Meet the director of a solar documentary you’ll actually want to watch
For a documentary that’s supposed to be about the solar industry, Catching the Sun doesn’t have a whole lot of sweeping solar-panel vistas or shots of factory-floor whizbangery. And that’s OK. The film, which premieres in New York on April 1, introduces audiences to the people actually bringing a clean energy future into the present: the workers and entrepreneurs often left out of wonky discussions about the economics at play. The film’s director, Shalini Kantayya, calls climate change a “nameless, faceless enemy.” Putting a face on the solutions — the rooftop solar installers, the unlikely Tea Partiers campaigning for decentralized solar generation — offers a new way in.
“We need a story that is about job creation, national competitiveness, and the fact that this is about innovation and the technologies of the future,” Kantayya told Grist. “The people that are clinging to last century’s technology are on the wrong side of history. It’s about showing that what’s good for the polar bears is also good for the working class.”
The exclusive clip above offers a sample of these shifting tides. For Kantayya, stories like Eddie’s — the first solar installer you see in the clip — are the reason we ought to feel hopeful about clean energy in the first place. In a recent conversation with Grist, the filmmaker and TED Fellow talked about storytelling in the climate movement, mixing energy policy with social policy, and how to make this story matter for the people it affects the most. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q. As the credits for the film were rolling, I found myself thinking of this documentary as a mostly hopeful story. Where does this hope come from?
A. I feel really disenchanted with the traditional climate movement and its messaging. I really think that there’s a story that’s being lost in these doom and gloom climate scenarios, which is the story of hope. When we’re talking about what motivates people to effect change, I think it’s actually hope.
I think I started to make the film because I was looking for that hope. I was raised by a first-generation immigrant from India who raised me to believe that I could do whatever I wanted. We came from humble means, and being a filmmaker in a family of scientists was not appropriate — but she really believed in America and the dream of America, like many immigrants do. So I grew up with that dream. And then I visited cities like Richmond, California, where that dream of upward mobility is eroding.
When I first visited Solar Richmond [a non-profit featured in the film], I was moved by this small solar training program set in the backdrop of this old oil refinery town. Here’s a program placing people who are at the heart of the crisis into the heart of solutions. I saw Solar Richmond as a microcosm of the kind of transformation that cities across the United States need to make if we’re going to meet the challenge of climate change.
But for me it was ultimately the personal stories. I met kids who came from violent environments, didn’t have access to anything, were struggling with poverty — all of the traditional problems of inner city youth — and I saw a light go on in their eyes when they got to play a radio off solar panels and when they explained to their neighbor how much money they’d be saving as a result of the work that they’d done installing panels. This wasn’t just about a job. This was about a job that has meaning. The story that’s missing from the traditional climate movement is ‘let’s put a hardhat on, grab a lunch-box, and put America back to work’.
Q. There seems to be this underlying message of an intersection between energy policy and social policy. What do you do about the fact that many of the governmental and industrial players here — in both of those realms — are so resistant to change?
A. For 100 years, we have created and built up the wealthiest industry in the history of the world — largely from our tax dollars and on the backs of communities like Richmond — and this industry is not going to give up without a fight. But I do think that, just like we have the Occupy Movement, there is a sweeping majority in this country that wants clean energy choice; that sees that this is the future.
Whenever I’m skeptical, I think about how, in the last ten years of my life, I’ve seen a couple of things that I thought were utterly impossible. One was the election of Barack Obama. That election was a demonstration that the U.S. can still do big things — that we are still a country that can transcend the past and our entrenched interests, even when they’re deeply rooted in injustice. That happened largely because of young people and because of hope.
The second thing I didn’t expect to happen was the right to marry passing on a federal level. I feel like that gives us a good model for how this variety of change can happen. It happened city by city, state by state, and without a single vote being cast in Congress, we got marriage equality throughout the country. I think the same thing can happen with energy. You have states like California running on 25 percent renewables, and you see aggressive mandates coming through state by state, and as that happens — locally — I think there’s going to be recognition at the federal level that they don’t have any choice but to act.
Q. The film also seems to push in the direction of the People’s Climate March and new faces and these hopeful stories. Does that mean there’s no place for the older arguments and storytelling modes?
A. I think there’s room for both. The traditional environmental movement has done an incredible job in pushing these issues into the mainstream. But environmentalism has still felt like a thing for the privileged. If you have extra money, you can put solar panels on your home or pay for organic food. The shift we now need to make is toward an environmentalism in which we’re not only spending money, but where working people can actually make money. This fissure between traditional environmentalism and environmental justice is closing, and that’s how we’re going to win.
In many ways, the story of Eddie [featured in the clip above] is the Joe the Plumber story. This is the story of everyday Americans in inner city America — or rural America for that matter — a human interest story that’s missing from the climate change discussion.
Q. Well, it’s not the Joe the Plumber story. It’s the Eddie the Solar Installer story.
A. Yeah, that’s really important. And there are more stories here that are missing from the climate change movement. Debbie Dooley [also featured in the film] is my first friend in the Tea Party.
Q. We’ve all got one.
A. She really has inspired me so much. Libertarians love this. This is about having a free market for energy. We don’t currently have a free market for energy! There’s this missing part of the American conservative movement: a part that has forgotten that some of our most environmental presidents have been Republicans. Richard Nixon did what he did [including creating the EPA] because there was a strong people’s movement pushing him. Our rivers were on fire. People didn’t want to live in a country like that, so they came out on Earth Day.
The more that we can bring people like Debbie and people like Eddie to the center of this story, the more inclusive it’s going to be. We have to make unlikely friendships, and we have to find new ways of talking to one another.
My passion is small-scale residential solar. It’s a really sexy idea! The American electrical grid was one of the largest engineering achievements of the 20th century. Yet somehow you can stick a lowly solar panel on your roof and become a power producer, and if you pass the right policies, then the energy companies will pay you. This is about redistributing power, both literally and figuratively.
Catching the Sun premieres in New York at Cinema Village from April 1–7. You can see the national screening list here and check out the trailer below.
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