6 Fascinating Films for Hot Summer Weekends

Pop some organic popcorn, settle into the couch, and prepare to be entertained, amused, shocked, and inspired by these fantastic environmental documentaries.

July 29, 2010

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The summer of 2010 was, officially, the hottest on record. We'll see if 2011 turns out to be another record breaker, but science suggests more hot summers are on the way. Hopefully, that alone is motivation enough to do something about global warming. But if not, check out one of these great environmental films about influential people who are doing everything they can to change the way we eat, drink, and even pray to improve the world around us. You'll be inspired.

#1: KING CORN (2007)


Hopefully, you caught the great food documentary, Food Inc., when it came out, and saw how corporate agribusinesses are dominating the food industry in ways that put our health at risk and pollutes the environment with concentrated animal-feeding operations, harmful pesticides, and genetically modified seeds. So, next on your food movie list should be King Corn, a look at how one simple crop became the basis for nearly every processed food and meat product on grocery store shelves. The two filmmakers, recent college graduates from the East Coast, document their year of growing an acre of Iowa corn then following their crop as it's turned into high-fructose corn syrup, food for industrial cattle farms, and processed food. It's a provocative look at our food supply, but the two directors are funny and at times goofy, so the movie isn't overly depressing.


Once you've had your fill of King Corn, check out this documentary about farmer John Peterson, born of conservative Midwestern farmers but a real child of the '60s. Filmed by a friend of Peterson's over the course of 25 years, the film documents Peterson's farm, which had been in his family since the early 1900s. After his father died in the late 1960s, Peterson took over the farm, turning it into a haven of art, free love, experimental drugs, and all the other cultural oddities of the 1960s. But in the early 1980s, he nearly lost it when the farm debt crisis that befell small family farms nationwide required him to sell most of the land, as well as many of his own belongings. After a few years of wandering and soul-searching, Peterson returned to his family plot and converted it into one of Illinois' first organic farms. Today, Angelic Organics (the farm's new name) is one of the largest community-supported agriculture farms in the U.S.


Although not an environmental film per se, American Harvest is an interesting documentary for today's political climate and one that shines a harsh light on how our food really gets from farm to table. In an effort to dispel some of myths and to raise awareness about the social justice issues related to farm labor, the film documents the lives of migrant farm workers, some legal and some illegal, who do jobs few of us would ever want to. It's hard to make a film about such a politically charged issue without taking sides, but the director aimed for a bipartisan look at the issue and not the "perspective of those extreme points of view of the left and the right side of our political system." Whatever your own opinions are regarding immigration policy, check out the movie. After all, without these workers, our dinner tables would be pretty barren. This film is only available for sale through the director's website.

#4: GASLAND (2010)

As the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has legislators rethinking offshore oil drilling and mountaintop-removal coal mining threatening Appalachia, natural gas drillers have been pushing their fuel as a clean, green alternative to polluting fossil fuels. But Gasland may very well shut them up. As filmmaker Josh Fox travels around the country visiting hotbeds of natural gas drilling, he exposes the dangerous practice of hydraulic fracturing, in which drillers inject a slurry of toxic chemicals, sand, and water into the earth to break up the rocks containing natural gas. But the chemicals contaminate water wells, and the process triggers leaks of natural gas, causing more than one homeowner to learn that his or her tap water is suddenly flammable. Fox highlights other dangers associated with drilling for natural gas, including the fact that holding tanks and drilling sites are major sources of off-gassing volatile organic compounds that pollute the air and cause respiratory problems, neurological disorders, and even some forms of cancer. Currently, the film is only available to watch On Demand on HBO, but if you don't have HBO, keep an eye out for it this fall as it is released in theaters nationwide.

#5: THE COVE (2009)

You may have heard about this Oscar-winning documentary on Japanese dolphin hunts when the movie debuted in theaters last fall. If you didn't catch it then, it's still worth a look. In the film, the directors follow a team of activists that includes Richard O'Barry, the former dolphin trainer on the TV series Flipper (who now advocates for humane treatment of the animals), as they attempt to document a brutal tactic employed by tuna fishermen. The fishermen corral dolphins into a hidden cove off the coast of Japan where dolphins are either slaughtered or captured and sold to aquariums and other marine entertainment facilities. The film also exposes how dolphin meat is collected from the cove and fed to Japanese schoolchildren, a practice made particularly disturbing by the fact that dolphin meat is exceedingly high in brain-damaging mercury as a result of animals' preference for tuna (the reason the fishermen like to get rid of them in the first place). The Cove is not for the squeamish, but any lover of dolphins will probably want to take a look at how such intelligent and seemingly friendly animals are treated, not just in Japan, but around the world.

#6: RENEWAL (2007)

In a mood to be inspired? Check out this flick, which follows eight religious communities that are working to solve environmental problems, from industrial chemical pollution in rural Mississippi to water and irrigation problems on Native American reservations in New Mexico. The film doesn't discriminate, following Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Native American, and Christian religious leaders in their efforts to educate congregations about the environmental teachings of their respective faiths. It also reveals how politically powerful the religious environmental movement has become, as rabbis and pastors testify before Congress to support climate legislation, and smaller congregational leaders influence environmental regulations at the local level. Renewal is available for sale online, but it's airing on PBS stations throughout the summer and being screened at universities and religious facilities. Check the movie's website for airtimes and screenings.