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DVD Detective: The Best Environmental Documentaries by Farr
Next to family and clean water, movies are my focus and my passion. In my writing and speaking engagements, I serve as a sort of quality filter for movie lovers, sifting intelligent, rewarding titles from the enormous volume of DVD titles in the marketplace.
For our friends at Waterkeeper, I’m doing a series of articles highlighting films that celebrate the beauty of our natural world, and, directly or indirectly, illustrate the pressing need to protect it. I’ll close the series with a piece on movies which pay tribute to the spirit of social, economic and environmental activism.
This first installment identifies some landmark documentaries which any lover of the outdoors should own. All recommendations are readily available on DVD.
We begin with the pioneering work of documentarian Robert Flaherty. In 1922, he released “Nanook Of The North”, chronicling how one Eskimo family cheerfully subsists in the most frozen, remote part of Alaska. Close to a century later, this remains an astonishing achievement, revealing man’s ingenious, unwavering capacity to adapt and survive, even under nature’s most inhospitable conditions.
Eight years later, Flaherty partnered with legendary silent director F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu) to make “Tabu”, a semi-documentary shot on location in Tahiti. The film features actual Tahitian natives in a simple tale about the tragic consequences of forbidden love. Even with no spoken dialogue, the gorgeous black and white photography captures the beauty of the players and the lush, exotic locale, imbuing the film with a magic aura that defies datedness.
Flaherty’s next film, “Man Of Aran” evokes the raw power and majesty of the sea. Set on the harsh, inclement Aran islands off the coast of Ireland, this film builds on the impact of the director’s “Nanook”, portraying the struggle of native people who subsist on the wild, unpredictable sea around them. In this struggle, the sea is not enemy but provider, yet temperamental and unpredictable enough to warrant skill, hardiness, and reverence in any approach. Both man and nature emerge triumphant.
In the talking picture realm, but with precious little talking needed, is Flaherty’s “Louisiana Story” (1948), perhaps the director’s crowning achievement. A boy living with his family in the Louisiana bayous communes with his wild and mysterious surroundings while looking on with fascination at the work of oil drillers nearby. Flaherty’s brilliant camera work lends a subtle artfulness to the theme of civilization encroaching on nature. (Ironically, this film was underwritten by Standard Oil!)
Honoring our natural world also involves paying tribute to the explorers who opened up new vistas for us. In 1925, Rear Admiral Richard Byrd made history by being first to fly a plane over the North Pole, then in 1929 trumped himself by performing the same feat over the South Pole. This latter event might have been the stuff of history books had Byrd not brought two Paramount newsreel photographers on this heroic journey. “With Byrd At The South Pole” records the expedition for posterity, and even 75 years later, it’s a fascinating visual testament to human persistence and the awesome variety of our world.
I close with two more recent films which profile how the more physically fit and agile among us commune with elemental forces. Bruce Brown’s “The Endless Summer” (1964) captures the sheer adrenalized joy of the surfing experience just as this pursuit was becoming a national craze. Surfing is depicted as a state of mind as much as a sport, and the footage of thrill-seeking athletes riding immense, aquamarine walls of salt water provides potent vicarious thrills.
Finally, there’s “The Man Who Skied Down Everest” (1975), a riveting movie that plays like a thriller. We join champion skier Yuichiro Miura and his team as they ascend the world’s highest peak (in itself an arduous, perilous undertaking), then attempt to descend on skis, a virtual suicide mission. It’s difficult to prevent your heart leaping into your throat as you watch some of this footage and realize it’s no film stunt, but the real thing.
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