How documentary films can be a form of activism

Documentary makers are taking to the screen to raise a new wave of environmental activists.

by Laura Mahler

Eleanor Church documented the eXXpedition’s sail through the North Pacific gyreon. ©eXXpedition

Over the recent months, many companies and governments have made huge declarations of wanting to change their practices around plastic. They have lined up headlines and social media posts to declare promises of reforms.  

There are now water fountains at train stations, unpackaged supermarket apples, and straw-less cocktails at bars. This has been a clear response to growing consumer concern. These undeniable facts were presented through cameras showing the state of oceans around the world.

Jo Ruxton, producer of A Plastic Ocean, a film that has been screened in 70 countries and streamed millions of times, was a mentor to me over the last year, while I was producing my own film about plastic. During a panel discussion on the power of film in activism, I also met Eleanor Church, director of the upcoming movie X Trillion, which documents eXXpedition’s sail through the North Pacific gyre, one of the largest accumulations of plastic debris and microplastics in the ocean.

So many people just don’t realise how important oceans are. They are literally our life support,” Jo explains. “We just cannot live without them.”

Oceans provide about half of all the atmospheric oxygen that we need to breathe and disposing of plastic there chokes the life out of the ecosystem which produces it.  

An early life cycle assessment in the 1950s would have clearly shown us that using plastic in the design of one-time-then-dispose objects would lead to many difficult problems down the line. Despite seeing firsthand the consequences, neither Jo, Eleanor nor I am fanatically anti-plastic. “Plastic has its place,” Jo says. “Just not the way we’ve been using it.”

Now, we can see how over the course of the following decades, plastic started breaking into tiny pieces that are now impossible to retrieve. Plastic enters into the environment in unpredictable ways — into the Arctic ice or the marine floors or even our bloodstreams.

This is the problem that must now be communicated so that it can be remedied by us and the generations that follow.

I feel like we’re winning the fight.

Sir David Attenborough has called Jo “more responsible than anyone else in the world for the national and international awareness of the plastic problem.”

Twenty years ago, when Jo was part of the original BBC Blue Planet team, she had strived for the story of plastic to be shown. “We had three teams of camera crews going out, sitting in the ocean for six or seven weeks at a time, looking for wildlife activity to film, so when you look at the final programme it appears that the ocean is pristine, and teeming with life,” she says. “And of course it’s not.”

Sixty-two countries have now banned at least one form of single-use plastic, most commonly bags or straws. New York and California have announced bans for all types of ‘non-recycled’ single-use plastics, like takeaway clamshell boxes and coffee cups. The number of beach clean-ups organised by environmental groups around the UK almost doubled last year from 2017.

In our work as documentary makers, travel is a must, and this can be one of the biggest sources of hypocrisy for environmental filmmakers. Still, I was delighted when my aeroplane meal came with reusable metal cutlery, and individually packaged hand wipes were only available upon request. Practising little things like this are now becoming more and more common in daily life.

David Attenborough has said that Jo Ruxton (pictured above) is “more responsible than anyone else in the world for the national and international awareness of the plastic problem” by Sir David Attenborough. © Jo Ruxton

When I asked Eleanor Church what she had experienced in her personal life since the expedition, she spoke of a renewed energy toward reusables and better preparation like Tupperware boxes and travel mugs.

I’ve always found it difficult to talk to the people around me about these small changes in plastic use, wanting to avoid seeming preachy or annoying on personal topics which can feel offensive. Sometimes your friends and family don’t always feel as passionate as you. So we show, we don’t tell,” she says.

She adds that when she sees more and more people with a reusable coffee cup or bringing a bag to the supermarket, she feels that the films she makes can indeed contribute to a wider conversation on the ramifications of plastic use.

Films have to be relevant to the viewer, they have to spark an inner connection between subject and audience

For a film of this nature to have any force, it cannot just be seen, it must be felt.

Jo explains: Anybody who breathes air, needs the oceans.” People need to understand this to care about the issue at hand. To see and understand the crucial link between the ocean, the rainforests, biodiversity, and plastic pollution.

Humans and the environment are not separate; we live our entire lives inside of it and everything we put into our bodies comes from it. Whatever we do that affects the environment, affects us. How could it not?

