Live green or die
Documentarian Gerard Ungerman’s film series showcases the planet’s perils
As a filmmaker, journalist, and lately de facto curator of the ongoing Green Film and Solutions Series of movies and forums on the Chico State campus, Gerard Ungerman wears many hats in his quest to alert the masses about what he believes is an imminent collapse of the West’s energy-guzzling way of life. On a recent, warm late-summer morning, he’s playing yet another role, that of guerilla marketer, taking his message to the streets, or at least the Free Speech Area of the Chico State campus.
Equipped with a custom-made bike trailer (he rides a motorcycle) that unfolds into a fully equipped movie screen, Ungerman, a French military veteran now calling Chico home after stints in New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver, is on campus promoting the film series, which began in late August and continues into November.
The series couples weekly screenings of documentaries on topics ranging from plastic pollution to the environmental and economic effects of the drug war with an equally wide array of guest speakers. It concludes with two showings of Ungerman’s latest film, Belonging, on Nov. 4 and 7 in the Bell Memorial Union auditorium. Billed as a “scientific and spiritual journey into humanity’s footprint on the earth,” and narrated by Dustin Hoffman, Belonging is one of three films in the series by Free-Will Productions, the independent production company run by Ungerman and fellow journalist Audrey Brohy, alongside The Oil Factor: Behind the War on Terror and Plan Colombia: Cashing-In on the Drug War Failure.
The series itself, explained Ungerman, came about, fittingly enough, “organically.” After an on-campus showing of Belonging in January, Ungerman, with the help of many local environmental heavy hitters, including Chico State professor Mark Stemen, the university’s sustainability studies coordinator, began brainstorming about doing something bigger. The group eventually zeroed in on 10 films that cover a broad range of hot-topic environmental issues.
“The idea was to cover the basics of the kind of impact we have on the planet,” Ungerman said about the method behind selecting the films for the series, which began in August with Blue Gold, an independently funded documentary highlighting the commoditization of the world’s dwindling freshwater supply. “We started with water because water is upstream, literally. Everything stems from water. Then we kind of worked our way into garbage, the indigenous perspective, Native Americans—that’s why we have In The Light of Reverence, which touches on conserving the land and native people’s rights. So that’s appropriate. And some politics, like The Oil Factor. Because we are a resource-guzzling society it’s a very basic thing. I like to call war an acronym for Widening Access to Resources.”
To say Ungerman has a passion for his subject matter is an understatement. More than once he broke off the conversation mid-sentence when passersby seemed curious about the snippets of festival films playing on his bike-trailer-turned-mini-theater or the various pamphlets and informational exhibits displayed at his booth, engaging them with the same dire tone that drives his films.
“It’s maybe a bit cynical to look at it this way, but I see a lot of people, young and old, in this country who live quietly in their comfort,” said Ungerman, his French accent standing out. “Some like to display peace signs, and they like to represent an idea of peace. And they live in these McMansions, with huge cars, a lot of plastic goods, and they have all this energy flowing. All this energy is enabled by cohorts of military goons around the world. They go to countries and secure access to oil wells, or oil routes; they secure all the apparatuses that allow us to live this demi-god life where we fly where we want, we eat anything we want, we communicate anytime we want.”
This idea of modern Americans as demi-gods is to Ungerman the perfect encapsulation of the excess of our daily lives. “If you compare what we can do today with what anybody else in the world has been able to do forever, the abilities we have are mesmerizing. They’re not normal; they’re godly. But everything is energy. We can do it because we live on this humongous flow of energy.”
And he sees the rest of the world striving for this same level of consumption, creating the prospect of an untenable future. “Everyone wants to live the American way of life. But it’s not the American way of life; it’s the petroleum way of life—unrestrained and totally self-indulgent. If China had the same level of consumption as America, we would need four to six planets. It’s just not possible.”
Ungerman’s hope is that the film series will shed light on the issues facing humankind and help us collectively find solutions.
“We have to realize the implications of our addiction to petroleum, we have to regain skills and slow down,” he said. “We have to have a more organic approach to living our daily lives.”