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Two Documentaries to Rip You Up. Plus: Additional Reading!

Say, do you smell smoke?: Burning the Future: Coal in AmericaPhoto courtesy of Firefly Pix


I’ve been derelict, for reasons of space (in the print mag) and post-Oscar fatigue, in clanging the bell for two hideously depressing but also enraging documentaries about unchecked growth and the collateral damage in its wake — i.e., the Earth and everyone on it. The Unforeseen is a poetic and high-minded meditation on American developers’ manifest destiny and the cancer it introduces into the natural world. Burning the Future: Coal in America, despite its generalized title, is firmly anchored in West Virginia, that Appalachian bastion of beauty and blight. The latter has the more visceral impact. All you need to see is mountaintops blown off, sludge pouring out of faucets, and little kids weeping every time it rains for fear their houses will be swept away by flash floods to conclude that the most fitting sentence for those responsible (among them George W. Bush, who, according to a sign in an industry flack’s office, [hearts] coal) is life without parole in the hills of West Virginia.

David Novack’s Burning the Future has only one more day of its weeklong run at New York’s Landmark Sunshine Theater, so I’m especially sorry to come so late to the party — or perhaps, given its subject, the wake. (It will, however, play other cities and show up soon on the Sundance Channel. Check the Website.) Novack has a dual focus: the U.S. consumption of coal, which accounts for just more than half the nation’s energy, and “mountaintop removal,” whereby companies, instead of actually mining, do a man-made Mount St. Helens number to get at the mother lode without all the costly muss and fuss.

The most entertaining sections are the mindlessly perky coal-industry propaganda ads that remind us how dependent we are — moms, dads, kiddies, and their big suburban homes full of large-screen TVs, computers, Nintendo Wiis, and washing machines — on the “stable, affordable” energy that coal provides. (The commercial featuring supermodels blacked-up as miners is an instant camp classic.) Bless Novack for giving industry spokesmen (including the governor, Joe Manchin, and his improbable hair) a chance to make the case for plundering the state. They assure us that (a) coal supplies West Virginia with jobs and pride, and (b) those mountains and the surrounding landscapes are lovingly restored once the coal is extracted. Why, in a few years you won’t even know our precious natural heritage was ever disturbed!

Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. Independent geologists — that is, people who know stuff and are not on the industry’s payroll — demonstrate (with accompanying footage) that if you dump dirt and rocks (“controlled gravity placement” in industry parlance) on hundreds of miles of rivers and streams and dot the landscape with “slurry” ponds (300 million gallons' worth) that leak into the ground water, you’re going to kill the aquatic life, disrupt the ecosystem for all time, and poison ordinary people and their kids (who are suddenly exposed to massive amounts of lead, arsenic, and manganese). Although I write this as a latte-drinking New York liberal, the victims — and budding activists — come from generations of coal miners. They’ve lost their forests, their mountains, and, in a shocking number of instances, their gallbladders. The Environmental Protection Agency is nowhere in sight. And here’s the punch line: For all the governor’s talk of keeping jobs in the state, an industry that once employed 125,000 has become so “efficient” that it’s down to 15,000 (albeit 15,000 flag-waving patriots who loudly denounce latte-drinking liberals).

Burning the Future ends with an apocalyptic montage: explosions, floods, George W. Bush — the end of one of the country’s most mysterious and enthralling terrains. By comparison, Laura Dunn’s The Unforeseen is almost a feel-good movie. It’s set in Austin, where there are latte-drinking liberals, and in the nineties they actually kept a 4,500-acre development from going in a few miles above their beloved Barton Springs watering hole. They have Robert Redford, who grew up partly in Austin, speaking on their behalf! (Redford is a co-producer with Terrence Malick — a cinema poet of virgin springs.) But when George W. Bush (that name again) defeats Ann Richards as the governor of Texas, the City Council loses its power to keep the short-term profiteers from altering the landscape for all time.

The Unforeseen has three novel elements. Poet Wendell Berry intones his lamentations as the camera travels up and down the new superhighways and picks its way among the burgeoning suburban sprawl. Dunn devotes part of the film to a sympathetic portrait of Gary Bradley, a developer with too big dreams of seizing the future, tearing up the land, and making piles of money. Bradley is variously described as a visionary and a con man — and he’s both, as well as an American archetype. Finally, there is that cancer metaphor — or model, really. Development is presented as something that literally (not figuratively, not poetically) metastasizes and attacks the life-support system of the landscape. Those of us raised with the Hopi and Philip Glass–infused Koyaanisqatsi will be pleased to see it wasn’t all just New Age mumbo jumbo. It was grounded.

Both these films tell familiar stories, but both have such a rich sense of place that they rip you up in ways that other, less-rooted documentaries don’t. I cannot recommend them too highly, and while you’re waiting for them to begin, read Timothy Egan’s stunningly vivid The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl for a too little-known account of how tearing up the soil for short-term profit produced the worst natural catastrophe in this country’s history. (May it always be the worst.) Read my friend Bill McKibben’s eloquent Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, which makes a survivalist’s case against growth. Then go home and read your children Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax:

Plant a new Truffala. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
And all of his friends
May come back.

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