Tracking the journey of two protagonists en route to the remote islands of Banco Chinchorro, Mexico's largest coral reef, director Pedro González-Rubio brings his audience to paradise in the opening minutes of his latest film, Alamar (To the Sea).
The protagonist pair consists of a father, Jorge, and his five-year-old son, Natan, who are on a honeymoon of sorts—one last hoorah in each others’ company before Jorge must return his son to civilization where he will live with his mother. Later joined by Matraca, the patriarch of the family, for the majority of the film the threesome roam the picturesque Caribbean landscape, avoiding salt water crocodiles, fishing, and playing with a white egret that they befriend and dub Blanquita. Watching Matraca and Jorge dive down into mazes of coral, courtesy of an underwater camera, and spear various sea creatures hiding in the nooks and crannies of the reef, is to bear witness to a way of life that has largely perished.
Though the film abstains from any particular environmental statement—the dialogue itself is even sparse—the gratitude that the protagonists and other Mayan fishermen display for an ecosystem that provides them with all the resources they need to subsist is contagious. It is the absence of a message that makes Alamar an impressionable artistic work where many other eco-activist films have failed. “The sea is omnipresent and Natan's sojourn is presented as a series of idyllic, fleeting vignettes all intimately linked to its ebb and flow,” writes film critic Michael Koresky. “[The director] has chosen to present things in a dispassionate way that serves the ecological message he broaches only at the end in declarative title cards referencing the fragile condition of Banco Chinchorro, which is threatened by tourism and growing urbanization." (Read Koresky's full critique here.)
Image courtesy of Film Movement
Though successful in the scope of their reach, many contemporary environmentally themed films are weighted by heavy messages or politics and have therefore failed to inspire. A few recent examples are: Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which emphasizes the impending apocalyptic danger of global warming; Who Killed the Electric Car?, the 1996 documentary that highlights the ways in which the power and greed of General Motors trounced ecological ideals and environmental ingenuity; and most recently, Avatar, which though not a documentary, juxtaposes the commiserate, planet Pandora-loving, indigenous people, the Navi, and the greedy destructive human villains who are resolute in their mission to extract wealth through ecological exploitation.
Portraying militaristic earthlings destroying Pandora for “Unobtanium”as a parallel for Iraq, and obliterating the indigenous strong hold, “Home Tree,” with an explosion reminiscent of 9/11, James Cameron’s Avatar is too despotic in its statement to rouse much more than partisan reactions to its environmental message. Who Killed the Electric Car? devotes much of its screen time to tired insights like the greed of big oil and corporate America and does little to inspire. And unfortunately for Gore, pre-empting the release of An Inconvenient Truth, was Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s depiction of a lonely bumbling Al Gore who is coming to Southpark to spread his “super cerial” (serious) message that a half man, half bear, and half pig, aka ManBearPig, is coming to kill everyone in Southpark. When Gore recklessly attempts to slaughter the fictional ManBearPig with weapons, he destroys an entire mountain habitat causing an avalanche that nearly kills all the protagonist school children. Though this Gore is a caricature and an obvious satiric embellishment, it is still accurate as an inflation of the perception that non-global warming believers had, and still have, of the former Vice President’s environmental activism. An Inconvenient Truth may have won praise as a movie, picking up the Oscar for “Best Documentary,” but it did not win hearts and minds.
Ultimately these films, and others like them, do little to affect the public in a visceral way. “Hollywood is committed to recycling,” writes Sierra Club editor BJ Bergman in his Essay, Earth in the Balcony. “Often we get the same fluff served up countless times…while the packaging may say pro-environment, the contents tend to lack nutritional value. Rarely are the lessons trenchant enough to take your mind off your next fistful of Raisinets.”
The problem with affecting an audience with films that are by nature less commercial, is finding an audience. But when one connects with a film such as Alamar, like a memorable dream the images will last a lifetime, whereas what lingers of Avatar is James Cameron's visual feets. The lasting impression of An Inconvenient Truth is Al Gore holding a lazer pointer to the lyrics of Melissa Etheridge asking us to "wake up." What González-Rubio has shown us with Alamar is that the most compelling films say nothing, because the most masterful filmmakers speak with images and not words. In Alamar it is the aesthetic quality of the composed cinematic world that does the talking.