There is no greater threat to us right now than the climate crisis. With seas becoming more acidic, polar icecaps melting, wildfires raging and corporations still pumping vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, we are at a crucial moment in human history.
Historically, cinema has had a rocky relationship with climate change: it’s not the juiciest subject matter for Hollywood blockbusters and eco documentaries tend to inspire dread rather than direct action. But a new film, comprising archival footage spanning from the 1940s to ’80s, hopes that by looking to the past we’ll be able to imagine a more sustainable future.
Living Proof: A Climate Story, directed by filmmaker and archivist Dr Emily Munro, explores Scotland’s historic relationship to the environment, sparked by Glasgow being the host city for the UN Climate Conference later this year. “It was a bit like getting in a time machine,” says Munro about researching the film in the National Library of Scotland’s archive. “We’re looking at the nation’s collective, if fragmented, memory that’s recorded on film.”
Other than three artistically edited, connective montages set to contemporary music, Living Proof lets the archive do the talking, stitching together footage from over 80 films. “It starts with wartime propaganda and cinematic dramas and then moves to bright, formalist, Technicolor films from the ’60s that are about the clean, modern technologies of the future,” she explains. “Then you get to the ’70s and there’s another shift: big corporate films encouraging investment from the US and London, as well as more contemplative work that’s influenced by labour and environmental movements.”
Although Living Proof follows a linear chronology, it depicts our concerns about climate change as anything but forward-moving. Films from across the 20th century parallel today’s discussions around environmental crises, like the made-for-television documentary The Living Land, first broadcast in 1977. “The narration is so melancholy and so relevant in terms of asking whether we’ve reached our limit and whether the human species can really comprehend where we are in time,” says Munro. “You watch that and think, ‘What have we been doing all this time?’”
Munro’s film also demonstrates that the camera is very much a tool, and one that can be co opted by corporations’ propaganda. “The oil company BP made a series of so-called environmental films in the ’70s,” the director explains. “They’re fascinating because they’re speaking to concerns of the time that oil was going to run out. They’re actually really ambitious prestige films that are very convincing examples of greenwashing, saying things like, ‘Yes, the weather’s changing, but that’s just because we have the technology to better understand it now,’ or, ‘The problem is population growth.’”
As Munro points out, cinema’s relationship to the environment is something that is rarely discussed. “We talk about advertising with respect to climate change, and we’ve started talking about the sponsorship of artistic institutions, like national museums by oil companies, but with the film industry there’s a reluctance to tackle climate change or to say, ‘We’re no longer going to take money from companies like McDonald’s.’”
Despite beginning with footage from nearly a century ago, much of the footage in Living Proof is strikingly prescient. “It’s a cautionary tale,” says Munro. “We’re again experiencing multiple crises – environmental as well the pandemic and conflicts. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, Scotland and Britain were coming out of two wars, a depression and a pandemic, and our answer to that was a rapid pursuit of prosperity which damaged, not just the environment, but also people.”
As we teether on the precipice of our climate’s future, learning from our mistakes has never been more vital. “The whole project was about presenting questions,” explains Munro. “Are we capable of the change that’s required? And are we going to address the fundamental structural issues in our society that have led us to this point?”
Living Proof: A Climate Story will have its world premiere at Take One Action. Find out more at takeoneaction.org.uk
Published 22 Sep 2021