The upcoming Sundance Film Festival is going virtual for the first time, and many of the festival's films tackle our great environmental challenges.
There's Lucy Walker's haunting documentary Bring Your Own Brigade, which takes us on the ground to look at the devastating impacts of wildfires in California. Another documentary, Playing With Sharks, tells the story of how conservationist Valerie Taylor challenged our collective understanding of the oft-misunderstood shark. Then, there's the narrative film Luzzu, which uses non-professional actors to show a Maltese fisherman who watches his livelihood vanish.
The Stranger sat down with the directors of all three films, spanning from Australia to Malta, to talk about environmentalism, filmmaking, and how we're entering the "dust bowl of fire."
"Most of the people I know lost everything."
In Bring Your Own Brigade, director Lucy Walker has created an unflinching look at the impact of increasingly widespread wildfires that have become part of a new normal in what she calls a "fire age."
"My goal with the film was to get to the bottom of what is going on with these fires, what is going on with the residents, what is going on with the firefighters, what is actually happening, and what can we do about it?" Walker told me. "The art was to find a story that actually illuminates the bigger picture but with stories that you could emotionally follow."
To do this, Walker said she "filmed a tremendous amount of people" impacted by the fires. Many of these interviews take place in the rubble of their homes.
Walker started filming during the Thomas Fire, a massive wildfire that ignited California in 2017, and continued filming for four years. She credits the lengthy shooting experience with teaching her how to film safely during a fire.
"What was fascinating and important and valuable was to follow the stories. To see how those first responders and residents actually fared," Walker explained. "With these fires happening so frequently, in places like Paradise and Malibu, in their own ways, they burn all the time. That was a huge revelation to me."
Constant burning means that as communities rebuild, they have to decide if they should restore their old homes or just move on.
"You're looking at a dust bowl of fire," Walked added.
Help often never arrives. In the documentary, one person attempts to drive away only to have their side mirror melt due to extreme heat. The person reaches out to their family to say goodbye, thinking it's all over. In another scene, a new mother tries to give her child to a stranger so that they both don't perish in the fire.
It is harrowing, and Walker says the process of working on the story has not left her unscathed. She endures trauma from picking through the pieces of people's shattered lives.
Still, Walker says she's found optimism.
"There is some really good news in the film too," Walker said. "There is stuff that we can do here. It might be tough to do it, but I think that people are going to be more and more understanding of why we need to do it."
Walker, who frequently narrates in the documentary from the first person, entered America as an outsider, having grown up in London.
"It started off with trying to study one fire," Walker said, but then "we had atrocious fires in Australia last year and in the Amazon as well."
The documentary covers the local impacts of fires and also the wider world, including an experience that impacted the director of another documentary at Sundance.
From working on Jaws to protecting sharks
When I first reached director Sally Aitken, she was in Sydney, Australia. Aitken told me she was working on her documentary Playing With Sharks when shooting had to be cut short. The reason?
A series of unusually intense bushfires in Australia that became known as the "Black Summer."
Aitken told me they had scheduled more filming, but it had to grind to a halt. By the time they managed to resume shooting, it was the onset of the pandemic.
Despite the two catastrophes, Aitken managed to complete the film by spending quarantine editing the final product.
"We just edited from our kitchens remotely," Aitken said. "Weirdly, the additional time because of the technical situation I think in the end probably benefited the film because of the volume of material we were dealing with. It actually worked out really well for us but, my god, we were lucky that we had all our material."
The subject of the film, Valerie Taylor, weighed in throughout the process. Taylor is a diver, marine conservationist, and Australian icon who even worked on shooting the real sharks in Jaws. Playing with Sharks covers Taylor, as well as our perception of sharks. Taylor is set to participate in the virtual Sundance festival, and Aitken says her charisma is overflowing.
"Valerie came in a few times during the edit process, and I swear to you I should have been recording that as the director's commentary. She is nothing if not forthright, so I say lovingly and jokingly, 'We're all lucky to have made it out alive really,'" Aitken said, laughing at the process.
