To hope, or not to hope?
That was a question thrown up in a recent Zoom panel at the Sundance Film festival, organised by the National Resources Defence Council’s Rewrite the Future initiative and moderated by actress Zazie Beetz. And the answer given by Scott Z Burns, writer of Contagion and An Inconvenient Truth, seemed to be:
Of course that’s not quite what he said…
Resist the studio push for ‘hopeful stories’
What Scott Burns actually said was that he was trying to escape what is being pushed by the studios: ‘Put hopeful stories out there’. Yes, we owe people entertainment - but we also owe them the truth. He wants to resist what he sees as the false dichotomy ‘hope-no hope’, and instead focus on the continuum action-no action.
For Burns, telling stories that take place in a changed but real world is the only way to deal with the climate crisis and all the negative feelings it triggers. Rather than turning ‘you must be hopeful’ into propaganda, our stories must be truthful. They must not shy away from saying that things are going to change, how we live, what we eat. The way forward is to create stories within those worlds and to face the anxieties that the climate crisis induces.
In other words: get real. But, I piped up (inaudibly), that does not mean we should abandon hope? And yes, that’s a hard story to tell. But that’s our challenge.
The stories of our time: near-term speculative fiction
Burns holds that so far, storytellers have failed to tell the stories of our time. This is partly because the studios push the hope thing; they believe that showing how things will get worse will turn people off.
But there is a lot of historical guidance in the storytelling in European cinema after WWII. Those were grim times, but frequently in that sort of crucible you find the heroes and everyday people who figure out how to live. So the challenge is to find compelling stories where we can ask characters: how do we behave?
Those stories are already all around us. And it is incredibly important that we don’t only hear from white male content creators. We must put indigenous people first and also see the climate crisis as the intersectional issue it is.
Matagi Malohi, a film about Pacific island nations at the front line of climate action
‘Stories of our time’: many may see that mainly as the domain of documentaries. But Burns offers near-term speculative fiction as a good vehicle - sci-fi tends to be too far into the future, which makes it easy for people to dismiss it.
To act or not to act - choose your legacy
A lot more was said by this intelligent, thoughtful panel, about climate anxiety, about using comedy to lower people’s defences, about aiming for connection rather than combat, and I encourage you to watch the replay on YouTube.
The discussion closed around a look to our future: our children. Scott Burns mentioned how kids, rather than being told about the problems (they know about those, for sure), they want to know what we are going to do about it. The legacy they want from us is action.
To which Naren Shankar, creator of the sci-fi series The Expanse, added that showing what it means to raise children in a changed world is very powerful. There is the emotional connection point, and within that changed world, you can also express hope.
So I will follow Scott Burns and correct the title of this post. It shouldn’t be to hope or not to hope. But to act, or not to act. What will your legacy be?