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    Three must-see european films about climate change
    By collaborator, Isaac Shamam

    As the urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensifies, so does the need for compelling climate communication and storytelling. Films addressing climate change are scarce, and those that do often fall into the “disaster” film category. They rarely educate audiences about the underlying causes or potential solutions of climate change. And they don’t typically stir emotions that inspire action either.

    The challenge lies in connecting the consequences of the climate crisis to relatable aspects of everyday life. While some TV shows and films have ventured into this territory, there’s still a vast landscape of untapped potential in cinematic storytelling to explore.

    Effective storytelling tactics include ways to subtly weave climate narratives into films. As opposed to dominating the plot, they can appear as nuanced elements, like a wind farm in the background or the absence of plastic.

    Three films you may not have heard of, but found considerable success in Europe, show us multiple approaches to the challenge of climate storytelling: Alcarràs, a family drama; As Bestas, which contains elements of a terrifying thriller; and Woman at War, a film blending comedy, drama, and action.

    Alcarràs: a family grapples with harsh climate realities

    A Spanish film that clinched the Golden Bear at the 72nd Berlinale, Alcarràs tells the story of how the Solé family grapples with the harsh realities of modernization in their quaint Catalonian village. Directed by Carla Simón, the Catalan-language movie elegantly portrays the family’s traditional peach-farming life in Alcarràs, and how it is jeopardized by two major threats: exploitative market prices and the landowners’ plan to replace their orchards with solar panels.

    The film provides a vivid depiction of both the beauty and hardships of a rural lifestyle. However, it also illustrates how the Solé family must ultimately surrender to two climate-focused realities: the economic pressures of industrialization and the growing energy transition encroaching upon the countryside.

    Centering on patriarch Quimet Solé, we learn that the predicament he finds himself in stems from a broken verbal pact between his father and the Pinyols, the landlord’s family, during the Spanish Civil War. Quimet’s father had hidden the Pinyols, as they were potentially a target for owning property. Pinyol Senior promised the Solé family that their land would always remain theirs, and in those times, such a promise was as binding as law.

    But times have changed, and in the modern era, verbal pacts are disregarded in favor of written contracts. So, Pinyol senior’s son has new plans, seeing that there’s a much more lucrative crop to farm than peaches: the sun. With no written law to protect Quimet’s family from potential eviction, they are forced to renounce their way of life.

    Quimet’s internal conflict is the heart of the film’s story. While he resists the pressure to sacrifice his peach orchard for the solar farm, he also urges his son, who loves agriculture, to seek a different future. The film highlights a dilemma faced by many rural families, presenting a microcosm of a larger societal shift, where old agreements and ways of life are being upended by the relentless march of progress and modern life. The juxtaposition of traditional peach farming with the emerging solar energy industry encapsulates the film’s exploration of these themes.

    More importantly, Alcarràs engages in a very real volatile debate about the ethics of an energy transition found widely in the Spanish countryside, where renewable energy projects have faced significant resistance: “Yes to renewables, but not like that,” is the slogan representing the rejection of how such energy projects are unfairly imposed upon villagers.

    The film essentially asks the same poignant questions raised by these movements: What is the cost of rapidly scaling renewable energy, and who bears the brunt of this transition? In Alcarràs, it’s a humble farming family forced to give up their way of life.

    Regrettably, it’s the plight of families such as the Soles that is often exploited to delay climate action. The need for the speed and scale of clean energy projects comes head to head with the demand that it also be just.

    As Bestas: renewable energy projects upend rural life

    In As Bestas (The Beasts), a critically acclaimed thriller that won nine Goya Awards, including Best Film, director Rodrigo Sorogoyen masterfully delves into the complexities of rural life, upended by the advent of renewable energy projects, specifically wind turbines.

    Once again, we are confronted with the subtle tension between climate justice and the need for a rapid energy transition. Uniquely, As Bestas presents a reversal of roles: the residents, weary of their traditional farming existence, are the ones embracing the renewable energy initiatives. In contrast, it is the ‘outsiders’ who endeavor to preserve the agricultural lifestyle of the village.

    The film tells the story of a French couple, Antoine and Olga, and the hostility they face in a Galician village where they practice environmentally friendly agriculture. The narrative unfolds around the couple’s refusal to sign an agreement to sell off the land for a wind farm installation, sparking tensions with the residents desperate for economic relief and an escape from their rural confines.

    This conflict is fueled by two underlying issues: xenophobia and entitlement, feeding the broader debate about renewable energy in rural Spain. We see that the locals mainly welcome the energy transition because of the relative abandon they’ve experienced living in the countryside. Opposing the transition are two people who come from relative privilege; they can afford to recreate for themselves the idyllic way of life in the village.

    Adding another layer of complexity to the narrative is the fact that it’s a company from Norway seeking to buy up the land in Galicia for a relatively small sum. This company will then make a huge profit from the windmills they install. Antoine mentions this as part of his reasoning for rejecting the sale of the land, pointing out that the Norwegians don’t even want the windmills on their land.

    We can only speculate why, but the resistance movements in Spain against renewable energy projects frequently cite the destructive impact they have on the biodiversity of the locations they’re built in, not to mention the rural livelihoods of the inhabitants. Once again, it’s not the renewables they’re against, it’s the problem with their destructive and unfair implementation.

    Combining suspense and terror with a profound exploration of social and environmental themes, As Bestas is a unique example of cinematic climate storytelling. While not central to the narrative, the film echoes the sentiment of “Yes to renewables, but not like that,” in Spain. As with Alcarràs, it underscores the inevitability of renewables due to climate change, and the necessity of a fair energy transition.

    Woman at War: climate activism to combat an aluminum plant

    Woman at War, directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, moves away from the discussion about renewable energy projects and focuses on the theme of climate activism as a necessary strategy to combat the forces creating climate change.

    The protagonist, Halla, a choir director by day, transforms into a determined eco-activist, sabotaging the operations of an aluminum plant to protest against environmental destruction. Her actions, driven by a deep concern for future generations, call into question the effectiveness of democracy in addressing urgent climate issues and to an extent, justify a considerable degree of civil unrest.

    The typical elements of climate delayism are shown in response to Halla’s attacks on the aluminum plant. The claim is that by rejecting globalized industries, we run the risk of people losing their jobs, of our way of life returning to “turf houses” (i.e. rudimentary housing conditions), and/or of driving up the cost of living.

    From the perspective of the climate activist, even well-paid jobs won’t offer any well-being in a world destroyed by climate change. Hence, the film navigates the moral complexities of Halla’s crusade against industrial giants, contrasting her fight for the planet with her personal journey toward motherhood through adoption.

    Halla is presented as a superhero or vigilante simultaneously fighting against the big industries destroying the planet and for the younger generations, abandoned (or orphaned) by their elders as they inherit an inhabitable Earth.

    Woman at War stands out for its unique storytelling approach, blending humor, thrilling elements, and poignant social commentary, making it a distinctive contribution to climate-related cinema.

    A new way of telling climate change stories

    Alcarràs and As Bestas integrate climate themes indirectly, with the crisis lurking subtly behind their central narratives while touching on the conversation surrounding the demand for an equitable transition to renewable energy. In contrast, Woman at War brings climate issues to the forefront, shaking off the apocalyptic tone of disaster movies for a mixture of light-heartedness and humor, while still delivering the gravity of its themes.

    These films demonstrate how climate-related storytelling can be both engaging and enlightening in a diversity of genres, steering clear of the sensationalism often found in blockbuster films. They explore themes of sacrifice and raise vital questions about the urgency and ethics of action in the face of a warming planet, offering a crucial reflection on our current climate challenges.