I am fond of movies, both documentaries and non-documentaries, which teach me or make me aware of something I have not known before. It can be a variety of about social or environmental issues such as a position of women in 18th century (The Duchess) or water pollution from energy companies (Erin Brockovich).
We can notice how the number of documentary movies about environmental, social and cultural problems has been growing exponentially for the last decade. It is enough to google 'movies for sustainability' to receive a long list of movies. There are many documentaries that address the topics of hunger, slavery, human trafficking, climate change, plastic in the ocean, natural disasters, animals welfare, disappearing of insects, consumerism, clean energy, and many more. These movies pursue the goal to educate and increase awareness about a chosen theme. However, documentaries are not the most popular genre among the majority of people (Figure 1). For example, the top most popular genres in North America from 1995 to 2019, by total box office revenue, are adventure, action and drama, while documentary is on the 9th place. The choice to watch a documentary movie is often defined by the person's interests in the first place. For example, the likelihood that someone who is not interested in the insect intinction will choose to watch a documentary about intinction of bees is quite low.
So although there are many documentary movies about sustainability, they are not watched by the majority of viewers. If documentaries cannot reach the general public, can non-documentary movies positively influence sustainable development?
When it comes to non-documentary movies, the most obvious function of them is an entertainment. Movies can make us feel happy and alive, engaged and inspired, sad and nostalgic, empathic and compassionate. But can the movies we choose for a Friday night be useful for sustainability?
Movies can educate us about history, science, culture and nature. Hollywood is even seen as an 'unofficial curriculum of the society' (Hollyweird Science: From Quantum Quirks to the Multiverse). This, of course, places on filmmakers a great responsibility to accurately portray scientific and historical facts without overcomplicating the story.
Movies can also challenge the way we think, and expand our views on what 'normal' is. In context of sustainability this can be one of the greatest impacts movies have on our society. We can notice that what we see in the movies has been changing. It is being more normal to see people of different races and sexes playing the roles a surgent (Code Black), a president (24:Redemption), an astronaut (For All Mankind), or a scientist (Arrival). How 2010s romantic comedies portrayed women differs from how it was done in 1990s (Romantic Comedy documentary reviews more than 100 movies).
When a topic is central to a film's story, such as equal rights in the Battle of the Sexes or When They See Us, we are more actively invited to learn, think and reflect on the topic. But movies that tell the story without grasping our attention on the topic, as in the movie Whip it! (where we follow the story of Bliss, a women who plays sport), are the ones normalizing the theme. Movies in which the theme is baked into the story, instead of being a main theme, make us change our perception of normality. What we see most often we consider to be normal. Our implicit bias gets rewired: more examples of women building a career (either in real life or movies), more normal it is for us. The same happens when we see homosexual couples as a part of the story and not a focal point of the movie as in My Spy or Call Me by Your Name, where the story is centered on the love story.
There is a long list of non-documentary movies that bring our attention to the sustainability-related themes: overfishing (Happy Feet), waste and recycling (WALL-E), climate change (The Day after Tomorrow, 2012), global warming (Waterworld), distinction of rainforest (FernGully: The Last Rainforest), consumerism and global poverty (I Heart Huckabees), contamination of groundwater (Erin Brockovich), wildlife protection (Bambi), catastrophic events (The Road, The Hurricane, Geostorm, The Impossible), nature vs. technology (Princess Mononoke), pollution and waste (Chinatown, An enemy of the People, The China Syndrome, Safe, Michael Clayton, On deadly ground, Fire Down Below, The Simpson’s Movie), endangered ecosystems and animals (Silent Running, Free Willy, Hoot), genetic pollution (The Last Mimzi), impact of food corporations (A Civil Action), peace (The Iron Giant), negative impact of technologies (Black Mirror), overconsumption (Downsizing), lack of freshwater (Qeda), ice melting (Waterworld), societal collapse (Mad Max), and pandemics (Outbreak, Contagion, Panic in the Streets, Flu, Pandemic, Virus). But can this movies influence our actions and how we live and build our society?
Researchers investigated the impact of the movies on people’s perception of climate change and discovered that many viewers expressed strong motivation to act on climate change after watching a movie about climate change ("Does tomorrow ever come? Disaster narrative and public perceptions of climate change, 2006"). However, movies on climate change usually do not include information on what people can do to mitigate climate change. This suggests that we might need more movies that include the examples of actions, not just awareness raising movies. We need not just see and learn about environmental and social problems, we need to see what we can do to mitigate air pollution, how we can reduce food waste, or how we can protect ourselves against cyberattacks.
All in all, movies is a great tool in making our society more sustainable. We have movies about sustainability - documentaries and non-documentaries. The documentaries can increase knowledge and bring issues under a spotlight (Romantic Comedy), non-documentaries with an issue central to the story can contribute by starting a conversation, raise awareness and educating a broader public (On the Basis of Sex). And we have movies for sustainability - non-documentaries with an issue embedded into the story. These movies contribute to sustainability by normalizing desired changes in the society (Grey's Anatomy), creating a new standard (The Personal History of David Copperfield), or give us examples of the solutions (The Simpsons Movie).