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Climate Change

Sisters Hope Their Environmental Documentary Delivers A Global Warning

EARTHY: Leila Connors Peterson (left) and Nadia Connors hope their new film helps turn around the planet's ecological slide.

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 8/29/2007

"The earth's life support systems are in decline," says director Leila Connors Petersen. She's talking about how our planet's increasing fragility convinced her to direct the new documentary The 11th Hour, narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. "We are still debating whether or not climate change is happening. It's infuriating. While we debate, the truth of the matter is we're losing options for the planet. This is a deeply passionate project for us because we feel the American people aren't getting the truth."

"You go home and watch the news and there's nothing," chimes in Nadia Connors, Petersen's sister and co-director of their documentary. "The rest of the world, there's this vibrant debate--not about the problem, but about what to do. So we want to reverse that."

If enough viewers take their documentary's message to heart, that'll certainly happen. The 11th Hour distinguishes itself from other talking-head documentaries not only by the sheer emotional fervor of its central argument that the human race is engineering its own extinction on a rapidly polluting planet, but also by demonstrating that our species can engineer its survival as well--if government and corporate leadership puts greed and inaction aside to step up to a solution.

"It's really a film to be experienced," Connors says. "You go through an emotional process watching this movie. You need to know that [this isn't a case where] if you know the information, you don't need to see the movie. You need to see the whole thing to have that transformative experience."

"A lot of the scientists in our film say you're gambling with our earth's life-support system," a fired-up Petersen continues. "Why would you want to gamble with that? You buy fire insurance when there's [only] a 1 percent chance of your house burning down."

The 11th Hour, the first feature with a wide theatrical release created by the two sisters under their Tree Media production company, began production at the same time as last summer's eco-awareness doc An Inconvenient Truth. Rather than suffer from "me too" syndrome, the two movies complement each other, with An Inconvenient Truth debunking the ridiculous conceit that global warming doesn't exist and The 11th Hour expanding the scope to all realms of destructive human activity on the planet, from garbage to deforestation to animal extinction.

But what humans have done, they can undo, too. The most amazing, and hopeful, aspect of The 11th Hour is its final act, where scientists and engineers describe an Epcot-like future where human technology coexists peacefully with natural systems and ingenious use of existing resources reduces our addiction to fossil fuels and emissions by 90 percent. In comparison, the controversial Kyoto accord asks for a piddling average 5 percent reduction, a number the filmmakers dismiss as much too ineffective.

It's these already existing solutions combined with society's continual refusal to implement them that equally energizes and agonizes the filmmakers. "We're dying of a disease with a known cure and we're refusing to take the medicine," Petersen says, incredulous. "The medicine's literally sitting on the shelf."

The directors amassed 150 hours of interview footage with environmental activist luminaries such as U.S. Forest Service activist Gloria Flora and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, as well as other advocates for change including Mikhail Gorbachev, Stephen Hawking, and alternative-medicine guru Andrew Weil. These interviews provide the meat of the movie, while interstitial narration by DiCaprio (credited as a writer and producer) links the sections together. Don't think that DiCaprio's just there to put a pretty-faced sugarcoating on the whole shebang--Petersen and Connors emphasize that his involvement was essential.

"We did two short films together with Leonardo [previous to The 11th Hour]," Petersen says. "One was called 'Global Warning' and one was 'Water Planet.'" (Both shorts can be viewed in their entirety at, the home site for the environmental foundation the actor established in 1998.) The filmmakers emphasize that while the impact of DiCaprio's celebrity was a definite positive to joining the project, he was a very involved collaborator, and eventually spent nine months in the editing room with the directors during the final cut.

Despite the urgency of The 11th Hour's message, will audiences already sated by a cavalcade of leftist documentaries such as Super Size Me, The Corporation, and Sicko still want to hear its message? "Hollywood insiders are the people who ask that question more than anyone else," Petersen says. "The word of mouth on the screenings is very positive."

"I feel like we're in a new golden age of documentary because of the failure of cable news media to cover anything with depth," Connors adds. "These documentaries are filling that gap."

If the filmmakers have their way, The 11th Hour will screen not just in New York and Los Angeles (where it's already been in theaters since Aug. 17) but move on from second-tier distribution cities like Baltimore to heartland megaplexes traditionally leery about booking documentaries--not just because they've got the ache of all filmmakers for as many people as possible to see their work, but so the discussion raised from this documentary will trigger a real shift in U.S. policy from the old, destructive ways of treating the earth to a new, sustainable future for our planet--a change that's going to need all hands on deck to succeed. "This isn't about tweaking a policy here and there," Connors concludes. "For me this is the new civil-rights movement. We have to change the way the world works."

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