Based on a True Story: Documentaries as Story Fodder

By Heather Fipps and Jill Tidman

For years, documentary filmmakers have been blazing the trail when it comes to finding and developing climate stories for the screen. There is an abundance of character-driven climate narrative docs that intersect with nearly every issue: climate solutions, racial justice, health, housing security, financial justice, immigration, gender equity, food sovereignty, accessibility, and more. These stories help us understand, in intimate detail, the climate emergency’s impact on real people, their families and communities, and our beloved natural places. They present real-life conflicts around justice, science, and mental and physical health that can help inspire your climate stories and characters.

Consider the following individuals who are championing climate solutions, all of them featured in climate documentary films supported by The Redford Center.

Meat the Future
Dr. Uma Valeti is a cardiologist turned entrepreneur. He grew up in Vijayawada, India, where his father was a veterinarian and his mother was a physics teacher. From a young age, he felt conflicted about eating animals. He recalls attending a birthday party where there was a generous spread of food at the front of the house, while at the back of the house, he saw animals being slaughtered for the meal. He was unsettled that the celebration of one life was supported by the ending of others, and he remembers dreaming about disturbing “meat trees” as a child. He is now the cofounder and CEO of Upside Foods, the start-up leading the “cultivated” meat revolution, which eliminates the need to breed, raise, and slaughter animals. Valeti and his team are birthing a game-changing industry. Currently, animal agriculture takes up roughly 45 percent of the global ice-free surface area. If Veleti’s industrial shift is successful, at scale, cultivated meat will use 77 percent less water and 62 percent less land than conventional meat.

Twenty-one courageous youth plaintiffs file a groundbreaking lawsuit against the US government for willfully participating in creating the climate crisis over the past six decades, thus endangering their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. If these young people are successful, they will not only make history, they will change the future. While all of the plaintiffs share a clear legal and political goal, their personal climate experiences and motivations vary. Levi, the youngest, was displaced from his island home off the coast of Florida after living through too many frequent flooding events. Jayden, whose family home was destroyed by floods in southern Louisiana, is also living with air and water pollution from nearby fossil fuel plants, and since the BP oil spill, can no longer swim, crab, or eat local seafood. Jamie, who grew up on the Navajo Nation reservation in Cameron, Arizona, was forced to move to Flagstaff with her mother because of water scarcity, as the springs they once depended on year-round are drying up. Jamie is also experiencing the cultural and spiritual impacts of the climate crisis, which is harming her tribe’s ability to participate in their traditional ceremonies. It is not easy to be taken seriously as a young person in this world, and for some of the plaintiffs, the most frustrating battle is not even in the courtroom—it is getting their own families to understand and empathize with their perspective.

Impossible Town
Dr. Ayne Amjad, a second-generation physician and first-generation US citizen, is one of the strongest community activists in Minden, West Virginia. For the better part of the twentieth century, Minden was a flourishing coal town, home to 1,200 West Virginians. Today, Minden has fewer than 250 residents left. Just before the EPA banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from being manufactured in 1979, hazardous waste oil contaminated with PCBs was dumped all over town. Dr. Amjad estimates that the cancer rate for people who have spent most of their lives in the valley is about 80 percent. Following in the footsteps of her late father, who began advocating for the people of Minden in the 1980s, after PCB contamination began showing up in troubling numbers in his local patients, Dr. Amjad attempts to relocate the residents of Minden onto 97 acres of her family’s uncontaminated, forested land nearby. When her relocation efforts fail, she decides she has no choice but to relinquish her decade-long private practice as a physician to make a bold, strategic move into politics and increase her level of influence in the state. She is appointed the head health officer for West Virginia, clarifying, “I don’t want to be in politics. But if it means people will take my calls, then I’ll do it.”

Tapping into powerful true stories becomes even more potent if and when you consult with the people and groups leading the efforts on the ground. This kind of consultation will allow you to understand the problems people on the front lines are addressing, their motivations for getting involved, and, most importantly, how you can represent their story in an authentic way. You might inspire audiences to support the real-life struggle. You can be a part of the solution, especially when prioritizing authentic, compassionate, and informed portrayals.

There is a profusion of bold and pioneering climate leaders all over the world. If you’re looking to create and imagine inspiring stories about the climate emergency, look to those people who are already acting to solve this. These real people and their stories have so much to teach us all about how to stand up and find courage.

For more inspiring true tales, check out Good Energy partners at The Redford Center, Doc Society’s Climate Story Lab, and Exposure Labs.

✍🏻 Heather Fipps is Program Manager at The Redford Center, where she supports environmental filmmakers and educators around the world. As an assistant professor of Media and Social Impact at Cal State LA, she founded Community Impact Media, a documentary and impact producer training program that partners filmmakers with grassroots initiatives and front-line organizations. Over the past 10 years, Heather has worked on the production teams of more than 140 projects, including documentaries, feature films, TV shows, live productions, and other digital content. She serves on the founding board of Young Entertainment Activists and is a cofounder of the Hollywood Climate Summit.

✍🏻 Jill Tidman is a recognized leader, producer, and writer working at the intersection of filmmaking and environmental action. As executive director of The Redford Center since 2012, she has propelled the vision and built strategies to support a wide swath of stories and storytellers working to further the movement for environmental health and justice. With more than 25 years of experience as an activist and storyteller, Jill has raised millions of dollars for environmentally engaged artists and projects that drive individual, community, and global action, and to create a new way forward with impactful storytelling.