With the wealth of debate on key issues and the availability of broadcast quality technology, the 'enviromental documentary' has become a ubiquitous genre. To rise above the new wave of 'message movies' takes keen insight, a fearlessness in one's filmmaking and a commitment for the long term. Director Jeff Canin is at the forefront of green-themed 'advocacy cinema'; his works with Cathy Henkel, most notably 2008's The Burning Season, have been recognised internationally. His first solo directorial effort, 2 Degrees, realeased under the banner of his recently-formed company Green Turtle Films, tackles the injustices brought upon the planet by world leaders at the Copenhagen 2013 Climate Change Conference as well as one small township's brave effort to tackle the issue of global warming. Ahead of a screening of his film at Sydney's Chauvel Cinema on August 20, Canin (pictured, below; with DOP, Damian Beebe, in the South Australian hinterland) spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about the all-consuming passion that the environmental documentary demands...
What were the motivating forces that inspired the 2 Degrees film and intiative?
My previous film, The Burning Season, ended at the Climate Change Conference in Bali in 2007. I was struck by the enormity of what governments were trying to achieve and fascinated by the machinations of the whole process. Machiavelli would have had a field day. I've always been motivated by the desire to make a difference, and felt it was important to follow the negotiations until the meeting in Copenhagen, which was supposed to produce a legally binding agreement for significant cuts in carbon emissions. The working title was ‘The Road to Copenhagen’. But all through 2009, the mantra repeated over and over was ‘2 degrees’ and how vital it was to keep global temperature rises to below 2 degrees. Yet even this was controversial, because the small island states believe that any rise above 1.5 degrees is the kiss of death. But the industrialized countries believe that they can survive a rise of 2 degrees, and economically, anything below this will be too difficult and expensive. So the title of the film is also somewhat sardonic.
What were your goals heading into production?
My goal was to make the highly convoluted United Nations process accessible for the general public. And through our interesting characters, inspire them to look at their own lives and ways they could reduce their own personal carbon emissions.
The toughest lines to walk in an advocacy piece are between the message-based aims and what makes it ‘entertaining’. What were the ‘dos and don’ts’ you adhered to provide that balance in 2 Degrees?
We knew that a whole series of talking heads would kill the film. But how else do you explain the incredible complexity of what was going on? So we tried to interview people on the run, in situ as it were, rather than formal sit down interviews. We also tried to interview as many women as we could, as it was mostly men in suits. And to show the colour of where we were, especially outside the negotiations, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ecuador, for instance. Showing footage of forest dwellers and their struggle to survive, especially in the Congo (pictured, right). Those images humanize and give a face to the issue.
The lack of action at Copenhagen 2013 in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence made for some gut-wrenching scenes; experts who base their entire lives substantiating truths were clearly shaken when the inaction of our leaders became evident. What was the experience of being there like?
It was your classic multi car pile up on a freeway, but in ultra slow motion. We watched the delegates struggling through this tortuous process, often negotiating right through the night, desperate to produce an outcome that was more than cosmetic and result in real emission reductions (pictured, left; the press corps assembled in Copenhagen). And to watch in complete disbelief as the world leaders arrive and spend two days making posturing speeches purely for the TV audiences back home, instead of sitting down to iron out the remaining issues. It was unbelievably frustrating, and was only tempered by how exhausted we all were.
2 Degrees is a film of two distinct halves - the Copenhagen 2013 coverage and then the intimacy of the Port Augusta scenes. How did you settle on the structure of the film?
We tried to weave the two stories together from the beginning, but it just didn't work. When it's so complicated, you have to keep it flowing or people lose track. We needed the Port Augusta story to provide the inspiration and counter the depressing saga of Copenhagen. So we set up the problem: the almost insurmountable task of getting 194 countries to agree on anything substantial. Then we contrast that with communities taking action and not waiting for world leaders to act. (Politicians) are not leaders, they are followers, and will not do anything that is an electoral risk. They will always follow behind the public, which is why we need to take action first and pressure our governments to follow.
The strong central figure of Port Augusta mayor Joy Baluch (pictured, below) paints a crucial picture of the passion needed to fight for this, for any, cause. How would you best describe both her contribution to the film and being in her company during filming?
Joy's contribution to the film was immense. She is such a great character, and also because of her impact on us. Her courage was extraordinary. She was dying of cancer and in immense pain all the time we were filming her, but you would never know it from the footage. We'd arrive to film and she would be in agony, but she wouldn't hear of delaying the shoot. "I'm in pain whether I'm in bed or doing the filming, so let's do it," she’d say. She was willing to do whatever she could to help the film come to life. It was so hard to see, yet we were so moved by her courage and determination to fight to the end. It was very humbling, and constantly put things into perspective. People find her incredibly inspiring, and I feel very lucky to have met her.
Are you ever concerned that in the future 2 Degrees will become a kind of ‘I told you so’ document, used to chart the terrible decline of our planet? Or is their still time for significant change?
I'm not a climate scientist so I don't know if it’s too late. I'm not sure anyone does. But in case it's not, we have to do everything we can to reduce our own personal carbon emissions, and pressure our governments to do more. And vote in governments that are going to take action, instead of kowtowing to the fossil fuel industries and letting them off the hook. The ‘big buck’ actions need to come from governments: banning all future coal exploration, phasing out existing coal mines, rapidly developing of solar thermal power and other renewable energy sources. Setting emission reduction targets that match what the science demands. We have to stop electing leaders like Tony Abbott who thinks, in his words, "climate change is crap.” It's extremely difficult to get anything significant through the UN process, when any one country can derail the negotiations. But having Governments there like the current Australian one guarantees the top down UN led process will fail.