December 01, 1990

Getting the Big Picture on the Small Screen


Prophets and Loss

Produced and Directed by Gabrielle Kelly

and Nick Hart-Williams

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Global warming is the kind of subject likely to put a chill around the heart. It is perhaps for that reason that apart from specifically ordained days of lamentation or the usually unhelpful raiment tearing that we find on TV, the environment as a subject does not rate attention. We get the Nostradamus doomwatch stuff or specific details of spills and toxic waste disputes but never what is fashionably known as the big picture.

Gabrielle Kelly, an Adelaide based film-maker and her English collaborator Nick Hart-Williams are making films about environmental  and related issues. Prophets and Loss their documentary on greenhouse was shown in the recent Frames season and Kelly is negotiating for Australian television release. It has been shown on the BBC in May this year and it is to be hoped that we don’t have to wait for the seas to rise to see it here.

Prophets and Loss was filmed in the Soviet Union, Egypt and the US – specifically at a colloquium organised at Sundance, Robert Redford’s  property which looks like it takes up most of Utah. There are a lot of talking heads in this film but they have a great deal to say worth listening to. Paul Ehrlich, for instance, reminding us that we have fast reflexes to stop us falling under buses but no slow reflexes for registering changes in climate and degradation of the biosphere. As he says – we get the stock futures on TV but what about the ozone futures and other commodities that actually keep us breathing?

The film examines all the large issues in just 55 minutes-  reduced productivity in the Third World and Third World debt, population growth and the global depletion of vegetation, particularly rainforest. An acre of forest disappers every second, Carl Sagan tells us, snapping his fingers to make his point. The film images then switch to footage of chainsaws the Phillipines maybe, or Brazil. The point might been  made more strongly that it’s First World financial pressure that has led to Third World pillage but there are only so many i’s you can dot in a film like this.

Among the eloquent voices in this program is the Iroquois Chief Oren Lyons speaking for the Earth. He urbanely reminds his audience that when we talk about the end of the world we really mean the human species- as if it were the world and not just a small, if very pesky, part. The philosophies of economics and resource exploitation which drive our way of life are shown to be driving us into more and more trouble. John Adams, one of the founding European patriarchs in the US boasted about the number of trees his family cut down. The White man and the axe go together the Chief observes, drily.

Amory Lovins, an energy consultant takes a different tack in pointing out that technology already exists to greatly reduce coal-burning energy generation. From his carpet bag he pulls out a range of high-efficiency fluoro lightbulbs  and describes in terms of power stations what they are worth. This one, he notes, will save us 200 Chernobyl sized stations and two Alaskas. He is the bearer of bright news. This is not a free lunch, he beams, this is the lunch you are paid to eat.

Prophets and Loss brings large and important information together in clear and heartening ways. It is urgent without raising the kind of alarm that sends you running for cover. It brings together more than it can fully interpret but it is valuable for keeping the discussion open and on-going. The subject is not that is going to disappear however much it is avoided and trivialised. To emphasise this Paul Ehrlich suggests that we have a global breath-holding day. If it is successful, he observes, you’ll never hear another word about global warming.

“Getting the Big Picture on the Small Screen:” The Adelaide Review, No.83, December, 1990. p.34.

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