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Interview Exclusive HTF Interview with Director Bonni Cohen (An Inconvenient Sequel) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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2006’s An Inconvenient Truth –winner of the Best Documentary Academy Award – changed the way we talk about climate change. While controversial – as it seems anything climate change related becomes – the film moved the science and startling data behind the assertion of humanity’s contribution to the rising global temperatures to the mainstream.

For An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk created a more intimate portrayal of Al Gore, the man who has dedicated his life since leaving politics to raising the alarm on climate change. They also continue awareness of what the science is telling us, and what we can do as individuals, municipalities, states and nations, about it.

Home Theater Forum had the pleasure of speaking with one of the directors, Bonni Cohen, about their approach to this sequel, the importance of remaining hopeful, and where Al Gore feels we should begin to tackle the climate change issue before us.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital HD.

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HTF: You had worked with your co-director, Jon Shenk before, how did you both come to get involved with this film?

Bonni Cohen: Well, Participant Media, which is the producing company that made the first film, An Inconvenient Truth, reached out to us in 2015 because they had been in discussions with Al Gore about the possibility of a sequel, and they thought that we would be plausible choices for directing the sequel. Jon and I had worked in the climate space before, and made The Island President back in 2009, and I think they felt that we had a good grasp of the information and the space, and also we'd be good partners for them in trying to hash out what would make the best kind of sequel to that movie.

HTF: The film begins with the voice of climate change detractors. When did you know or decide that you begin the film this way? The voices of these detractors that many would argue aren’t stupid people but must know that they're obfuscating the truth. So, at what point did you say, "Let's start with what people have said or what we're up against in the political realm?"

“Maybe we don't all agree about how we got here, but we're here now and we need to all act together...”

Bonni Cohen: Well, after, first the 2000 presidential election where Al Gore won the popular vote but then could not take the presidency, and then of course, after An Inconvenient Truth, there was tremendous blowback both against him personally but also the idea of man-made global warming. What we wanted to do 10 years later in terms of setting the stage for what he's been up against, we wanted to kind of set the scene for where we had been between 2006 and 2016. There'd been all these voices. There'd been all this testimony that resulted in blowback, but yet the ice is melting. It's not just the voices. It's the voices set against the melting glaciers of Greenland. So while everybody is talking and arguing, the glaciers are melting. So we did that to both set the scene but also to start to build kind of a visual landscape around just how far we had come with the climate crisis and how important it was for us to act. Maybe we don't all agree about how we got here, but we're here now and we need to all act together.

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HTF: As I watched the film I thought that, at the heart of the film, there are really two sentiments that I was coming away with. One is quite hopeful. The other is an indictment of the partisan political poison, and I think the line that captures that is Al Gore’s, "In order to address the environmental crisis, we're going to have to spend some time fixing the democracy crisis." Was that a goal to level-set the challenge and where the first immediate steps or I guess productive steps need to lie?

“Al Gore's feeling is that our democracy has been hacked by special interest groups on both sides - it's not one side; there are two sides playing in this game - and that we have an existential crisis that's bigger than any of that…”

Bonni Cohen: Yes, absolutely. There's no question that Al Gore's feeling is that our democracy has been hacked by special interest groups on both sides - it's not one side; there are two sides playing in this game - and that we have an existential crisis that's bigger than any of that. And in order to fix that, we first have to come together and fix the special interest problem.

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HTF: The film's far more hopeful than I expected. I guess it ends on a somewhat positive or at least an attempt to uplift, which I think is probably necessary given how dire the political landscape is today for important issues like climate change. And I think at some point we can feel beaten down by the bad news. Was that a tactical decision to sort of feed the fire with some hope?

