Despite its subject matter, 'Cool It,' the latest must-see work by award-winning filmmaker Ondi Timoner (director of two of the best docs of the 2000s, 'We Live in Public' and 'Dig!'), is not just another global warming documentary. In part it's actually an answer to them, especially Davis Guggenheim's Oscar-winning 'An Inconvenient Truth.' Literally, 'Cool It' features clips of Al Gore's Power Point presentation and offers itemized responses to specific claims, including those regarding sea level change, hurricanes, malaria and polar bear extinction. Some of these answers come off as obvious as "the right way to stop polar bears from dying is to stop shooting them."
That's a solution made not by Timoner but Bjorn Lomborg, whose controversial books 'The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the State of the World' and 'Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming' are sort of the basis of the film. He appears as the primary focus of 'Cool It,' though it's not necessarily about him nor the scorn he's received from critics who think his writings and lectures are harmful to their global warming cause. To some of those scientists and activists (a number of them appear in the documentary), this might be viewed as an "anti-'Inconvenient Truth,'" as it's been labeled in certain discourse. Timoner prefers to think of her doc as a "follow-up," or the earlier film as a jumping off point.
"I'm not gunning for Al Gore or 'An Inconvenient Truth,'" the director told me in a phone interview. "I was really interested in just the opportunity to put something out there that filled the void we had, where we're not getting anything done. There is some rebuttal going on here, as in, 'let's talk about what the actual published science is.' It's not the 20 feet [sea level rise] that Al Gore said. That paints a picture and you see Florida and New York underwater and it's terrifying. And maybe that helped to wake people up, but it was definitely time for something else to be out there."
Along with Laura Israel's 'Windfall' (which just won a Grand Jury Prize at DOC NYC, for which I was a juror), 'Cool It' is one of two docs that screened at this year's Toronto International Film Festival functioning as a next step in climate change docs. Both are made from liberal perspectives yet they both see problems with the current methods of action. Timoner's film, with the help of Lomborg's research and accounting, offers completely alternative ideas. And for some issues, initial solutions. Reminiscent of the message of 'Bowling for Columbine,' Timoner and Lomborg see too much fearmongering on the side of the left. Also, a lot of money being wasted on measures that aren't returning or won't return substantial results. Fortunately, and this is one of the many great things about the film, 'Cool It' provides a precise cost-benefit analysis and budget reform for the billions of dollars being spent annually and globally on global warming initiatives.
Until 'Cool It,' I'd thought responsive documentaries had to be strict rebuttals from the other side of the political spectrum. I primarily considered conservative films like 'FahrenHYPE 9/11' and 'Celcius 41.11: The Temperature at Which the Brain ... Begins to Die,' which intended to debunk and otherwise argue against Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 9/11.' I still haven't brought myself to view either of these films -- not because of their points of view so much as their presumably low production value (note: while writing this column I sampled part of the former, and I'm now thinking that at least their low IMDb ratings are potentially due to disapproving liberals voting sight unseen) -- yet I've always appreciated their existence as entries into a kind of democratic forum for cinematic debate.
"I don't mind that some headlines [call 'Cool It'] 'an anti-'Inconvenient Truth,''" Timoner told me. "Because the biggest challenge for a socio-political film is to get both sides in the theater. If 'an anti-'Inconvenient Truth'' is going to get the Republicans who don't think climate change is real into the movie theater because they feel finally there's a movie that speaks to them, and then they go and they actually listen to it, they're going to find out that climate change is happening. And they maybe get charged up about some of these solutions and we can come together. And if 'an anti-'Inconvenient Truth'' film brings the Democrats who want to throw tomatoes, they're going to listen to it and realize there's some real logic happening here."
Cinematic responses don't have to be negative (as in contrary, not bad) anymore than other sorts of discursive address need be. Academic-like, films can be part of a positive constructive conversation as much as they can be counterarguments in a debate. This is precisely how we can look at 'Cool It,' which doesn't entirely deal with responsive content but which also doesn't seem could exist out of the blue as its own entity. The doc does at least answer a problem and a cause, as well as serve in some ways as a reply to Lomborg's critics who've basically ghettoized his ideas concerning the global warming issue (literally they brought charges against him to the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, which deemed his work "clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice.") and the followers of this disfavoring environmentalist community.
I'm frankly surprised that more response documentaries haven't been made -- or at least haven't been released (or otherwise brought to my attention). We are in an era when people like to participate directly, and yet simple discussion isn't always enough anymore. So there are direct hits from farther, almost seemingly indirect, vantage positions and loftier forms of media. More and more of us are reacting to blog posts by writing our own blog posts rather than merely commenting on the original. Same goes for YouTube content, which often inspire response videos, positive and negative. All kinds of media are now so much more social and democratic in ways they hadn't been before. Films may cost more financially and temporally than blogs and short video uploads, certainly, but DV-shot documentaries can really be quite cheap and immediate. Besides, as slow as most scientific and political debates proceed these days, time isn't necessarily contextually a detrimental factor.
Other titles I've discovered as I looked into this concept of response films include the more definably anti-'Inconvenient Truth' docs 'The Great Global Warming Swindle' and 'Not Evil Just Wrong,' plus the recent DOC NYC selection 'Five Weddings and a Felony,' which first-person filmmaker Josh Freed admits to being a kind of male answer to Nina Davenport's 'Always a Bridesmaid' (as well as almost a modernized take on 'Sherman's March,' which also could qualify it for this topic -- as well as a possible future column focused on documentary remakes). And of course Moore's general work has inspired and will probably continue to inspire other responsive docs, such as 'Michael Moore Hates America.' Are there any more that I'm unaware of?
One last thing that should be brought up in a semi-related point is that Timoner was in fact a director-for-hire on 'Cool It' and unfortunately did not get final cut, which means there is at least one significant part excluded from the finished film (and it has already been criticized for leaving this out): the proposed source of Lomberg's $250 billion, for which he's found better use. I kind of wish, partly because of this column's topic, partly because it could be an interesting development, that Timoner would respond to her own documentary with maybe a short supplementary appendix film, unofficially linked if need be, addressing this lack and the necessity of its acknowledgment. For now, though, I'll let her say it in words via our interview:
"Something that I think is really important, that I was really stressing," she said of her original cut, "is that we can leave audiences with an idea of how to raise the money and how to spend the money. Just because Kyoto is going to cost us $250 billion of our GDP doesn't mean that we have $250 billion lying around earmarked for this. [Lomberg] said we should have a carbon tax equal to the damage that we do. He said it's 6 cents-per-gallon at the gas pump, the equivalent of that on your gas or electric bill. It's not going to put people out of house and home. And it's not enough to drive businesses abroad. And it's a much safer way to go in terms of possible corruption. But it's very unpopular in America, and I think the producers cut it because it's unpopular. I'm disappointed that it's not in the film. My goal always was to [present] how we raise the money and how we spend the money, according to what we discover in this film."
'Cool It' opens nationwide, in major cities, this Friday, November 12. Additional markets follow November 19.