5 Short Documentaries to Go With Your Hot Cocoa
WaterBear reveals a whole world outside of Netflix
WaterBear is a free streaming service that hosts an extensively curated selection of documentary films about climate action, biodiversity, community, outdoor recreation, and all things life-on-Earth. Click around and you’ll spot some big names (Javier Bardem, Colin Farrell, and Rainn Wilson, among them), but they’re not necessarily the headliners. They’re mixed right in with filmmakers from all over the world whose works run from two minutes to two hours.
Below are some suggestions for short films (under 30 minutes) on WaterBear that breathe an individual humanity into big-picture climate stories. While climate storytelling often busies itself with accounting for the past and looking ahead to the future, these documentaries have presence. The people, the setting, the emotions, “the shot” are all happening in real time. The filmmaker is there to capture everything: the beautiful and the hard-to-watch.
Kofi and Lartey
Run time: 20:52
This short film is ostensibly about the eponymous main characters, Kofi and Lartey, two 12-year-old boys being raised in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. But it is really the story of Kofi, Lartey, and Abdallah. Abdallah is about a half-generation older than the two protagonists. He was raised by his grandmother in northern Ghana and after her death made his way down to Agbogbloshie, where he worked in the “fields”—an expanse of silvery-dark land strewn with ash and fire—to pay for his education.
Agbogbloshie is home to the world’s largest informal electronics dump, and international media’s gaze has looked upon it for years as a spectacle of rampant consumerism. Abdallah has built a children’s center there and started a film project through which residents document their own lives. “Now, I feel like if people are coming in with cameras to take our photos, why don’t we learn more about cameras and take our photos ourselves and tell the stories ourselves? I think we can tell the stories better,” Abdallah says in the film.
There is a dab of irony in the fact that his film is not directed, shot, or produced by Abdallah (or Kofi or Lartey, at that). It’s the work of Sasha Rainbow, an award-winning New Zealand director who met Abdallah while shooting a music video in Ghana. But hold that against the film and you risk missing the story’s complicated plait of global consumption, family dynamics, and youthful energy.
The Black Mermaid
Cape Town, South Africa
Run time: 9:01
Zandile Ndhlovu (Zandi for short) is a South African free diver. She’s one of the few Black divers in her country, as evidenced by both the film’s title and one local boatman’s refrain: “When I first met Zandi, it was quite a shock. I’d never seen a Black freeline diver, a woman in particular, in South Africa.”
Zandi was not always comfortable with her place in the water. It’s this unease—“I needed to address all the stories that lived in my body,” Zandi says—that compels her and the story line back to the water again and again. It’s a deep ancestral fear that she confronts, headfirst, each time she dives into the water, and a crystal-clear freedom that she pulls back to the surface every time she emerges, glistening with joy.
Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, USA
Run time: 22:00
Juliette and Howard, the teen siblings at the center of this film, are preparing to leave their home on the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. The island is one of the first communities in North America whose residents are to be resettled as a result of climate change. While the film questions terms like climate refugee, the fact of the situation is cast clear as day: The neighborhood is being swiftly washed away.
To be sure, this is not an uplifting film. But it’s not without its moments of levity either. Interspersed in the intimate interview scenes are front-yard parties, banter between siblings, and water-gun fights across the marshy hills. This interplay gives the film a feeling of a long dusk, a golden hour that everyone is making the most of, even without the guarantee of tomorrow’s sunrise.
From Asia to Antarctica
Run time: 17:37
In 2041, the moratorium on mining in Antarctica comes up for renegotiation. In order to advocate for the continent’s highly unusual—and absolutely crucial—preservation status, Arctic explorer Sir Robert Swan and his son Barney undertook an expedition to the South Pole using only renewable energy. The elder Swan was the first person to trek to both the North and South Poles in the late 1980s. He has since dedicated his life to the preservation of Antarctica through more record-breaking expeditions and his 2041 Foundation.
A second, parallel story occurs at the continent’s edge throughout the film, through the eyes of scientists, journalists, and musicians who are also studying and documenting the effects of climate change through work created in Antarctica. A Singaporean musician, iNch (Inch Chua), has brought recording equipment with her to capture the sounds of Antarctica and bring them back to Asia.
The two story lines hardly intersect except on the boat that carried them there. Nonetheless, it’s an informative film, full of expansive tundra shots, polite cursing (about the bitter cold), and the serene but daunting sounds of cracking ice.
Dive Tierra Bomba Dive
Bocachica, Island of Tierra Bomba, Colombia
Run Time: 10:36
Yassandra Marcela Barrios Castro wants her community to see their reef. Barrios lives on Isla de Tierra Bomba, an island about a half mile off the coast of Colombia and home to around 9,000 people. The island is surrounded by the Varadero Reef, a reef of special interest to both scientific researchers (its existence is somewhat miraculous because of the bay’s low light and poor water quality) and to the island locals who are sustained by fishing on the reef. Though many locals value the reef, Barrios isn’t convinced they truly understand the stakes of its degradation. “Have you seen the reef?” she asks the viewer at the beginning of the film. “How can you value it before you’ve seen it?”
It is an environmental justice story with hints of adventure. Barrios understands that most of the people on her island haven’t had the opportunity to see the reef, and she wants to take them there. In one scene, she sits in front of a half dozen fishermen, a local meeting that she’s convened to discuss the shipping route proposed through their waters, the largest and most immediate threat to their reef.
In another scene, Barrios walks a friend toward the water, wetsuits slung over their shoulders. “I’m a bit nervous. I’m not used to this,” the friend admits.
“I was really scared, but once down there it all changed, and I loved it,” Barrios responds.
“That’s why I never stopped.”