Before the Flood at it's core, is a documentary made to generate discussion around, and to better understand, climate change and the impact it's having on our planet, at both present day and also as we move forward as a society into the future. It explores a diverse range of perspectives from the most dedicated experts to the most convinced of skeptics, covering the corporate world to the political ecosystem, developing an understanding of the problems we face on a global scale.
Whilst its message is clear, the film ensures to cover different angles. It works with established academics and experienced researchers to validate the key arguments, ensuring they are not left without substance. Unlike many climate change documentaries, it takes great care to present possible solutions to the identified problems, rather than simply highlighting the plethora of issues, making its purpose to actively encourage a greater level of discussion.
Before the Flood begins in theatrical fashion, with a short and visually provoking monologue from DiCaprio himself, examining a personal memory from his childhood of an art piece he had in his crib by Hieronymus Bosch, acting as a common reference point throughout the documentary. He examines the story that the images tell, analysing the transition of society from a peaceful paradise to a world infused with deadly sins, ultimately resulting in a nightmarish prison-like society riddled with death, crime and the destruction of what once was a utopia. He is modest in his own personal role in environmental advocacy, highlighting his own skepticism about the real impact he can have regarding the planet’s chances of preservation.
DiCaprio frequently reflects on his own critics, who cite his inexperience, his lavish lifestyle and distance from reality as reasons to disregard his opinion and diminish his credibility. His mature approach to their reservations endearing to him, instil a sense of trustworthiness in his capabilities and draw you into the film as it progresses. In an even more endearing fashion, he introduces aspects of his life, from his family to his acting career using his own experiences to help the viewers better understand his motivations and understanding of climate change. He demonstrates an intelligent ability to connect emotionally with the viewers, speaking from the perspective of someone with limited understanding, as will the majority of viewers. He almost acts as a bridge between the two worlds, often ‘translating’ complex scientific explanations into a considerably easier language.
One thing I have always found with documentaries or explorative articles of a similar nature is that they so often focus on the problems, aggressively attacking the responsible parties, yet fail to express anything close to a solution whatsoever. Viewers or readers walk away fearful with no understanding of how these problems may be overcome. However, the film made continuous and clear reference to a number of realistic solutions. DiCaprio focuses on the carbon tax “silver bullet for climate change”, seemingly the most realistic and practical solution to the forecasted environmental climate. The logic behind it is relatively simple. If something becomes more expensive, fewer people will use it. The barriers to its implementation are not with its practicality, but with the transitional process. Politics is controlled by corporate money, often companies with vested interests in the preservation of the fossil fuel sector. Whilst the film sites many examples, one stands firmly as abhorrent and almost comical in its clear ethical implications.
“We only get one planet. Humankind must become accountable on a massive scale for the wanton destruction of our collective home. Protecting our future on this planet depends on the conscious evolution of our species.”
The climate change skeptics feature throughout the documentary, but are met with overwhelming adversity from the experts. Many senior politicians are noted to be ‘climate change deniers’ and this finds itself running centrally within the documentary. The extent and spread of the deniers within the US government is appalling and somewhat unbelievable. With a 95% plus consensus regarding the condition of our climate, how can such seemingly educated and intelligent individuals be so adverse to anything that remotely constitutes a concern for the long term prosperity of our atmosphere and climate? Then the underlying reasons proceed to reveal themselves.
One which stands out is the use of fossil fuel money purchasing political influence. Key figured within the US government are identified as being enormous recipients of campaign money from senior figures in various oil companies. This money buys them influence over votes that would be of an inconvenience to these very companies. The rest is relatively straight forward. The way the US system work is through votes of the senate, house and congress. With enough influence, votes can be stalled and blocked. This in turn allows the oil corporations to continue to profit from their harmful activities, but at what cost?
The visuals of the documentary were outstanding. The footage from across the world focuses on areas experiencing real, present day impacts of global warming. These ranged from melting icecaps in Greenland’s frozen landscapes to deforestation in South America’s receding rainforests. The use of conceptual animations as illustrations of a future society made for thought-provoking viewing. It also added a layer of credibility to the claims made throughout. Certain footage proved to be unexpectedly emotional. The idea that what was once a beautiful spectacle may be destroyed forever, without the opportunity to return, proved overwhelmingly disappointing. The ice caps and rainforests contain such beauty, and their continuous demise is heartbreaking.
What’s the motive?
Before watching the documentary, I must confess that I had a number of reservations regarding the motives behind the film, particularly due to the nature of the world to which DiCaprio belongs; one where public perceptions take precedence over all other factors, and where reality takes a back seat, making his motivations for the film dubious.
However, DiCaprio’s honesty and humble tone dispelled these reservations, which evolved into a personal respect and intimate understanding that he is quite simply using his platform to draw attention to an area which he believes is of unparalleled importance. He persistently discusses his own internal struggles with the ethical dilemmas surrounding fossil fuel consumption and carbon emission on a personal level. He identifies that his own footprint is larger than most, accepting the inevitable criticisms that come with that. Many perceive him as hypocritical in his pursuit for environmental stability, particularly US media outlets.
How could he possible care about the environment when he parties on lavish yachts, flies private planes, drives expensive sports cars? However to me, his honest reflection of his own struggles proves extremely relatable and his proactive pursuits and advocacy result in a positive ‘net’ value to the world. Whilst his level emissions are uncommon, he is encountering the same dilemmas normal people experience every day. He also speaks as someone with limited knowledge, often experiencing childlike agitation over the spectacles shown in the film, and surprised over solutions presented to him by those interviewed in the film. On the surface he may seem negligent or unprofessional, however in many ways, it’s what makes the documentary. His ongoing learning process makes for enjoyable viewing and invites connection from viewers of all levels of understanding of the issues discussed.
The documentary is a wonderful illustration of both the best and worst this planet has to offer. I strongly advise anyone to take the time to watch it, regardless of your own personal preferences of film or entertainment. Everyone can take something from the documentary, although repeating DiCaprio’s words. I fear it may be too late for much to be done.
About the film
Before the Flood is a 2016 documentary film exploring climate change directed by Fisher Stevens. The documentary was produced as a collaborative effort between Fisher, Leonardo DiCaprio, James Packer, Brett Ratner, Trevor Davidoski, and Jennifer Davisson Killoran. Martin Scorsese is also accredited as an executive producer of the film (2). The documentary premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2016 and was later released theatrically to the mass public on October 21, before airing on the National Geographic Channel website on October 30.(3)
2. “DiCaprio unveils climate change film ‘Before the Flood’”. The Washington Post. Associated Press. 9 September 2016. Retrieved 2018-07-05.
3. “President Obama Urges Swift Action on Climate Change”. News.nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved 2018-07-.05.