Film Review: Catching the Sun

Bright, shiny, unfocused documentary follows renewable-energy advocates as they champion solar power.
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Pointing to solar power as an agent of economic and environmental change, Catching the Sun is full of good intentions. Slickly packaged, this superficial documentary feels like a corporate brochure or infomercial targeted to the blandly oblivious. Events have raced past the filmmakers, who offer only the easiest arguments for solar.

Director, producer and co-editor Shalini Kantayya opens her movie with home-video footage of a 2012 Chevron Richmond Refinery fire that affected over 15,000 largely lower-class residents in Richmond, California. Van Jones, a leader of the Green for All nonprofit, explains that it's difficult to discuss global warming with low-income people facing economic desperation. The key is to find an alternative to "pollution-based economy" that will lift people out of poverty. One such effort, Solar Richmond, trains locals to install solar panels. The documentary follows Paul Muldrow and other trainees as they learn why solar power is important.

Danny Kennedy, CEO of Sungevity in Oakland, points out that some solar prices have dropped 80% in five years. He believes that the entire world can be solar-powered by 2030. But the United States, which developed solar power to aid the space program, is in danger of falling behind other countries.

Take Zhongwei "Wally" Jiang, whose Westech compound in Wuxi, China, employs 15,000 workers. The filmmakers follow Wally to Germany, Belgium, Africa and India as he sells his products to local officials.

Jigar Shah, a clean-technology entrepreneur, and others try to frame the solar argument in economic terms rather than moral or environmental ones. But Catching the Sun acknowledges the political problems behind clean energy, mostly through clips of angry rants from Fox News commentators.

Kantayya developed a good relationship with Van Jones, so her cameras can record the moment he decides to accept a White House post on the Council on Environmental Quality. She is also there when Jones resigns after being attacked as a communist sympathizer.

Here's the heart of a potentially fascinating documentary about how the political process shapes economic and social policies, but Kantayya is content to note and move on to other examples in Düsseldorf or Atlanta that essentially repeat arguments she has already made.

People who believe in renewable energy will not find much new information here, while those who oppose it aren't likely to be persuaded to change their minds. And by focusing on success stories, Catching the Sun can't address efforts to undermine advances in solar power. Arizona recently legislated penalties against solar-power users, for example.

Still, it can't hurt to have one more argument in favor of solar power, no matter how superficial.

Click here for cast and crew information.