'From the Ashes' screens at Tribeca Film Festival
Along with its usual slate of feature films, this year's Tribeca Film Festival offers a wide variety of documentaries. Some focus on individuals, like Elián, which follows the life of Cuban refugee Elián González; Frank Serpico, about the famous whistle-blowing NYC cop; and Get Me Roger Stone, a look into the controversial Trump insider.
Other docs focus on events. Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and The Rise of ISIS, I Am Evidence, LA 92 and the like grapple with incidents in the present or the past. In the first Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested, who worked together on Restrepo, return to the Middle East and its intractable problems. In I Am Evidence, Trish Adlesic and Geeta Gandbhir ask why so few police rape kits have actually been tested for DNA. And in LA 92, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Oscar-winners for Undefeated, probe into the riots following the Rodney King beating.
Docs about people and events usually employ straightforward techniques. But those that tackle issues and themes are trickier to assemble. It's easy to show a dam bursting, harder to depict the systems and structures that led to the accident.
Coal is especially tough because of the political fog surrounding the subject. Contradictory opinions about jobs, energy independence and clean coal tend to get in the way of the facts.
That's one reason why From the Ashes is such a singular achievement. Produced by Bloomberg Philanthropies and Radical Media, the 85-minute documentary reduces the claims and accusations, the anger and passion about the coal industry to facts — hard, irrefutable facts. Given the current administration's pledge to "bring back coal," the movie couldn't be more timely.
This is the first production from Bloomberg Philanthropies, established by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to address noteworthy issues. Radical Media is the home of filmmaker Joe Berlinger, an award-winning documentarian and an executive producer on the film. (Berlinger directed another documentary screening at this year's festival, Intent to Destroy.)
"In this time of 'fake news' — both actual fake news and the bastardization of the idea by people like Trump who label any facts they don't happen to like as 'fake news' — it's increasingly difficult to cut through the noise," he wrote in an e-mail. "Hopefully with this film, which uses real facts and real people who are affected by the coal industry, viewers will be able to be informed and keep the conversation going in the right ways."
Katherine Oliver, the Commissioner of Media and Entertainment for New York during the Bloomberg administration and another executive producer on the movie, said the documentary was the result of the former mayor's longer-term interest in environmental issues.
"This is a deep look at coal, a nineteenth-century innovation, and why it's not working in a twenty-first century world," she said during a phone conversation before the premiere. "Coal is the biggest source of carbon emission globally, and the biggest contributor to climate change."
The key to From the Ashes is how it presents its facts. Terms like "climate change" and "clean coal" provoke immediate political reactions that can alienate viewers. But director Michael Bonfiglio and his team avoid buzzwords, building on real-life examples instead.
Like a family in West Virginia whose drinking water has been poisoned by coal waste. Or a mother in Dallas whose children can't breathe because of coal pollution. Personalizing the issues at stake, showing the direct consequences of government policies, help viewers relate to what everyone admits are complex issues.
"We wanted to make something that would reach as broad an audience as possible," Bonfiglio said by phone. "I always try to have in mind people I may not have much in common with politically. Things like public health — the safety of our water and air — those shouldn't be political issues."
"The tone we were interested in creating was one of respect for all sides, allowing people to speak for themselves regardless of whether we personally agreed with them or not," Berlinger wrote. "Something consistent in almost all of my work is providing multiple sides of an argument, and allowing audiences to make up their own minds, treating them like a jury and rewarding the audience for its intelligence by not overtly banging a message over their heads. To allow audiences to see the human side of an issue."
Facts drive the documentary. The rising median age of coal miners, the continuing scandal of their broken pensions and health care plans, the falling prices of renewable energy sources, coal's environmental costs, an obsolete infrastructure: From the Ashes builds a solid case that the coal industry no longer makes sense in our economy.
"I don't think any documentary will completely change the mind of someone who's firmly entrenched in their beliefs," Bonfiglio admitted. "It's maddening that logic and reason are being hijacked by ideology. But I do think we can move the needle a little."
"There's a lot of dense information in the film, a lot of data," Oliver said. "But aside from the film we are planning a robust social action campaign through our website fromtheashes.org."
There's no fat in From the Ashes, no false pleas for sympathy, no digressions, no useless complaining. The documentary shows how communities large and small are turning to alternative energy sources, offering paths and solutions viewers can use themselves.
"We have to credit Mike Bloomberg," Oliver said about the overall approach of the documentary. "He's no-nonsense, relies on the facts, he analyzes controversial issues and puts the information out there and has been very committed to issues. Of course, at the end of the day it comes down to the storytelling, to the editing."
Bloomberg Philanthropies has been providing grant funding and other support to select films. Oliver said they were considering developing additional documentary projects. From the Ashes will be airing on the National Geographic channel in June, but Bonfiglio is still hopeful the movie will receive theatrical distribution.
"We're really excited to be able to premiere it at Tribeca," he said. "The festival's become an important part of the New York cultural year."
Oliver agreed. "We've been involved with Tribeca for sixteen years now. The festival was born at the beginning of the Bloomberg administration. It's such a great platform to promote independent filmmakers. We couldn't be more proud to be premiering this here."