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  • Katie Wardle

Documentary as a Tool in Environmental Activism

Updated: Jul 8



In the last thirty years, the issue of plastic waste has been at the forefront of environmentalists' minds and has recently become much wider-known globally, throughout society, as an issue needing social change. I believe one possible reason for this is due to the release of two impactful documentaries: BBC Natural History Unit’s Blue Planet II and Jo Ruxton’s A Plastic Ocean. Both have used very different techniques to ultimately accomplish their environmental objective in spreading ideologies of social change within the community's use of single-use plastics.


The Power of the Documentary


Documentary films have, for a long time, involved themes relating to social change and activism. Figures as impactful as John Grierson saw the potential for film in activism. Grierson consolidated his thoughts on documentary film in a series of essays he published during 1932–34 in the journal Cinema Quarterly under the title ‘First Principles of Documentary’. He believed that documentary was a "tool; a way to inform and persuade the masses of the greatness of his, or someone else's cause". In his essay "First Principles of Documentary", Grierson argued that the principles of documentary consisted of cinema's potential for observing life being exploited in a new art form.


Documentary director Robert Greenwald states that “the important point is that it's not just the film, but the film in conjunction with the groups that are doing the heavy lifting. If it was just the film, we might have affected awareness". The crucial part, he goes on to say, is that they partnered with over a hundred groups, as “otherwise you have a film, and it can be written about, or talked about, but you don't have a component of action, whether they're electoral (voting or passing laws) or community-based - there's a huge number of ways in which people can get active".



The way in which activist documentary film is gestated to qualify for the term ‘activist’ is either based on its content or the filmmaker’s intentions. Nonetheless, the film should in someway mediate either within political or moral controversy but also be part of a catalyst for social change. To build a movement capable of inspiring social change, we need creativity in how it engages and educates, as well as resourcefulness in how it collaborates and works within its community.

Two major documentaries to battle the plastic issues were Blue Planet II and A plastic ocean. Since their launch in September 2016, over 1,000 non-governmental organizations from across the world have joined the movement to demand massive reductions in single-use plastics and to push for lasting solutions to the plastic pollution crisis. The government and public are also coming together globally with over 200 Countries Signing a UN Resolution to Stop Plastic Pollution. The world's highest-level decision-making body on the environment, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) gathered in Nairobi, in Dec 2017, to discuss global plastic pollution and how to take a significant step forward. The catalyst for all of this was the protests and documentaries that initiated the online and global conversation about plastic pollution.




A Plastic Ocean's Impact



A Plastic Ocean is a feature-length documentary produced by Jo Ruxton. It was released in 2016 on Netflix and iTunes with a global release. It covers every aspect of the ocean plastic issues that are known today, with the goal of spreading knowledge and motivating a social change. A Plastic Ocean reached the number one spot at the top of the charts on iTunes movies in the USA, UK and Canada and has been screened in over sixty countries, on six continents. There have been over four hundred screenings hosted by government agencies, non-profit organisations, schools, universities, individuals, multilateral institutions, corporations, aquariums and more. Most impressively, the twenty-two-minute version of the film was screened at the UN’s Ocean Conference on 6th June 2017, in New York City, to a crowd of over five hundred people. It not only helped phase out Styrofoam containers in the US Embassy in Peru but also changed legislation in Barbados and potentially Australia, while also reducing plastic consumption in hotels in New York, Phuket, Thailand and more.


A Plastic Ocean Foundation has reached over one hundred thousand Facebook members and has also launched Facebook pages in Barbados, Colombia, Chile and Peru. The United Nations Information Centre of Bogota screened the film in twenty-five schools throughout Colombia and over two hundred students participated. They created videos and took pictures to share their commitment to reducing plastic. Its outreach is monumental, with seventy countries, six continents and twenty-six embassies as an audience.


Blue Planet II's Impressive Impact


The second documentary to have a huge impact in the realm of ocean plastics was the BBC series Blue Planet II, which was released by the BBC’s Natural History Unit. James Honeybourne, executive producer of Blue Planet II, stated that ‘while there is no explicit environmental agenda, the programme simply aims to present the current issues as they arise’. The documentary used the observational mode, which embodies the stylistic values of ethnographic documentary. This involves conveying meaning through observation with minimal interruption by interviews or stock footage but is interpreted through narration. Editorial commentary is implied through choices involving camera position and editing. The BBC’s Blue Planet II had not planned to be an activism piece, it naturally occurred in the stories, when there was a level of plastic interaction in every scene. It transcended the genre and drew in more viewers than any other documentary in the UK in 2017.


Moreover, the show gained both national and international traction in popular culture by, apparently, being hugely successful on the internet in China. It was also mentioned in the 2017 Autumn Budget Speech and won the 2018 Impact Award at the National Television Awards. It has reached over 62 % of the UK population. Thus, the societal impact is clear when looking at the internet search statistics of the programme. People have clearly been driven to act after watching, with significant increases in searches of phrases such as: ‘Dangers of plastic in the ocean’, which increased by a 100% post-series launch and ‘Plastic recycling’, which increased by 55% post-series finale. BBC researchers had found that the articles viewed most on BBC Blue Planet II involved the intention of participating in ocean conservation. It attracted over eighty-four thousand people, which contrasts from the articles relating to fish that can change sex at over thirty-nine thousand people. Their survey found that 62% of those who had watched the programme intended to make changes to reduce their impact on the ocean.


A Plastic Ocean may cover more information than Blue Planet II but its lack of blue-chip aesthetic draws it short in how much the viewer may take in. Blue Planet II combines cinematic shots with a strong narrative editing style and pace that keeps the audience captivated. Nature documentaries with better technology will lead to a better film. Since the original Blue Planet documentary released in 2006, the BBC has pushed countless boundaries through the use of new technologies never before thought possible. These technologies are continually updated in order to document species in a way that is intuitive and different from what has been done before. The preconception that the BBC is pushing technologies and the knowledge that the BBC work in this way, is one of the predominant features that draws in viewers.



The way in which a documentary can ensure that it is distributed is to be aware of the boundaries and challenges of that chosen subject, within reason. The main characteristic of an activist documentary is that of refusing to depreciate the importance of the message and raise awareness that is often ignored. However, often for a film to become well-known or significant, it must make money, which usually results in the activist documentaries needing to satisfy and therefore decrease the major impact of the message in order to conform to a degree. The solution that has been coined is generally focussing on one argument, on only one issue and neglect other less important ones; something seen in Blue Planet 2.


If you are a creative activist and think a documentary would help your cause: do it. No matter what the size, it could change society!







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