Our Top 10 Environmental Documentary Films

By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi and Arwa Lodhi

The 32nd edition of Festival international du film d’environnement  recently being held in France sparked much discussion and thought around environmental issues. It also got me thinking about what we would classify as the  top 10 environmental documentary films of all time.

Of course, there’s Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. For many of us, that was our first wake-up call to what’s happening to our planet. But since then, there have been plenty of films calling attention to plenty of different issues, from the dangers of GMOs to the problems of plastics.

Here’s our collective pick of what we think are absolute must-watch films, some with links you can see right now. Don’t miss these!

1. An Inconvenient Truth

Theme: Global Warming

Watch it here

As most of us know, climate change is a theme that Al Gore is  extremely committed to and passionate about. And with hurricanes, floods and other extreme weather increasingly bad year on year,  there is no better time for “An Inconvenient Truth”.

In  “An Inconvenient Truth” Gore’s passion is clearly evident, and he comes across as a highly informed, knowledgeable, conversational and persuasive man. He knows the facts about climate change inside and out; renowned specialists have provided him with statistics, graphs, charts and more, and he uses them in this presentation.

As Gore states in the film, he has given the lecture more than a thousand times around the globe. Because of this, he is extremely comfortable addressing large audiences, giving them a lot of scientific research to digest. Remarkably, he makes it easy to understand, pointing out key facts, walking us through some of the more difficult to understand ideas and problems with humour and intelligence.



2.  Under the Dome

Theme:  Air Pollution

See the Director talk about it here

Under the Dome, a documentary investigating pollution and air quality in China, was so controversial it was pulled from Chinese video sites by the country’s government.

The film drew hundreds of millions of viewers after it was posted, and there were even government admirers of its anti-air pollution message. In fact, the Chinese environmental protection minister, Chen Jining, had said in a news conference as the film was launched: “I think this work has an important role in promoting public awareness of environmental health issues, so I’m particularly pleased about this event.” He compared it to Silent Spring, the film that kickstarted a backlash against pesticide use in the US. But so many people ended up watching this, the government became fearful that it may actually cause an uprising when people learned to which extent the air they breathe was hurting not only their own health, but the health of every living being on the planet.


3. Coal Rush

Theme: Water Pollution, Coal Pollution  

Watch it here

In the Appalaches, a tiny community takes legal action against a massive coal company   – Massey Energy – that is polluting the waters, causing severe illnesses for locals. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in big cities give for granted potable water when we open our faucets at home. But water pollution is no longer something that is afflicting developing countries. In the case of ‘Coal Rush’ the cause of water pollution is the coal slurry extracted in the mines, which is placed in abandoned wells that are connected with the water supply for the community.

In short, the film highlights the environmental destruction caused by coal, and the importance of communities challenging these companies to ensure their right to clean water and air.

coal rush

4. The 11th Hour

Made way back in 2007, this important documentary was one of the first to point out the dangers of global warming. The film is full of terrifying images and fascinating interviews from some great minds. Of course, comparisons will be made to An Inconvenient Truth, which came out the year before this film. But the difference is, the focus isn’t so much on the narrator, though he’s a true eco-hero and a household name: Leonardo DiCaprio.

What also sets this film apart from its predecessor is that after eloquently pointing out the dangers of climate change, real concrete solutions are suggested to the viewer: a great deal of the film is focused on  renewable energy possibilities that are quite encouraging.

5. The Gleaner’s Kitchen

Theme: Food Security

Have you ever heard of “Dumpster Diving”? This is how the Gleaner’s Kitchen, an underground restaurant and grocery store based in Somerville, Massachusetts, gets their food–basically, by raiding the dumpsters behind grocery stores. The goal is to turn waste into wealth by making fresh, wholesome meals from food that corporations too easily  rubbish.

