Nature Documentaries: The ecologically conscious genre


Jackson Piercy

Elephants enjoying a swim in the Congolese jungle in Netflix’s docuseries “Our Planet.” Photo from

When faced with the prospect of finding a way to fit the medium of films into a topic that would be at least adjacent to the world of sustainable practice and ecological mindedness, I couldn’t exactly point to any examples of sustainable filmmaking.

It’s not that the practice isn’t exactly going to go out of its way to be as ecological as possible, I’d dare to say that if they did, it wouldn’t really be enough of a selling point to get people in seats, which is the point of the film industry at the end of the day. No, I had to take a bit of a step back. Not to the practices, but to the subject, which is what brought me to what I’d argue is the most environmentally conscious film genre: the nature documentary.

As long as there’s been nature around and cameras portable to record it, films have depicted the way the world works outside the slice of the planet that people have taken out of it. I can’t say that the earliest ones were terribly interesting, they were just showing the world as we may see it.

Now, that’s not to say that style of documenting nature is bad per se, it just doesn’t have that pizzazz that one may find in today’s features. Why may that be? I would say that there’s been an application, I can’t say for certain in what quantities, of elements that are present in films that cover more human subjects.

Elements like the narrator, the soundtrack, the cinematography and camerawork. Elements that, whether they actually exist or not, create these mini plots that center around the animals that really invest the viewer in the story. Don’t tell me that you’ve never been invested in footage of whales swimming around in the ocean with the right narration and music.

I do think it’s quite interesting how through the elements of filmic language, we can make organisms as inhuman as ants seem like more a friendly neighborhood than the actual function of a highly efficient worker colony.

Giving these human-like qualities to these animals is something of an ecological message in itself. That even the most foreign organisms to us can behave, or at the very least appear to behave, like the people watching the films themselves. It says something about how through the systematic destruction of their environments, that we’re destroying reflections of ourselves.

Those cute little monkeys are going to go bye-bye if we don’t do anything about slash-and-burn agriculture. That family of dolphins? Gone, if we don’t do anything about what we’re putting in the ocean. It’s certainly an effective message on me, to say the least.

For a genre that is so easy to just play in the background, stand in as something to fall asleep to or for light entertainment, the nature documentary is a genre that can be as diverse as it chooses to be, really. Depending on the footage that the production gets, the right script and music can skew both the frantic gazelle and the baby-seal eating orca as the heroes of their respective stories.

All of the filmic elements, all packed in with a fairly easy to digest environmental stance, really adds up to, what I think, is the most “green” genre.