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Above: Al Gore visiting Tacloban City in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, in a scene from An Inconvenient Sequel.

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Above: the husband-and-wife directing team of Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen.

Taking the climate-change story forward

Jon Shenk, the co-director of An Inconvenient Sequel, talks about working with former US VP Al Gore on this follow-up documentary.
Aug 18, 2017 5:50 AM

DESPITE what US President Donald Trump may think, many Americans consider climate change to be one of the most important issues of our time, and being asked to convey that message to a broader audience is no small responsibility. Documentary film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is the follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 film that raised the alarm about climate change, provided former US vice president Al Gore with an advocacy platform - and won an Academy Award in the process.

Husband-and-wife directing team Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen took up the reigns where An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim left off, following Mr Gore around with their cameras for much of 2016 as he journeyed around the world giving speeches, witnessing the effects of global warming and attending the conference of world leaders that culminated in the Paris climate accord.

"An Inconvenient Truth was an incredible moment for documentary history and gave momentum to the conversation on climate change," says Shenk, on the line from his home in San Francisco. "Our film stands on the shoulders of the first film - it was a big part of our own awakening," he notes, adding that Guggenheim helped to craft the storyline in An Inconvenient Sequel.

The couple were already believers before embarking on the project, eating sustainably, driving an electric car and living in a home powered in part by solar energy. "Bonni and I felt deeply honoured to be asked to direct the film," explains Shenk. "Documentaries with a theatrical release have a much harder time now than 10 or 15 years ago because many people watch films online - even so, we're on track to become the most successful documentary of the year."

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Shenk and Cohen met with Mr Gore at his Tennessee home in 2015, spent hours in conversation and came away with a commitment to do a second film. "We felt like there was a human story to tell, and we were inspired by how much energy and passion he puts into the topic with his climate-training programmes, updates on his slide show and how he's also involved with working on solutions."

He adds: "Audiences were surprised by his personal story and the hope that new technology provides - they feel an emotional connection to this issue."

Much of the film's second half focuses on Mr Gore's behind-the-scenes manoeuvring during the Paris talks, huddling with various politicians and making use of his connections to broker last-minute deals. "It was a political thriller moment," points out Shenk. "We were blown away by how close we are to finding solutions."

According to him, American energy firms with political clout are powerful lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry but there are signs that the tide is turning. "One thing we're surprised by is that when Trump made his announcement (withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty), we were shocked at how the rest of the world stood up, and many world leaders doubled down. Now with support from many corporate leaders, it looks like we'll abide by the treaty whether or not Trump agrees with it."

It's a shame that the climate change issue has been politicised, adds Shenk. "Ironically, one of the most conservative American values is our love of the land and our national parks," he notes. "The bizarre denialist stance of big companies is hurting the rest of the world but there are signs that many Republicans are starting to get on board."

An Inconvenient Sequel marks the second consecutive year that Shenk and Cohen have launched a film at the Sundance Film Festival. Their documentary on sexual abuse in high schools, Audrie & Daisy, was shown at last year's festival. The directors have a couple of potential projects in the works but are still deep in the process of promoting their current movie. "I don't think there's any chance we're going to be at Sundance in 2018," concludes Shenk.