Perhaps the most notable thing about Brian Hill’s Climate of Change is its inclusion of Tilda Swinton as narrator rather than longtime docu-voiceover Morgan Freeman; bumpering each investigative segment are lines of seussical poetry read by Swinton addressing man’s use of the environment—lines like:
The trees reach towards the sky,
Longing for rain
But must shoulder the burden
Of man’s heavy strain.
Sounds cute, huh? Imagine hearing ten of these “lyrics” wedged between people talking in very plain English about legitimate environmental concerns. Does this make you want to save the environment or laugh? This is the biggest failing of Hill’s documentary—like its entirity, no single story gets enough attention to merit personal investment or motivation, and the remaining mess feels over-written and over-directed.
The documentary’s slim 85-minute runtime covers stories of environmental destruction in several parts of the world—mountaintop removal in Appalachia, foresting in Papua New Guinea’s rainforests, awareness initiatives in Patna, India, solar power implementation in Africa, and an eco-friendly entrepreneur in Great Britain. Add in Swinton’s narration and a handful of ever-useful powerpoint-slides imposed over sweeping shots of bucolic hillsides, and you have far more material than can breath within a 1.5 hour film. Because of this, the cast of characters is forgettable, and their stories minor; you have Inarticulate West Virginia Hillbilly (Larry Gibson), a man who refused to sell his mountainside home to the coal corporations of America when everyone else did. Or perhaps Child Genuises From India will compel you to action through mad diction and charm alone. And if all that fails, there’s Solitaire Townsend, founder of a UK eco-awareness communications company, and inadvertant focus of this film. Whereas of Climate’s other stories feel thrown together pell-mell, Townsend’s story has a clear beginning, middle, and end—inception, creation, and recognition. Unfortunately, in the film’s high-speed waltz to get everything on-screen, even this story feels underwhelming.
As a native West Virginian, I’m especially aware of the threats mountaintop removal poses to the environment, just as I’m aware of the various opinions and people this issue affects. Rather than providing a multi-faceted look at the Appalachian community, Climate’s directors largely charge Larry Gibson with giving voice to a multitude, a voice he’s not entirely fit to provide. There are indeed mountain-folk living in the hills of West Virginia, but there are also large cities where average citizens remain largely unaffected and disinterested in the issue, not to mention the company side of things which remains entirely overlooked and unvoiced. This tunnel-vision is ultimately the film’s Achille’s Heel. Much like the brilliant children of India, whose vocabulary seems far beyond their years in a nearly-scripted manner, and who drop little aphorisms like “Child is the father of man” on a dime, Larry isn’t the voice of the Appalachian majority—he’s simply the voice that lends Hill’s documentary the most sympathy. Climate’s goal may be to spur people towards action, explaining this shortsightedness, yet as an environmentalist and individual directly affected by the conditions seen in this film, it seems this can only hurt the environmentalist cause, giving more fuel to conservative rage over propaganda. The film’s intentions are good, yet its breakneck pacing and lack of either a focused narrative or opposing viewpoints ultimately cripple any impact it may have.