Anyone who's paid attention to the U.S. presidential elections over the past 20 years knows how polarized the country has become. On the one side are pro-environment, pro-choice, pro-government-services, and pro-labor liberals. On the other side are pro-life, pro-state's rights, pro-gun, and pro-business conservatives. Though there are churchgoers on both sides, the "religious right" has claimed family values for the Republican party and has been an influential force in advancing the conservative agenda. That's why it's so striking--even shocking--to watch this documentary from Marty Ostrow and Terry Kay Rockefeller, because "Renewal" bears witness to an emerging religious-environmental movement. That's right. Evangelical tree-huggers.
What's more, in one of eight segments illustrating stories of save-the-planet actions taken by whole congregations, we even see Chicago Muslims and downstate Illinois Christian farmers coming together because of environmental issues. All of the stories tell a tale of community activism, but the filmmakers are also activists. The packaging and the "Renewal" website indicate that they hope the film will inspire more faith-based conservation efforts.
The 90-minute film begins with a trip to eastern Kentucky and an introduction to a Catholic priest and the Catholic Committee of Appalachia's combined efforts with other groups like Christians for the Mountains to stop mountain-top removal coal mining. Ostrow and Rockefeller's style is to intro and outro each episode with footage of the natural world, move from voiceover to talking heads on camera, then document the group in meetings, interaction, or direct action. I personally could have used a little more variation and less artsy and protracted nature shots (which began to feel a little like video-audio screensavers), but the topic itself and the case studies that the filmmakers chose are strong enough to make up for these slight stylistic deficiencies.
"Renewal" isn't a preachy film, but it does have a clear point of view, and given the relatively large number of scriptural references to stewardship, it would seem that the film is aimed at convincing more spiritual and church-going people to follow the example of these committed people. "If you love the creator, we should take care of creation," says Peter Illyn of Restoring Eden, an Evangelical group. Mountain-top removal clogs rivers and valleys, causing flooding, and it strikes him as a "rape" of the mountain. It's an epiphany for him and others in Restoring Eden, and Illyn, like the filmmakers, believes that epiphanies need to be shared--hence his participation and this film.
It's more than epiphanies, though, and the filmmakers know it. "Renewal" is a sourcebook of ideas for congregations who might be wondering what they can do in order to be better stewards of the world that they were born into. Maybe it will be a segment on a husband-wife minister team in Highland Park, New Jersey and their Green Faith efforts to make their church self-sufficient by putting solar panels on the rooftop, giving consumer quizzes to parishioners, and doing dumpster dives to see where they could all improve. In this segment, as others, we see them both in physical and spiritual action, with the new solar roof dedication sparking praise:
"Barrels of oil consumption avoided, 19.68."
Thanks be to God.
"Pounds of coal consumption avoided, 11,153."
Thanks be to God.
Or maybe people will find inspiration from the Northbrook Mosque in suburban Chicago, whose reaction to the animal abuse in the poultry and cattle industries and resultant high level of antibiotics in the meat caused them to look for organic farmers who treated their animals with respect, as the Koran prescribes. We see shots of them praying inside the mosque and the lead person on this venture, a woman named Shireen, taking tours of farms and talking with the farmers. In the process, we watch a dialogue emerge on religion and environmentalism, and amazingly the segment concludes with everyone sharing a chicken meal. Cultures come together as well in an Albuquerque, New Mexico sequence that unites Catholics and Native Americans in a common cause to conserve and clean up the water supply.
Maybe it will be the Teva Learning Center approach that will inspire, with a Jewish organization following teachings in Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Ecclesiastes to become better stewards of the land. Their approach was to raise a new generation who would treat the earth better, and their method was to create an environmental camp for students that's attended by several thousand annually. We see the campers learning about nature in the field but also weighing their uneaten food in the cafeteria and measuring the amount of food that they waste per meal.
"When you are really in touch with the majesty of creation, your first response is wow, and that wow is the basis of prayer," one of the teachers explains.
The filmmakers tried to include all religions, and we get a segment on Buddhists campaigning to save trees in the San Francisco Bay area. Scattered throughout the film are scriptural justifications and environmental facts, such as this revelation: "If every household used a four-pack of recycled toilet paper, it would save 1.2 million trees per year." Which kind of makes you wish that more people would have taken the free sample roll they were offering passers-by on the streets, rather than scrunching up their noses. There's a little anti-government activism here, too, with a small Mississippi town battling industrial contamination and a community trying to get back on the road to health following the government's Hurricane Katrina botch-up.
And did I ever think, given the guffaws directed against Al Gore, that I'd see Christian conservatives working hard to battle global warming? As I said, this film is an eye-opener, both in regards to what's currently happening, and also what's possible in the future. If people can find common ground taking care of the Earth, maybe, just maybe, they can find common ground elsewhere too, and religion can be a force for good rather than a simmering pot of ethnocentric contention.
Ostrow and Rockefeller have directed episodes of such PBS series as "NOVA," "American Experience," and "Eyes on the Prize," and "Renewal" will air on PBS stations in Kentucky and Ohio this month. DVDs are currently available at the "Renewal" website.
The "Renewal" project was funded in part by a grant from The Kendeda Sustainability Fund and sponsored by The Center for Independent Documentary, and production values are solid. Colors are natural, and for a standard definition there's decent clarity and edge delineation, with only the slightest level of grain throughout. The box says it's playable in 1.33:1 or 1.66:1 aspect ratios, but if so, then the pan-and-scan version appears as an Easter Egg somewhere. There's no way to adjust the audio or video on the menu screen. Just "Play Movie" or choose your selection for an extended segment.
The audio appears to be a Dolby Digital 2.0--nothing fancy. Then again, the film is mostly dialogue. In some of the exterior scenes we get a little too much wind action on the microphones, and there's an overall flatness to the timbre. But there's no distortion, and the volume level is consistently maintained.
There are approximately 20 minutes of outtakes that were removed so the film could make the festival rounds at 90 minutes, and the extra minutes were left in the individual stories. Click on them and you get the expanded version. Also included are six minutes of "nature meditations--seven visual poems of the natural world," which will cause people of my generation to remember the Rod McKuen poetry/nature albums.
As you might expect for an environmentally-conscious release, the packaging is a 100 percent recyclable cardboard sleeve. Now, I personally think these cases are hard on DVDs and can lead to scratches, but I can appreciate the filmmaker's packaging dilemma.
Ostrow and Rockefeller don't do anything fancy in "Renewal," and when they do attempt to get a little more artsy it gets in the way of the film's central thrust. But they've assembled eight stories that are fascinating examples of possibility--examples which raise hope both for the future of our planet and religion as well.