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10 of the best climate change documentaries to see in 2023 » Yale Climate Connections

What happens when you watch 20 or so documentaries that grapple with climate change and its many impacts — all in a row? I set out to find out at the 21st annual Wild and Scenic Film Festival, held in February in Nevada County, California.

I braced myself for a heavy affair. After all, the climate crisis is exactly that: a crisis. Doom and gloom can be hard to avoid. But as a fest vet, I also knew I could count on the morale boost that comes with seeing great people, doing great things, everywhere, every day.

This year was especially galvanizing as the festival came to life in person again for the first time since COVID, with filmmakers, activists, and people who just like nature converging to watch a bunch of films about the environment and climate change.

“CommUnity” was the festival theme this year, a concept that came roaring to life throughout the nine film venues scattered across downtown Nevada City and Grass Valley, sister towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The film selections included a wide range of films focused on people with different backgrounds, and ASL interpreters stood alongside presenters on stage at several screenings.

The sense that we’re in this together reached far beyond the theater walls, infusing activist workshops, environmental vendor booths, and even shops and restaurants where people seemed ready, eager even, to talk about the films they’d seen.

One evening at a popular pizzeria and brewery in downtown Nevada City, I sat with a friend to scarf down a broccoli lemon pizza and an Emerald Pool IPA, named for the local river’s sublimely green waters. The festival was all the talk at our communal table; the couple to my left were retirees who had volunteered as ticket takers at a previous session. They ended up taking our advice on what to watch with their passes that night. And the group to my right included a staff member at SYRCL, the organization behind the festival (making her an obvious VIP in our midst), and a trio of her friends who’d traveled from other parts of the state expressly for the occasion.

Through conversations like those, a few key themes began to take shape. The following are the major takeaways from my time at this year’s festival — with film recommendations to back it all up.

Take-away No. 1: Women are leading the way

Women may have been underrepresented at COP27, but a smattering of new documentaries serve as a counterpoint.

Exposure (87 minutes) 

Upcoming screenings

Ever wondered what might happen when a Muslim chaplain, French biologist, Qatari princess, and eight other women set out to ski across melting Arctic sea ice to the North Pole? “Exposure” answers that question with an intimate, action-packed (and true) story of resilience, survival, and global citizenry, as the team navigates everything from frostbite and polar bear threats to sexism, self-doubt, and the haunting shadow that this could be the last expedition of its kind over the disappearing ice cap.

Powerlands (85 minutes)

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In “Powerlands,” we journey across three continents to see different modes of power in play: coal and wind, corporate, and military — as well as the power of community resistance. Young Navajo filmmaker Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso follows the trail of extractive industries exploiting her homeland, charting a trail of community displacement and environmental devastation in rural Colombia, the Philippines, Mexico, and Standing Rock. Throughout, she learns from Indigenous women leading the struggle against the same companies — lessons she brings home to the Navajo Nation. (Teachers, check out this study guide with discussion prompts, too.)

Sisters in Arms (60 minutes; French, with subtitles)

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Sisters in Arms” follows six young climate activists around the world: Adelaide and Anuna in Belgium, Luisa in Germany, Léna in France, Leah in Uganda, and Mitzi in the Philippines. Woven through scenes depicting their forms of activism — from organizing climate rallies to launching community tree planting campaigns — we see footage from the late 90s, when another prominent youth activist, Julia Butterfly Hill, took a stand for the redwoods in Northern California. Linking her leadership with theirs, the film draws a clear line between the willingness to take a stand and the strength that many women have found in sisterhood.

Rockies Repeat (20 minutes)

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Rockies Repeat” brings viewers to the Canadian Rockies, where a team of Indigenous and other women artists have come together to reinterpret the work of early Banff painter Catharine Robb Whyte, who painted the glacial beauty here nearly 100 years ago. But now, instead of the icy landscape she’d so lovingly rendered, the artists are met with record-breaking heat, wildfire-smoke-clogged horizons, and a visibly disappearing glacier. Expect rousing music, breathtaking scenery, and a shared conviction that a melting glacier isn’t just an environmental loss — it’s a powerful loss emotionally and culturally, and bearing witness to it is part of what makes us human.

Take-away No. 2: Climate change is a complex problem. So is solving it.

Living up to Paris agreement commitments is no simple undertaking. Doing so requires restructuring the energy system while also coping with the accelerating impacts of climate change. For many people, that means changing the way they’ve been doing things for generations and even reconsidering the notion of home in the first place.

Communities across the U.S. are threatened by climate change already, from wildfire across the West to flooding in the Southeast and more severe weather just about everywhere in between. There’s nothing simple about seeing your hometown battered or destroyed by any of those impacts — let alone deciding what to do about it.

