12 Must-See Films About Environmental Disasters

From 2014, this list looks at great films about terrible tragedies for Mother Earth.

Crude environmental disasters
First Run Features

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With Earth Day coming up next week, it’s the time of year to highlight documentaries dealing with our planet and its well-being. In other words, we’ve got environmentalism films to recommend. For our first list devoted to this theme, I’m interested specifically in the low points, the damage that’s been done to the earth, some of it ongoing and some of it remedied.

These docs look at disasters like pollution, oil spills, changes to eco-systems, and more. And they aren’t all necessarily issue films devoted to making a difference. Most are simply a look at what’s been done. All are necessary works to remind us, maybe affect us, but also to stimulate us in other ways, too.

Below are 12 nonfiction features — a few of them are Oscar nominees and a couple of them are outright masterpieces — from Werner Herzog, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Noriaki Tsuchimoto, Joe Berlinger, Ken Burns, and other great filmmakers who know how to create a feeling in us, whether or not they’re also communicating direct information about these disasters.

Before the Mountain Was Moved

Robert K. Sharpe’s Oscar-nominated 1970 feature is about the effects of strip mining in West Virginia. The primary focus is on the people living in an area where private homes are being damaged by the mountain top removal process and their attempt to either sue the coal company or at least get them to stop being “bad strippers.”

It’s not as pointed an issue film as, say, The Last Mountain, but it does address greater environmental harm to whole towns, roads, and rivers and, of course, this was a very early look at a problem that wasn’t recognized and regulated by the government — through the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 — for almost another decade since the events of this doc.

Minamata: The Victims and Their World

This powerful 1971 film by Noriaki Tsuchimoto is considered a masterpiece of nonfiction cinema, and it’s every bit as devastating and difficult to watch as Hiroshima Nagasaki August, 1945, which was made a year earlier (by Erik Barnouw, who writes on Tsuchimoto’s doc in his book Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film).

Minamata deals with another man-made catastrophe, the lesser-known mercury poisoning disaster caused by water pollution from a chemical fertilizer plant in Japan. The damage to the environment went on for decades and has impacted thousands of lives, both animal and human, the latter’s problems mainly consisting of a neurological syndrome now known as Minamata disease, which led to a lot of children born with cerebral palsy.

This documentary is hopefully becoming better recognized after being highlighted in the recent miniseries The Story of Film (director Mark Cousins has often named it as one of the most important docs of all time), deservedly cited as being significant to the history of cinema for featuring the unforgettable sequence in which victims emotionally confront Chisso Corporation board members at a stockholder’s meeting. Tsuchimoto has also made other films on Minamata that are worth seeing, including The Shiranui Sea.

Survival of Spaceship Earth

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States was really starting to get on top of environmental issues. The government passed legislation like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act while also setting up the Environmental Protection Agency. Earth Day and Greenpeace were also introduced around this time, which is when this hour-long documentary was released.

Directed by Dirk Summers, narrated by Hugh Downs, who also hosts, and Raymond Burr (and introduced by Rue McClanahan from the Golden Girls set if you watch one later reissue version) and featuring Margaret Mead, John D. Rockefeller III, and other notable experts, the film was made just ahead of the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.

It is basically a warning that, through overpopulation and technological progress, we are ruining the planet with pollution and the depletion of natural resources, and of course we see some visuals to illustrate this. According to one biography about Burr, the film was met with controversy and quickly pulled from theaters.

The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals

If you’re familiar with Hayao Miyazaki’s animated features, you’re probably aware that he’s pretty passionate about the environment. So it shouldn’t be a total surprise that he produced a documentary in 1987 about a place in Japan that was once terribly polluted. He had fellow Studio Ghibli animation legend Isao Takahata handle the directorial duties on this three-hour tour of the Yanagawa Canals then and now, and it’s pretty neat to see these guys working not only in live-action but with the real world and real people. There is a bit of animation here and there, too, if you prefer that thing they do best.

This one is pretty hard to find, but there are DVDs out there from Japan, and they feature English subtitles. Watch the beginning of the film below.

Lessons of Darkness

Werner Herzog isn’t really an issue film kinda guy, but his poetic 1992 masterpiece focused on the Kuwaiti oil fields does showcase the effects of war and of the pilfering of natural resources while presenting magnificent shots of land and air being engulfed by oil, fire, and smoke. It’s hard not to think about the environmental disaster of it all while virtually flying above these scenes.

The filmmaker might not officially recognize this as a documentary (he says it’s science fiction) and he might pretend he’s an alien visiting the earth as he’s shooting, but the reality of this catastrophe definitely affected him, and through his lens affects us. It’s horrible yet beautiful. We don’t want to stop watching it, just like the firefighters re-igniting the oil seem to not want to see the fires to go out.

For more on the film, check out Robert Greene’s Shots From the Canon entry.

Darwin’s Nightmare

There are a lot of terrible things going on in Hubert Sauper’s 10-year-old Oscar nominee, and I suppose they are all associated with the continued rape of Africa’s land and resources by outsiders (here we still see more European and Russian influence than the growing Chinese presence of today — see Sauper’s upcoming We Come As Friends for some of that).

