An Inconvenient Sequel directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk reveal why their film has a surprising message of hope.
When Participant Media’s founder and chairman Jeff Skoll and producer Diane Weyermann were considering the idea of a follow-up to the company’s hit 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, about former US presidential candidate Al Gore’s personal crusade to make public the facts about impending global climate catastrophe, they turned to husband-and-wife directing team Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk.
Weyermann had previously worked with the duo, who were making a name for themselves as accomplished filmmakers of social issue documentaries. These included The Island President (charting the environmental efforts of the president of the Maldives), which won the People’s Choice Award for documentary at Toronto in 2012 and Audrie And Daisy (about the impact of online bullying), which premiered at Sundance in 2016.
Cohen and Shenk say they relished the chance to take the reins of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power, which is a Special Screening this year at Cannes Film Festival and opens in the US on July 28 through Paramount. The sequel promises to ramp up the drama, both personal and political, as it follows the tireless Gore on his global campaign.
It includes tense behind-the-scenes footage of the closed-door wheeling and dealing at the crucial Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015.
Once again Gore takes centre stage in the sequel, with Shenk describing him as “the leading man, who tramps around the world, training activists, cajoling businesses, buttonholing ministers of foreign governments to show them what is possible in the sustainable energy space.”
The film was greenlit a decade on from the 2006 original (directed by Davis Guggenheim, who is an executive producer on this new film), which grossed nearly $50m at the worldwide box office. It seemed an opportune time to revisit the issues, to see what has been achieved in the last 10 years and to explore the many new opportunities governments and big businesses have to utilise cleaner forms of energy.
“The exciting thing about the film is that you will see this battle take place between what has become these entrenched fossil fuel interests — be that governments or large companies around the world — and this incredible new hopeful force that is out there in the world in the form of sustainable, alternative energy [from] solar and wind,” says Shenk.
Indeed, the filmmakers were galvanised by the film’s somewhat surprising message of hope. “For the first time in history, there really is a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of solving the climate crisis,” says Shenk. “There is a lot of progress on the sustainable energy front.”
Even the election of no-friend-to-the environment Donald Trump has not dented the directors’ optimism. “One man, even one president, can’t stop the momentum that’s going on,” says Shenk. “Business around the world has got the message. Giant economies like China and India are on board and are transforming their power supplies.”
Breaking out of the echo chamber of the already convinced was important to Shenk and Cohen, who acknowledge that their kind of impact filmmaking can often end up preaching only to the converted — something of which they say Gore is well aware.
“We try and show how Al does not see the climate crisis as a partisan issue,” says Cohen. “In his work, while he comes up against obstacle after obstacle, one after the other, he continues to power through and make sure he’s moving forward beyond the partisan issues.
“There’s a wonderful scene where Al heads to Georgetown, Texas, which is a town of about 60,000 in the heart of the reddest [i.e. most Republican-leaning] county in the reddest state in the country, to meet with the mayor who has taken the town to 100% renewable energy. Gore and the mayor have a wonderful exchange about how they likely don’t agree on politics, but what they can agree on is that it makes economic and environmental sense to turn towards renewable energy.
“And if you feel disenfranchised from the environmental movement, this really is the drama of a man and his legacy,” Cohen continues. “On a personal level, you are watching a hero’s journey and his recovery from the 2000 election. He dusted himself off and now, 17 years later, he is the older, wiser, almost Lorax-like figure, out saving the planet.”
Achieving the impossible
Cohen and Shenk met in the mid-1990s while both were on a documentary film masters programme at Stanford University. The pair, who describe An Inconvenient Sequel as the “pinnacle of their creative careers”, discovered they were both drawn to character-based films with a social-issue element. “In our minds, nothing is more dramatic than people who are up against high odds, trying to accomplish almost impossible things,” says Shenk.
The workload for the co-directors has a natural split: Cohen often takes on producer duties and Shenk works as the director of photography. An Inconvenient Sequel is the second film they have co-directed, following Audrie And Daisy. “We are lucky to see eye to eye,” Shenk says. “This is very personal work for Bonni and me because we have kids who are teenagers and we are getting to the point when we can start to see what it will be like for them when they grow up and live on the planet that they will inherit.”
They describe the brave new world of Amazon and Netflix as helping to usher in a golden age of documentaries. Indeed, they believe documentaries are set to become more important than ever as the mainstream media loses its appeal for vast swathes of the populace.
“It is going to fall on documentary filmmakers like us to tell the truth, the stories of truth to power, because it’s hard to know where to get news any more,” says Cohen. “It’s a disparate world of social media guiding the story and documentaries are playing a more important role than ever in bringing the stories to the world, especially during the Trump era.
“The appetite for real stories and real-life dramas seems to exceed that of fiction for whatever reason right now. I think it has a lot to do with the state of the world. People are so desperate to connect both to each other and to real stories.”