The Mud on their Hands (14 minutes)

In “The Mud on Their Hands,” winner of the festival’s Best Short award, we meet Rev. Tyronne Edwards of Phoenix, Louisiana, the passionate leader who helped his community rebuild after Katrina. Now he’s doubling down on helping his congregation and neighbors protect their homes from future storm surges. When asked the question more people are hearing every day — “Have you considered moving?” — he is resolute in his desire to stay. “This is our home. Our blood is here.” If he has to rebuild again, and again, he says, that’s what he’s going to do. And, he counters, what would be the point in moving? No place is immune to climate change.

Dear President Biden (40 minutes)

The personal becomes political in “Dear President Biden,” as activists across the country take turns voicing their stories, concerns, and requests with President Biden. In general, they appreciate the Biden administration’s climate progress to date, from rejoining the Paris agreement on his first day in office to passing the Inflation Reduction Act, aka “the climate bill,” and earmarking infrastructure bill dollars to support the clean energy jobs pipeline.

But they’re also upset about setbacks they’ve seen, in the news and their communities, including auctioning for offshore drilling a record-breaking 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico and opening up more public land to fossil fuel development. The film also takes aim at the administration’s investment in carbon capture, which removes carbon dioxide from stationary pollution sources like coal power plants — but that some climate researchers argue is dangerous and helps extend the life of the fossil fuel industry.

Devil Put the Coal in the Ground (80 minutes)

Even the recognition that we need to move from coal to solar is not at all simple, at least for people in Appalachia. In “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground,” an affecting feature-length film featuring music from Steve Earle and Iris DeMent, we see how coal mining ravaged public health across West Virginia — but also how it formed the fabric of many communities. It was the job passed down from father to son, over generations, that enabled working-class people across the state to provide for their families. To one town judge, cutting out coal may sound like an easy solution — when you don’t live there. But for people and families in coal country, he says, “It’s kind of an existential loss.” It’s losing out on the vision you had for your future that had been based on everything your family had done for generations.

Sagebrush Gold (23 minutes)

Adding another layer to the complexity: The clean energy transition depends on critical mineral extraction, which can be done responsibly with respect for local and Indigenous communities, economic justice, and environmental impacts — or not. Sagebrush Gold” examines dueling points of view over lithium mining in Nevada.

On one hand, there’s the soft-spoken industry representative who speaks with conviction about the climate benefits of lithium mining here. There’s also the motel owner who, in her “Colbert/Stewart for president” T-shirt, suggests that concerns over the cultural impacts of the proposed mine are a NIMBY issue and that the mine is a necessary part of the shift away from fossil fuels. On the other hand, Indigenous leaders, ranchers, and biologists are actively protesting the mine, railing against its ecosystem impacts and potential consequences for human health, too. Although the mine in question during filming is on hold as of early 2023, there are thousands of lithium mine requests pending in the state.

Take-away No. 3: We can do hard things

We’ve established that facing the climate crisis isn’t easy. And the feelings people have about it probably aren’t either. The following films take those things up, mash them together, and remind viewers that humans are well suited to taking on big challenges when we take care of ourselves and each other along the way.

Feeling the Apocalypse (7 minutes)

Look for an upcoming screening

So how do we respond to collapse without collapsing? That’s the anchoring question of “Feeling the Apocalypse,” a short animated documentary featuring psychotherapist Anderson Todd’s candid confession of his struggles with climate anxiety — and what he does to stay grounded in an increasingly uncertain world. The upshot: If you’re experiencing climate grief or anxiety, you’re decidedly not alone. And there are strategies you can use to cope with those hard, human feelings.

The Scale of Hope (67 minutes)

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The Scale of Hope” blends the emotional challenge with the physical and mental as former White House climate adviser Molly Kawahata prepares for an epic ice climb in Alaska while struggling with bipolar disorder. As she gets ready for this extreme adventure, she’s also working to create a new climate narrative framed around hope rather than despair and guilt.

One audience member said she came away from Molly’s story feeling exhilarated, as if she could suddenly find the courage she needed to talk with her children about the future in ways that empower them.

Films as a springboard to action

Wild and Scenic’s tagline is aspirational: “Where activism gets inspired.” This year, though, the ambition was borne out in a number of ways, from the many people who signed petitions opposing a local mine development in venue lobbies to the crowds who took to the streets as part of a Mardi Gras parade that coincided with the festival. Immediately before the awards ceremony, dancers, drummers, and yes, people galvanized by the film festival to stop a local mine poured down the main street of town.

Want your own taste of inspiration? Catch an upcoming Wild and Scenic On Tour show. To date, there are more than 40 upcoming On Tour events scheduled across the country from Jupiter, Florida, to Ashland, Oregon, and dozens of cities in between.

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