The most visible and quantifiable disaster, though, is the extinction of many species native to Lake Victoria following the introduction of Nile Perch into its waters. That eco-system calamity within the context of the bigger picture of the film relates invasive species metaphorically to colonialism and globalization, which makes us think about how greed has caused a continentally sized environmental disaster all over Africa.

Manufactured Landscapes

In Jennifer Baichwal’s 2006 documentary, we see the world through the photography of Edward Burtynsky, who is interested in “manufactured landscapes.” It’s a more general consideration of what man is doing to the environment and planet as a whole, though there is some narrowed focus on China’s industrial revolution and the crimes against nature being committed by that nation’s growing companies and exploding population. Some of the disasters are of aesthetic concern, but there’s also a lot on industrial waste and pollution, and then there’s just the warning that the worst of it is yet to come.

The Yes Men Fix the World

Thirty years ago, an accident considered to be the worst industrial disaster in history struck the people and landscape of Bhopal, India, and it’s worth looking at for how much more devastating it was compared to any nuclear power plant incident. Close to 4,000 human deaths are known, with more than four times that number possible, not to mention birth defects and stillbirths that followed.

There was also the critical effects on animals, trees, the air, and water, the last still being contaminated by chemicals due to the 1984 gas leak. The accident was at a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide, which did a poor job of taking responsibility and taking care of the locals and the environment.

Anyway, this tragedy is the focus of one of the pranks in this second Yes Men documentary from 2009 where activists Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos (who also co-directed this film under their aliases Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, with Kurt Engfehr) present their hoaxes directed at big business and the government.

We see this particular hoax in action as Servin goes on BBC and poses as a spokesman for Dow Chemical, now owners of Union Carbide, to deliver a false statement about the corporation’s decision to spend $12 billion on reparations and cleanup. Dow’s stock prices fell as a result and hopefully, a lot of people became more aware of this multifariously deplorable catastrophe.


Another awful incident that has disrupted a whole society and contaminated its home can be found in Joe Berlinger’s 2009 doc about oil spillage in the Amazon from the Lago Agrio oil field and the lawsuit by indigenous Ecuadorians against Chevron.

This film also, like The Yes Men Fix the World, involved some legal issues between the director and subject (for the Yes Men it’s a lawsuit from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for another prank, not from Dow), as Chevron subpoenaed outtake footage that might prove beneficial to their side of the case.

Both the internal and external stories have continued in the five years since the film’s release and only a month ago it was reported that an unused scene shot for Crude was in fact instrumental in Chevron winning the latest court battle against the South American plaintiffs.

The City Dark

One of the best reasons to see this lesser-seen doc from Ian Cheney (better known for his work as a producer on King Corn) is the mellow electronic score from The Fishermen Three & Ben Fries, which won a special jury award at SXSW. The main reason, though, is to become aware of an issue that nobody ever talks about: light pollution. Some of the points brought up and shown include how artificial light has affected the behaviors of animals that traditionally need to navigate by star and moonlight, as well as how it’s damaging to astronomical study, particularly our ability to spot potential asteroid threats.

There is more possible harm to humans, too, and while the problems never seem too crucial compared to other environmental disasters, and Cheney doesn’t appear so much concerned as curious in his voiceover narration, it’s an interesting look at something we take for granted, and it can also leave us scared without resorting to the usual fearmongering issue-film tactics.

Chasing Ice

This Oscar-nominated doc (for Best Original Song) shows the gradual melting of glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, and Alaska via the time-lapse photography of James Balog. Director Jeff Orlowski also captured some amazing footage of glacier calving in order to illustrate the ongoing effect of global warming on the polar ice. Of course, the direct connection between man and the climate change causing that melting and calving is up for more debate than most disasters on this list, but for those of us who believe in the link, this is possibly the biggest environmental catastrophe represented here.

Yet the photography in this 2012 feature is also a spectacle, much like the fires in Herzog’s film, and Chasing Ice partly exists now to present a record of what the environment used to look like (especially for viewers of the future), similar to other Arctic-set films like Into the Cold and The Expedition to the End of the World.

The Dust Bowl

Ken Burns isn’t typically associated with issue films, yet he’s been slipping into that area lately, including his collaboration on his daughter’s passion project, The Central Park Five. The Dust Bowl, which also came out in 2012, is much closer to the kinds of docs he’s been known for, but the historical account of the agricultural catastrophe of the 1930s comes with an implicit warning for today regarding climate change.

The fact that it premiered so soon after Hurricane Sandy made the connection all the more clear. The “black blizzard” dust storms during the Great Depression are easily dismissed as fluke natural occurrences, and some of it was due to natural causes, but as Burns’s two-part film points out, it was also directly related to how man had been ignorantly over-farming the lands without conserving the soil.

The Dust Bowl also paints the story as larger and more tragic than had been popularly acknowledged over the past 75 years, a decade-long disaster that we should now be learning a great deal from.

This list was originally published on April 16, 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.