Film Studies

Green Documentary: Environmental Documentary in the 21st Century

“I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins. My questions about nature, I let them know, were different. I told them I kept wondering why is it that human beings put on masks or feathers to conceal their identity? And why do they saddle horses and feel the urge to chase the bad guy? Hi-yo, Silver! And why is it that certain species of ants keep flocks of plant lice as slaves to milk them for droplets of sugar? I asked them why is it that a sophisticated animal like a chimp does not utilize inferior creatures? He could straddle a goat and ride off into the sunset. Despite my odd questions, I found myself landing on the ice runway at McMurdo.” Werner Herzog (Encounters at the End of the World 2007)

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog 2007)

Green Documentary: Environmental Documentary in the 21st Century
By. Helen Hughes
Published. April 2014

IQ excerpt

Environmental documentaries came in abundance during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Some of film’s biggest names have explored this growing genre of filmmaking and cast a light on many of the most pressing issues facing the well-being of the planet.

In Green Documentary, Helen Hughes underlines the important role documentary film plays in the on-going debate about the preservation and protection of the environment. The extract below has been taken from the chapter, The Ironic Response, which looks at how filmmakers use irony as a response to environmental debate as a strategy ‘to express a state of mind that seeks to grasp and solve a problem that seems to need both an objective and subjective eye’ (Hughes 2014). The extract highlights Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007) as a significant contribution to this genre of documentary filmmaking.


Towards the end of the film the subject of the end of the human race is discussed and, with his customary long view on the subject of human civilization, Herzog comments: ‘there is talk all over the scientific community about climate change. Many of them agree the end of human life on this earth is assured. Human life is part of an endless chain of catastrophes, the demise of the dinosaurs being just one of these events. We seem to be next’ (Encounters at the End of the World 2007). While he retains his equanimity about the ultimate fate of human kind he becomes suddenly irate about a story told by one of the infrastructure workers, a former linguist who has abandoned a project on a dying language having been persuaded that it might harbour some form of evil. Herzog had already made a film in Australia in which the last speaker of an Australian Aboriginal language is described as ‘mute’ not because he cannot speak but because he has no one to speak to in his own tongue (Wo die grünen Ameisen träumen/ Where the Green Ants Dream 1984). The linguist’s story prompts an outburst in Herzog:

In our efforts to preserve endangered species, we seem to overlook something equally important. To me, it is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization where tree huggers and whale huggers in their weirdness are acceptable, while no one embraces the last speakers of a language. (Encounters at the End of the World, 2007)

In Encounters at the End of the World Herzog works against the deification of scientists and against the prettification of the landscape but paradoxically for a better understanding of human culture. The spirit of adventure and inquiry and the need for human beings to seek it out are acknowledged. In railing against ugliness and the loss of culture but accepting extinction as the natural outcome, Herzog’s film constitutes a revealing, contradictory experiment in alternative attitudes to environmental science and communication, and in actively thwarting expectations it points to the ironies of scientific inquiry as a fundamentally contradictory force.

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog 2007)

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog 2007)

Herzog’s film is not using irony to show up the political manipulations of the corporate business community or of the scientific community, but to distance his voice from both of these and from the environmental movement as well. The perspective he seeks in Encounters at the End of the World is perhaps best expressed as romantic irony, a self-conscious kind of film in which the scientists agree to lie down on the ice to listen, to dress up in period costume to visit a volcano or to answer questions on why a penguin might randomly walk off into the distance. At the same time it is a film in which the characters persist in communicating about their passions and their beliefs. The forklift operator’s interpretation of the American philosopher Alan Watts expresses a modern sense of coherence about the universe rather than Herzog’s romantic idea of its chaos: ‘he used to say that through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself, and through our ears, the universe is listening to its cosmic harmonies, and we are the witness through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence’ (Encounters at the End of the World 2007). The variations on this consciousness of consciousness pervade the film throughout the encounters with the scientists, their co-workers and those who have ended up as part of the infrastructure. The concerted attempt not to fit the Antarctic and the scientists engaged in projects there to the models of science and scientists expected and provided by all kinds of film genres, environmental films included, is what turns it into an ironic anti-environmental-documentary and hence also perhaps the most paradoxically genuine film of all.

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