s advocacy of the shoreline against investors — simultaneously igniting Abby’s love of environmentalism and fragmenting their personal relationship. When a rare blue groper appears, it stands for all they ever cared about: the bay and each other. Only available in person.

Against the Tide (World Documentary): When you need to provide for your family, do you turn to tradition or innovation? This question plagues two Koli fishermen amidst a decline in the fish population, which threatens both their livelihoods and families. One continues the traditional means of fishing, while the other embraces the modern — and more environmentally harmful — option as an answer. Their choices force them both to confront whether either is making a mistake or if there is no good answer at all. Available in person and online.

Deep Rising (Premieres): The natural world can thrive only as long as we do not take more than it can regrow. But what if it contains materials that will assist all of mankind? The ethics of industrialization are debated as The Metals Company seeks to mine the floor of the Pacific Ocean for materials necessary for the electric battery. Narrated by Jason Momoa, this documentary addresses what greenlighting projects such as ocean mining means for the fate of the planet. Available only in person.

The Deepest Breath (Premieres): Some regard the ocean as the final untouched place on Earth. Others regard it as one of the deadliest. Neither fazes free divers Alessia Zecchini and Stephen Keenan as they train to attempt a world record in one of the most infamous free diving spots: Dahab’s Blue Hole and its 85-foot-long tunnel, “the Arch.” Available only in person.

The Eight Mountains (Spotlight): Based on the novel by Paolo Cognetti of the same name, this film follows the life of Pietro, who visitedt the mountain village of Grana during summers as a child. Now he has inherited a plot of land and a collapsed house high on the mountain. But he is not alone in his reconstruction project, as he reunites with Bruno, a boyhood friend in the village. This story of two boys meeting, parting, and coming back together as men on the landscape of Italy’s Aosta Valley region tells the tale of beauty and connection twofold. Available in person and online. 

Food and Country (Premieres): How often do you think about the people behind your food supply? When COVID-19 swept the United States, the farmers who worked to put food in the grocery aisle were not excepted from its impact. Director Laura Gabbert set out to expose the unique challenges facing the food industry not only from the pandemic, but also from the policies and obstacles set in place by the country itself. Available in person and online.

King Coal (NEXT): The coal industry and Appalachia are two elders of the United States. Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon explores these mountains and the legacy of industry in the region she called home — while contemplating the shifting relationship the country has with coal, and how that impacts the identities of the people who live there. Available in person and online.

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