“[Al Gore] believes that you can't leave an audience without some kind of hope bucket, a bucket of something they can do, something they can feel like they can move forward with…”

Bonni Cohen: Well, we were really making a film about Al Gore and where Al Gore feels we are with the climate crisis, because he's been such an important voice. He's sort of the Lorax [laughter]. But he's been shouting loudly from his stump for years and years, and while things have not moved as quickly as he would like them to have moved, he's one of the most optimistic people I have ever met. And he continues to pound, and he tries to move the needle a little bit every year, and he's very excited now because actually the technology is in place to [help] fix this. It's just a question of how quickly we do it. So high trading the despair and the hope, as he likes to call it. He believes that you can't leave an audience without some kind of hope bucket, a bucket of something they can do, something they can feel like they can move forward with. Because as he says in the film - you hear him say it - fear can be paralyzing. So it was intentional because that is how he feels.

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HTF: It was interesting to focus on Al Gore here, and it seemed much more personal. We see him in a very introspective state, and I wonder if that's where he is at this moment; is he conditionally or normally introspective. I went into the film expecting it to be a little bit more like the first film - a call to arms, a rallying cry, the urgency of the matter - and walked away from the sequel with a different feeling. But I did enjoy it very much, particularly the sequence on the typhoon in the Philippines which was terrifying. But I think it interesting that you do focus on Al Gore, the person that is the Lorax, yelling from the mountaintops. How hard was it to craft the narrative around where he is and what he's doing versus the very large, scary, outside stuff that's going on, to keep it focused?

Bonni Cohen: We're in a very different time now, in 2017, than we were back in 2006 when the first film was made. That was really a moment in time where Davis Guggenheim, who directed the first film, and Al Gore, and the people of Participant Media really were, I think, responsible for opening people's eyes to man-made global warming, giving us a vernacular to talk about it, think about it, recognize it. And a whole crop of books and films sort of came forward after that point, and it started to become part of the mainstream conversation. The facts and figures that were offered up at that time were fresh and they were new. And now, here we are 10 years later, and the majority of the population knows that, knows those facts, and pretty much believes that we are responsible for the climate crisis to some degree. But yet, even though we know it, the needle has not moved far enough, right?

“…we determined that we really needed to move on from just facts and figures, and win hearts and minds. Because the only way to move the needle, at this point, is to get people emotionally invested…”

So in making a calculation, strategizing about what would make the best sequel and also the best story, we determined that we really needed to move on from just facts and figures, and win hearts and minds. Because the only way to move the needle, at this point, is to get people emotionally invested. Specifically young people, teenagers, people in their early 20s, who really feel this is the issue of their time. So if they can invest in a film that shows leadership and an interesting character and emotional backbone, that felt like a huge leap forward. And we felt that we had that in this man, Al Gore, who, as I said, has been fighting for this his whole professional life and really has a different attitude than he had back in 2006. He doesn't have anything to lose in being much more vulnerable and open and out there about how he feels we need to act. So we felt like centering the film around him was going to be the best foot forward, both in terms of a campaign for climate action but also for a film, the storytelling and the emotional context of a main character.

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HTF: I did want to ask you just one last question. During the filming, was there anything that caught you off guard, or surprised you?

“…you never expect an event like that is going to happen, but it really informed us as to just kind of the qualities of this man we were making a film about…”

Bonni Cohen: The moment, I have to say, that caught us the furthest off guard, of course, was the Paris terrorist attack. We found ourselves at the base of the Eiffel Tower filming around this ‘24 hours of climate reality’ and started hearing the sirens, and the lockdown, and the whole thing. It was a really scary moment. Of course, at the time, it didn't seem like it had anything to do with the climate crisis, but in the end, what really surprised us and was so poignant was how much of a leader Al Gore became in that moment. He shut down what he was doing, and he really had a respect for the French people and was there to speak to the crowd, all those people that were working there who were all Parisians, who were terrified and scared. I mean, when you're making an environmental film, you never expect an event like that is going to happen, but it really informed us as to just kind of the qualities of this man we were making a film about.

HTF: Perfect. Well, thanks very much for your time. I enjoyed speaking with you, and best of good luck with the film!

Bonni Cohen: Thank you, Neil. I enjoyed it too!
 
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