12 Must-See Films About Environmental Disasters

By  · Published on April 17th, 2014

First Run Features

With Earth Day coming up next week, it’s the time of year to highlight documentaries dealing with our planet and its well-being. In other words, we’ve got environmentalism films to recommend. For our first list devoted to this theme, I’m interested specifically in the low points, the damage that’s been done to the earth, some of it ongoing and some of it remedied. These docs look at disasters like pollution, oil spills, changes to eco-systems and more. And they aren’t all necessarily issue films devoted to making a difference. Most are simply a look at what’s been done. All are necessary works to remind us, maybe affect us, but also to stimulate us in other ways, too.

Below are 12 nonfiction features – a few of them Oscar nominees and a couple of them outright masterpieces – from Werner Herzog, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Noriaka Tsuchimoto, Joe Berlinger, Ken Burns and other great filmmakers who know how to create a feeling in us, whether or not they’re also communicating direct information about these disasters. Where known and available, I’ve noted how you can watch each one.

Before the Mountain Was Moved

Robert K. Sharpe’s Oscar-nominated 1970 feature is about the effects of strip mining in West Virginia. The primary focus is on the people living in an area where private homes are being damaged by the mountain top removal process and their attempt to either sue the coal company or at least get them to stop being “bad strippers.” It’s not as pointed an issue film as, say, The Last Mountain, but it does address greater environmental harm to whole towns, roads and rivers and, of course, this was a very early look at a problem that wasn’t recognized and regulated by the government – through the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 – for almost another decade since the events of this doc.

Available in full on YouTube, via Public.Resource.Org.