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An Environmental 'Cool' to Action: Helfand and Gold's Doc Includes Grassroots Outreach

By Shelley Gabert

From Daniel Gold and Judith Helfand's Everything's Cool

Riding in the huge wake of Davis Guggenheim's Academy Award-winning An Inconvenient Truth might seem daunting for the makers of Everything's Cool, another documentary about global warming. But far from being redundant, this film by Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold, directors/producers of the 2002 film Blue Vinyl, stands on its own, covering different ground from the Al Gore-starring film and including a grassroots outreach effort to promote environmental activism.

"The reaction from the audience at several film festivals has been that our film gives them context for An Inconvenient Truth," says Helfand. "It helps people understand why and how global warming has become such a major issue on our political agenda.

"Viewers have also commented that our film and Gore's film are perfect companion pieces," she continues. "His movie left them with their heart in their mouth and not sure what to do, while our film is really a primer to understand how we got where we are, but also what our next step might be."

Initially Helfand and Gold started on a different journey and did cover similar territory as Gore and Guggenheim, focusing on areas where the impact of global warming is evident. But as they researched and looked into the issue, they soon realized that the more compelling narrative existed in the challenge that scientists and other proponents of the issue faced in positioning global warming as a top priority among Americans. 

 "We realized that one of the biggest conversations and struggles that people were having was how to frame this issue for the American people," Helfand maintains. "So what could have been a more traditional documentary became something else entirely."

To tell that particular story, one that Helfand and Gold describe as a "toxic comedy," Everything's Cool begins in 2003 and covers developments through 2006. In that time, the release of the feature film The Day After Tomorrow is covered as well as the 2004 US Presidential Election and the continued attack by skeptics who conclude that global warming isn't a real threat to the environment. But it's the central characters, dubbed the "global warming messengers," who really tell the story; they have devoted much of their energies to bringing this issue to the forefront, at an often great cost personally and professionally. There's Bill McKibben, author of the 1987 seminal work End of Nature, considered to be one of the first writings on global warming. In the film, he leads the largest global warming demonstration in the US. He's joined by, among others, journalist Ross Gelbspan, deemed "The Columbo of Climate Change," and The Weather Channel's Dr. Heidi Cullen, the first on-air climatologist.

One of the hardest gets for the filmmakers was Rick Piltz, the Washington, DC-based former senior associate at the federal US Climate Change Science Program, who resigned because of the White House's manipulation and censorship of scientific research on the impact of global warming. Helfand and Gold had to wait until after Piltz had resigned to interview and film him.

What really marks this film is the call-to-action component from the "messengers" and the filmmakers, who are veterans in marrying a movie with a movement. Blue Vinyl, about the impact of polyvinyl chloride on human health and the environment, aired as part of HBO's America Undercover series and was nominated for two Emmy awards. As part of the outreach effort for that film, Working Films, a nonprofit organization founded by Helfand and veteran film festival curator and media educator Robert West in late 1999, developed a nationwide campaign, whose principle tenets included consumer organizing, grassroots activism and education. According to Helfand, the film continues to draw people in even now, five years later. This is definitely the hope for Everything Cool, which has so far gathered considerable momentum.  

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and Working Films kicked off a year-long audience and community engagement campaign for the film at the festival, collaborating with such organizations as Utah Clean Energy, NativeEnergy, Cliff Bar, Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters. The outreach campaign for Everything's Cool is funded by many foundations, including the Kendeda Sustainability Fund of the Tides Foundation. There were seven screenings of the documentary during Sundance, including two for high school students. At least 30 percent of the 1,400 total audience members signed NativeEnergy postcards directed to their legislators, and the film's website offers many action steps as well as breaking news, and a place for bloggers to communicate their concerns.

And the Everything's Cool movement continues. According to Helfand, "Our multi-level tiered campaign will include a campus component, a faith-based component, and we hope to have youth from all over the country converging on South Carolina, Iowa and Main to work on outreach around the primaries to try and motivate candidates to make global warming part of their agenda."

In addition, Helfand and her team are trying to make available short clips from the film for iPods, and are developing extras for the DVD that will come out around the film's national release.

There's no question that in some ways the filmmakers feel a bit overshadowed by other environmental films out there right now. Yet, they are encouraged by viewers' passion and commitment to the issue and to the discussion the film has already raised. 

"For people to realize that their own conception of global warming has been molded and shaped from disinformation, and the exploitation of scientific uncertainty is important, and realizing that they're part of this extended narrative is both chilling and exciting," says Helfand. "We're all part of this larger issue, and we want our film, our website and our outreach efforts to galvanize people."


Shelley Gabert is a contributing editor with Documentary.