Definitely Not the Pits: Our Pick for Best Enviro Doc at Full Frame

A documentary about crawling in mines to extract bits of coal was the unlikely recipient of an environmental award.

The Human Penchant for Storytelling

The first documentary was arguably produced tens of thousands of years ago and it was an environmental documentary. It was the drawings on the walls of a cave. That’s right, obscure drawings made by our primitive ancestors scratching away on the walls of caves down deep in the bowels of the earth documented an environmental theme that remains relevant today.

These cave images depict animals, such as bison, deer and horses, but to my mind that alone did not make them “environmental.” What did was the presence of faint imprints of a human hand or the vague outlines of people, sometimes carrying the implements of hunting, alongside the animals. By including these, the drawings not only documented the images of the natural world, but did so within the context of our relationship to those creatures and by extension the natural world: our need to draw sustenance from our environment by taking and sometimes exploiting. Some experts even theorize that contained within these drawings was an expression of a hope or prayer that the source of that sustenance will continue — would it be too much of a stretch to call that a call for sustainability?

What We Were Looking for in the Best Environmental Documentary

This year the Nicholas School, its supporters, and the organizers of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival — one of the largest documentary film festivals in the country — added a new award category: the Nicholas School Environmental Award for the best film at the festival with an environmental theme. The jury for the award included:

  • Yola Carlough, Director of Sustainability, Burt’s Bees
  • Ariel Dorfman, Walter Hines Page Professor of Literature and Latin American Studies, Duke University
  • Judith Helfand, Award-wining documentary filmmaker
  • Cindy Horn, Co-founder, Environmental Media Association, Member, Sundance Institute Board
  • Tom Rankin, Director of the Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University
  • Diane Weyermann, Executive Vice President of Documentary Production, Participant Media

In conceiving the environmental award, we were mindful of the remarkable legacy of environmental documentaries, and so cast a wide net for films that not only featured pressing environmental (often political) issues of our time but placed those issues within the context of humanity’s connection to the land and our ancestors. Films that depicted the conflict between our need to be sustained by the natural world to meet our material aspirations — which can be considerable — and the imperative to steward the natural world that sustains and embodies much of our cultural legacies.

We screened a number of remarkable documentaries. Among them were the following titles:

All are engaging in their own way and recommended. The jury was especially taken with The Last Mountain which ran a very close second to the film selected for the award.

The Full Frame Best Environmental Documentary Winner

The 2011 Nicholas School Environment Award went to Pit No 8*, directed by Marianna Kaat.*

We chose this film because the jury felt it best captured the broad environmental themes we were looking for — themes that included but transcended the contemporary political issues that dominate today’s environmental discussion.

Pit No. 8 is a film about a struggling family — a group of children fiercely loyal to each other whose existence as a unit requires the oldest boy to crawl down into the bowels of the earth into a human-made cave, a mine. But not to draw on the walls. With a pickax in hand, he descends into the depths to hack away at those walls to extract small chunks of it, bag those chunks and carry them back to the surface where they can sell them so they can feed themselves.

Like the cave drawings, those pieces of cave wall were artifacts — but not artifacts from tens of thousands of years ago but artifacts from hundreds of millions of years ago. They were pieces of coal. The setting is a former thriving coal-mining town fallen on hard times, where everyone ekes out an existence by illegally digging pits and mining coal.

The blessings of being able to survive by exploiting a natural resource and the curse of having to exploit that resource at the risk of life and limb in order to survive are poignantly drawn in this film — a blessing and curse that we struggle with in our very modern and abundant United States (things we have been painfully reminded of through the Deepwater Horizon disaster and more subtly through climate change).

And there was a marvelous juxtaposition in the film. On the one hand we witness the miseries of the childrens’ hand-to-mouth existence — in some ways not all that different from those of our forebears who drew those images on the cave walls. And then we see these impoverished children reaching into their pockets for perhaps the ultimate technological symbol of our modern 21st century life — a cell phone. It challenged me to consider the distance we have traveled from and the strong connections we still have to those cave-drawing ancestors of ours and the natural world upon which we, like them, are still so very dependent and neglect at our own peril.

Check it out when you can. Meantime you can watch the film’s trailer and a teaser clip below.

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Notes

* Pit No. 8 also won the Full Frame Emerging Artist Award.

Official Web site for Pit No. 8

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