Eleanor described to me how it felt to be sailing the North Pacific through one of the great gyres. “We hadn’t seen any people or any land for days, and all we could see around us was pristine blue. And then we started seeing bits of plastic floating past. I was just thinking ‘We are literally in one of the most remote and wild places in the world, and something that someone has used on land is here. It’s not meant to be here.”  

However, as she says, “There aren’t many people who will act on things purely because it’s having a detrimental effect on wildlife or nature.”

Indeed, there is a disconnect between the human world we have created for ourselves and the true dependence we have on the land and water we live in.

For the majority of people, to be truly interested in something they need to know how it affects them. Something clicks, and they can see how we are all interlinked.”

The samples collected during the eXXpedition mission have been sent to labs across the world to inform the next wave of science around how microplastics could affect our health.

Across the board, more evidence is building that when plastic toxins get into our bodies, they act as endocrine disruptors which affect the way hormones do their job. This can affect a huge amount of bodily functions including digestion, brain activity and reproduction. Because of this, there could be a specific risk to women when it comes to ingesting plastic.

A recent study into PCB levels in dolphins and whales found that females are only able to expel plastics accumulated in their bodily tissue by passing them onto their calves during pregnancy, which often leads to the death of the calf. Part of the research conducted from materials collected during the mission will be to see if this is also the case for humans.

Documenting the impact of plastic pollution can be a daunting process. © Laura Mahler

A story like this, one that shows the impact of plastic use on individual lives, is relevant to everyone, wherever they are in the world. Most plastic produced is for a single-use purpose – almost half of all of it is destined to be packaging. Underneath it all, it is not single-use plastic that anybody wants, it is only what that plastic delivers. The focus for both Jo and Eleanor has been to make this link clear and bring the problem right into people’s homes.

”If you can show something, it has so much more impact than just telling something,” Eleanor explains. Film, I believe, is what is bringing so many crucial issues to the public’s attention.

Turning the science into a story

For environmental filmmakers, journalists and writers, communicating the science behind the problem can involve translation – from the evidence devised by scientists and researchers to something all people can understand and respond to.

“Scientists tend to be very focused on the specifics and the minutia of what they are working on,” says Jo. ”They often don’t lift their heads up to push it out as a story. People need to be interested to be educated.’”

Science can be emotionless. Solid facts and block statistics don’t mean anything. The challenge is taking people through the emotions necessary – disbelief, anger, fear, hope – that can incite them into action.

Conveying complicated and difficult science such as the health implications or the correlating degradation of the oceans is so important to garnering support behind proven, legitimate solutions. But this is one of the biggest challenges facing anyone working in plastic pollution reduction right now.

My team and I found it exciting yet increasingly demanding to try to stay on top of reports and evidence that are newly published all the time, and justly document a constantly changing platform.

Jo eventually left the Blue Planet team and started to show the world what she’s seen through A Plastic Ocean. It took her eight years to produce it, battling through lack of funding, lack of help, and lack of interest.

In March 2019, Jo went to speak to UK MPs and insisted they do more. David Attenborough introduced her to the MPs to make her speech. Getting to this point was the accumulation of decades of conservation effort for her and her team.

They had done the research, presented the evidence in a persuasive and harrowing way, and opened the conversation for a response. Sometimes, the goal of the activist documentary maker is to level up their platform — from screen to boardroom. And she did.

This is everybody’s problem

Since Jo’s visit, the UK Parliament has doubled the financial aid sent to developing nations to improve and implement recycling systems. The UK has been one of the loudest countries when it comes to talking about the problem of plastic waste. It dominated newspapers to classroom conversations for many months.

Still, many argue that any efforts to increase recycling and decrease consumption of disposables is useless, in comparison to the situation of most of the developing countries in Southeast Asia, South America and Africa.

We now know, thanks to a few special research papers, documentaries, and news pieces, that a large percentage of the waste accumulated in higher-income countries, such as the UK, is exported to these places where the rivers flow with discarded plastic, and the beaches are covered.

This can be as much as 70% of a country’s entire garbage. Developed countries have discovered their own mistakes in this, and so they must become the leaders and the force behind solving it.

For Jo and Eleanor, their work is all about inspiring people to make necessary changes. © Laura Mahler

One of the obvious solutions is recycling, but it is a complex and economically intricate industry. It is expensive to break down plastic and rebuild it into something else.

