The Sydney Film Festival has programmed with a serious agenda, but are all of the films worthy of inclusion? 
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12 Jun 2009 - 1:44 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 8:30 PM

As part of what most people would agree has been a pretty terrific 11 days of festival programming, the organisers of the Sydney Film Festival have created a Green Screen sidebar in an effort to draw attention to sustainability amd preservation of the Earth's resources. This is undeniably a crucial cause, but did the Festival's commitment to spreading the word overwhelm its responsibility as a platform for artistically worthy films?

This notion occurred to me whilst watching Laura Gabbert's and Justin Chein's No Impact Man. The documentary follows a year in the life of New York-based writer Colin Beaven, who coerces his wife Michelle into living for the full 12 months without leaving a carbon footprint – no packaging, no carbon-fuelled transport (including elevators), no electricity.

It was an interesting social experiment that was well-covered in the U.S. media; it sold a bunch of books and related products for Beaven. And it made for an okat 90-minute doco – not great by any means, but a pleasant-enough adventure for all involved, including the audience.

Was the film worthwhile enough to screen in a major international festival? Nope. It was a pretty shallow exercise with a very sellable hook – sort of an anti-Super Size Me – but it lucked into the 09 SFF because it spoke to the Festival's social cause. But it couldn't have been the pick of the world's enviro-mentaries, could it?

The Festival screened several films across all genres and formats that spoke to the climate change/sustainability issue. Most prevalent were the documentaries – Australian filmmaker Cathy Henkel's The Burning Season, which passionately but unevenly presented three different points-of-view on the climate debate and deserves its place in the festival as a homegrown endeavour; John Maraguoin's Big River Man (see our review); Robert Kenner's stomach-churning expose of the packaged-food production industry, Food Inc., highlighted the waste our manufacturers create and dispose of every day, though it wasn't always an easy film to watch.

The message of global abuse was best presented in two stunning documentaries that would fit into any festival schedule, regardless of its social agenda – Joe Berlinger's Crude and Louie Psihoyos' The Cove.

In Crude, we follow the efforts of the Amazonian bush people whose lives were ruined by the Texaco/Chevron petroleum giants mutilation and rape of the land in the name of corporate greed. The Cove endeavours to expose the exploitation and slaughter of 23,000 dolphins annually in the small Japanese township of Taiji.

Both films are involving and enraging; even-handed presentations of incredible injustice. Both deserve a major wide release - as packed as the sessions were for both films, it was an audience of the converted, open to the message. The Cove and Crude need to be employed as frontline weapons in the global climate debate.

The Sydney Film Festival got on board with a cultural partner in the form of The United States Studies Centre, which was presenting a two-day summit during the course of the Festival called 'Sustainable Globalisation: Will It Survive The GFC'. Many of the filmmakers in Sydney to present their films at the Festival were in attendance.

No Impact Man left no impact, man. It struck me as a rather cynical exercise, riding the coattails of a cause to further the profile of the subject of the film. I doubt it would have been in the Festival on its own merits. But bravo to the Festival team for embracing the global climate change debate as their cause celebre, and here's hoping the films that matter have an opportunity to impact the wider movie-going audience.