"The first thing that people would imagine when they hear the word shark is not the word vulnerable," Aitken continued. "We really traversed the Anthropocene. Valerie, of course, wouldn't have known that would be what her ongoing lifespan would witness. When she entered the water in the '50s as a spearfisher, it was radically different than what it is today."
Because the documentary deals with sharks, and the cruelty that humans have shown sharks, there are some moments that may take viewers aback. It's important to remember that sharks are "designed to clean up the ocean and keep it healthy, which in turn keeps us healthy," Aitken explained.
Aitken and Taylor's journey together isn't finished—the two will soon work on another documentary project that involves a little actor known as Chris Hemsworth, called Shark Beach.
Until then, audiences can see Playing With Sharks as one of two films at Sundance set at sea and grappling with changes to the ecosystem.
"Your father used to break his back on this luzzu"
Luzzu is the first narrative feature from writer-director Alex Camilleri who, when I talked to him, told me I look like an old roommate he had from Seattle, so it turns out I have a doppelgänger roaming these streets.
The film is one of the few stories to predominately make Malta an important focus and setting. The term luzzu refers to traditional Maltese boats, which fishermen still use even as more modern fishing vessels outfish them.
Camilleri doesn't consider his film to be about any particular issue surrounding the environment, but sees the film's characters as facing a changing world. The film's use of non-professional actors instill it with a tangible sense of authenticity.
Luzzu focuses on a Maltese fisherman named Jesmark, the actor's real name, as he sees his livelihood in peril. He can't keep up with a declining ecosystem and a swelling industry. These compounding crises facing Jesmark are central to the film's reality.
"I was not trying to write this stuff consciously into the film; it's just a fact of life," Camilleri said. "These are just dramatic scenarios that we are going to have to deal with. Our generation who grew up with climate change as a matter of facts, these kinds of scenarios will just work their ways into all of our reflections on life as we're living and experiencing it."
Camilleri said he'd never been fishing before and can become seasick, though he was still drawn to the story even as he never got his sea legs.
"My parents immigrated from Malta in the late '80s. We tried to get back to Malta as much as we could and kept close ties there," Camilleri explained. "I was always watching the fishermen in my time in Malta."
Camilleri said he found parallels to his characters. Many of the people he talked to were conflicted between clinging to their past traditions and worrying that their children were facing a future without sustainable fishing. Camilleri said those questions were ones his family had to face.
"In an immigrant family, parents make decisions about what parts of their past they're going to jettison in order for their children to have a more prosperous future," Camilleri said. "That was certainly true in my life. In the particular world of the fishermen, it exploded into these very interesting scenarios about the natural world... and the fishermen."
In the film, EU regulations also threaten the identity of fishermen, highlighting real-life challenges that include characters struggling with considering whether to take a buyout that would require them to leave fishing behind.
"It is a very bureaucratic process, but it's extremely personal," Camilleri said. "It means sacrificing a part of your past."
"Fishermen have fished the same way for thousands of years, and now Malta has only been a part of the EU since 2004," he explained. "Jesmark is the first in his long line of fishermen facing onerous regulations, and all of a sudden what he has always done is illegal."
Camilleri contended that there's a disproportionate crackdown on smaller fishermen like Jesmark.
"We do need international cooperation because the seas are interconnected, and this is a shared resource," Camilleri said. "At the same time, if you're talking about the amount of fish that a traditional fisherman catches on a tiny boat and they're subjected to the same kind of regulations that govern international fleets of trawlers? There is a certain madness in that. The absurdity just really confounded me, and every fisherman I spoke to had stories like this."
"If the film can point to anything, it's kind of the system that is at fault," Camilleri said. "By system, I mean a system of systems. Jesmark is prey to punishing regulations, these restrictive EU regulations, and he's a victim of a really competitive market. There is shady, less-than-fair brokerage at the fish market, and then there is the natural world itself that is making what he does less and less sustainable."
You can see all these films and more starting Friday at the virtual Sundance Film Festival.