The film is focused on food security. While corporations advocate growing more GMO crops for ‘food security’, this ignores the fact that roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year (approximately 1.3 billion tonnes) gets lost or wasted, every year; consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes); and the amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world’s annual cereals crop.

Maximus Thaler’s eco-conscious restaurant is just one example of how we can close the loop between food production and consumption; creation and destruction; to integrate all of societies processes into a sustainable whole.


6. Trashed

Theme: Waste, Consumption

Most people in the developed world consume plastic wrapped food, new clothing, new electronics and other consumer items every single week, if not daily. But where does this stuff end up once we are finished using it? This film examines a fundamental element of modern Western culture–the disposal of what our society defines as “waste.” It is an issue every Westerner contributes to heavily, but rarely thinks about.

At times humorous, but always deeply poignant, “Trashed” examines the American waste stream fast approaching a half billion tons annually.  The film analyzes the causes and effects of the seemingly innocuous act of “taking out the garbage” while showcasing the individuals, activists, corporate and advocacy groups working to affect change and reform the current model. Trashed is an informative and thought-provoking film everyone interested in the future of sustainability should see.


7. Isle de Jean Charles

Theme: Climate Change

Watch it here

The inhabitants of Isle de Jean Charles, set in South Louisiana, are threatened by the flooding caused by the storms. Although it’s only 80 miles from New Orleans, the Isle de Jean Charles feels much farther away. The island is ground zero for climate change,   affected by rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and increasingly severe storms. Experts predict that these problems will soon confront coastal areas around the world, making this Isle a microcosmic example of what’s to come.

As another hurricane season begins, residents are aware of the threat to their home. What is it like to experience these changes, knowing there is little to nothing you can do to stop them? In this Op-Doc video, filmmaker Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee explores this question with lifelong residents, by weaving their experiences and memories together to create a  compelling narrative.

isle de jean charles

8. Tapped

Theme: Water Security

Watch it here.

Is access to clean drinking water a basic human right, or a commodity that should be bought and sold like any other article of commerce? Stephanie Soechtig’s debut feature is an unflinching examination of the big business of bottled water. From the producers of ‘Who Killed the Electric Car’ and ‘I.O.U.S.A.,’ this timely documentary is a behind-the-scenes look into the unregulated and unseen world of an industry that aims to privatize and sell back the one resource that ought never to become a commodity: our water. From plastic production to the ocean in which so many of these bottles end up, this inspiring documentary trails the path of the bottled water industry and the communities which were the unwitting chips on the table.


9. Who Killed the Electric Car?

Theme: Consumerism, Pollution

This film begins with a solemn funeral…for a car. But by the end of Chris Paine’s lively and informative documentary, the idea doesn’t seem quite so strange.

Narrator Martin Sheen goes through the history of how this unique vehicle came into being and why General Motors ended up reclaiming its once-prized creation less than a decade after it was born.  Besides Sheen’s, many voices are heard here: those of  engineers, politicians, protesters, and petroleum spokespeople–even celebrity drivers, like Peter Horton, Alexandra Paul, and a wild man beard-sporting Mel Gibson.

But the most persuasive participant could well be former Saturn employee Chelsea Sexton. Promoting the benefits of the EV1 was more than a job to her, and she continues to lobby for more environmentally friendly options. Sexton provides the small ray of hope for this rather sad–but highly interesting– film.

Watch it right here, right now (below)

10. Genetic Roulette

Theme: Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Did you know that new evidence points to genetically engineered foods as a major contributor to rising disease rates in the US population, especially among children? Gastrointestinal disorders, allergies, inflammatory diseases, and infertility are just some of the problems implicated in humans, pets, livestock, and lab animals that eat genetically modified soybeans and corn.

However, thanks to GMO producer Monsanto’s strongarm tactics and the FDA’s fraudulent policies, few are aware of these facts.  This shocking film may change your diet, help you protect your family, and accelerate the consumer tipping point against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  A must-see for anyone concerned about their health, and the health of their loved ones, too.



Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
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