There are seven common types of plastic, each with its own chemical makeup. In most places, only two of these have a high enough value for businesses to warrant recycling them.

“The rest are sent to other countries who import them as part of a deal for favourable shipping tariffs. But most of the time they do not have the systems and resources to take on the materials too much for the developed world. When trash shows up at their ports, and they don’t have a lot of choices,” says Jo. “We do.”

For both Jo and Eleanor, as filmmakers who have seen this up close, it’s all about stopping it from reaching the oceans. Trying to pick up what’s already there is incredibly damaging to wildlife and an enormous lengthy and costly feat in comparison.

In January 2018, China implemented a new National Sword policy which prevented the entry of most types of waste into their ports, from other nations. Over the last year, China has reduced its imports from 40 million tons annually to just a few thousand tons. And they’re getting stricter. Three other countries in similar positions have made equal declarations: Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

There is a saying that we must turn the tap off in a bathroom (ocean) flooding with plastic, rather than mopping it up. This analogy only works if it’s your bathroom that’s being flooded. In our economy, the tap and the bathroom floor have been on opposite sides of the planet.

Yet now, a message is being sent that will have a colossal impact on the way we use plastic: ‘Deal with your own trash.’ This is not their problem, this is everybody’s problem. And we are already seeing changes in the way other countries, USA, Australia, Europe, have had to handle their used stuff. Some good, some bad.

Diversity and inclusion in telling the story of plastic pollution go beyond nationality and class for Jo and Eleanor. Eleanor’s sail crew was all-female, an emblem of the eXXpedition missions. She explains: ‘“It’s great to have female scientists, designers, experts, and engineers represented.”

This seems to echo into other conservation media platforms. As Jo adds: “Most of the people I worked with in BBC Natural History Unit were women, about 75%.”

We’ve come so far listening to predominantly men but Eleanor emphasises that: “It’s really important to be listening to women’s voices. It’s not up to one sex – to one half of us.”

What’s next?

Large oil and gas firms owe their power and position to all the people that vote and buy. It is they whom documentary makers enter into battle against, equipped with cameras and microphones. With governments around the world hand-in-hand with these wealthy bodies, winning over the common folk is essential.

Eleanor explains: “People will do what other people do. And things can change really quickly because of that. There are a lot of people in plastic groups on Facebook  who you wouldn’t think of as traditionally ‘green’.’’

Meanwhile, Jo is spending the majority of her time now focused on reaching more and more people — talking to schools, advocates and governments and helping the message dissipate down from headlines to legislation.

The plan is to reach 19 million children around the world in the next couple of years,” she says. She is also working on an e-learning platform for businesses, policy advisors, and the public to help deliver the key research and resources needed for people to make real, focused change in their employment, local governments and the businesses they buy from.

“We can’t exhaust people,” adds Eleanor. “Or make them feel guilty.” But they have to be convinced that what they do does matter. When they buy a plastic water bottle and when they don’t. She says that it’s about continuing the conversation.

It’s about inspiring people — both Jo and Eleanor say this strongly. Their films are not intended to reprimand or criticise, but to inspire change and the search for further understanding. To light the fire within the audience themselves to pursue lifestyles where they consume less, throw away less and appreciate the world around them more.

The plan is to reach 19 million children around the world in the next couple of years.

Because who knows who these and future documentaries could end up inspiring? Something inspired the person who invented a way to recycle that fickle black plastic, someone inspired the person who asked for a paper straw at the bar not yet serving them, somehow the person who starting weekly beach cleans along California’s coast was inspired.

Plastic pollution has in many ways opened up the way for more films and science communication of issues in the environment. Documentaries that have revealed before a camera the shocking sites of plastic pollution have done their purpose in elevating this cause to the heights of enormous conglomerate corporations and national governments, and forced them to act.

The simplicity of its solution – disposing of less plastic – and the way this has grabbed and been grabbed by people living in all situations across the world gives hope to future cinematic endeavours of equal enormity and importance.

As filmmakers, we can encourage the next wave of innovation, design and systems. Jo says: “Getting the right people on board, getting the right people talking about the right things. I can see that people really do want to fix this.”

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