The Revenant might have won Leonardo DiCaprio his first Academy Award after several nominations for a bunch of great movies through his decade-and-a-half Hollywood film career. But his role as the lead narrator in Before The Flood could be the most pivotal in our understanding of the phenomenon of climate change and correcting the misconceptions perpetuated by vested interests.
Before the Flood, distributed by National Geographic, released to a global audience on 30 October 2016. The documentary has already been seen by 64 million viewers, making it the most watched documentary since 2000. It is also an improvement on The Inconvenient Truth, which released in 2006 and followed Al Gore, the then US presidential candidate, as he went around a lecture circuit creating awareness about climate change.
DiCaprio was designated as a United Nations (UN) Messenger of Peace with a special focus on climate change in 2014. For the next two years, he travelled the globe meeting politicians, policy makers, astronauts, climate scientists and environmental activists to understand what is the current health of our planet. This documentary is a culmination of those travels. DiCaprio strove to champion the cause of action against climate change ever since he burst on to the Hollywood film scene and into people’s hearts with the iconic Titanic. As a 20-year-old, he met then President Bill Clinton to understand his views on climate change and five years later, had an audience with Al Gore to learn about his predictions of the fate of the earth. So DiCaprio has come full circle with being the messenger of one of the most important subjects of our times.
DiCaprio’s fascination with natural places and its inhabitants, however, goes back to his childhood when he used to escape to the Natural History Museum in downtown Los Angeles. The film opens with DiCaprio reminiscing about the intriguingly wonderful Hieronymus Bosch painting from 1500, The Garden of Earthly Delights, that hung over his childhood crib. He used to stare at it every night. The painting is a haunting depiction of Adam and Eve along with birds, elephants etc in the first panel; deadly sin, overpopulation and debauchery, which could be considered our present times are seen in the second; while the nightmarish destruction and decay of a burnt landscape depicted in the third panel suggests the future of humankind. How Bosch had the foresight to predict our eventual doom if the current rates of annihilation of the earth continues is a mystery.
From this gripping beginning, the film follows DiCaprio as he meets the UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon who confers on him the accolade of Messenger of Peace. DiCaprio then address a UN climate summit that reads as if it has been written by a dour Hollywood scriptwriter. He mentions how humanity has looked at climate change as a fictitious story just like the ones he portrays in his Hollywood films. But his actual thoughts become evident when he expresses pessimism about future of mankind and even jokes that the UN may have picked the wrong guy to educate the world about climate change.
The scene briefly shifts to the sets of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant being filmed in Alberta, Canada at the time. This was a film set ironically before the dawn of industrial revolution and during man’s pillaging of the natural world. Ultimately, to complete a few sequences in snow clad mountains, Iñárritu had to shift his sets to Ushuaia in Argentina as the snow had completely melted that year due to record high temperatures in Canada.
From here, the film goes straight to the heart of its subject. In his quest to understand how climate is being impacted, DiCaprio takes helicopter rides over what would once have been beautiful arboreal forests in Canada and dense evergreen jungles of Indonesia and Sumatra. In Canada, he witnesses how boreal forests are cut down exposing miserable blackened earth to run mega projects to extract oil. In Indonesia, he meets orphaned orangutans locked in cages, being rendered homeless after the forests they inhabit were cut down. Massive tracts of fantastic forests have been cut down to grown endless rows of palm oil which is used in everything from snacking chips to fragrant bathing soaps. DiCaprio learns these demands for natural resources like coal and natural gas and the ever increasing human consumption are major causes for climate change. Later in the film, DiCaprio meets Gidon Eshel, an environmental physicist at the Bard College who suggests something radical but easily doable like reducing the Western world’s beef consumption by half in order to combat further increase in temperature. Methane emitted by cattle is 20 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide emitted by vehicles and industries, hence responsible for rise in temperature.
DiCaprio also travels, to see the impact of climate change, to places like Greenland covered with ice and dives underwater to look at coral reefs in the Atlantic. In Greenland he witnesses ice rapidly melting and what was once a thick blue layer is now blackened thin sheet. Increased temperatures have left more than half of world’s coral reefs dead in the past 30 years wiping off staggering diversity of marine life.
In India, he meets with the indomitable Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment who leaves DiCaprio dumbfounded with her straight talking on the impact the United States have had on world’s climate and reminds him of the responsibility towards rectifying it’s damaging actions. In smog choked Beijing, not unlike the recent events in Delhi, DiCaprio finds the Chinese government has taken cognisance of people demonstrating against the bad air of the city. So, although the Chinese are the largest polluters of the environment, they are also the biggest investors in renewable energy resources. As are Nordic countries like Denmark and Sweden, which is the first fossil-fuel free country.
Without doubt with DiCaprio’s connections and being a film celebrity gives him access to leaders like Barack Obama, John Kerry and the UN. He also gets an audience with the Pope who has become the first of his kind to declare his feelings about climate change. But Before the Flood is a timely and important film putting in perspective the current state of our only home. It also shows how our future actions can determine the fate of the earth. With timely action we may just be able to arrest the rising temperatures. This could be the greatest cause and role DiCaprio has essayed so far.
Watch the trailer for Before The Flood here: