Less than 30 seconds into Racing Extinction, we find the film’s director/star/narrator, Louie Psihoyos, inside what appears to be a surveillance van, after which quick cuts of shaky, grainy footage — immediately recognizable as hidden camera footage — help set a mood of tension, verging on panic.
Psihoyos is well-versed in this kind of suspense. Plots of espionage abound in the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, which Psihoyos directed, as the narrative moves forward in a manner not unlike a fictional spy thriller. Psihoyos’ follow-up, Racing Extinction — which has been described as an eco-thriller — unfolds in a similar way, with the launching and executing of hastily organized operations, sprinkled between informative vignettes of expert talking heads and gorgeous cinematography of threatened and endangered species.
However, unlike The Cove where the filmmakers crosshairs are narrowly focused on dolphin hunting operations of Taiji, Wakayama, Japan, Racing Extinction is broadly interested in a number of threats, from overfishing to pollution to global climate change. All of these things, according to Psihoyos (who started his illustrious career shooting wildlife photography for National Geographic) and his well-credentialed team of experts, are conspiring to cause the sixth mass-extinction event in the history of Earth.
It’s heavy stuff. And the dire portrait painted by the film — 40 percent of all phytoplankton (which produce 50 percent of the planet’s oxygen) have disappeared in the last 50 years, the planet’s extinction rate has increased 1,000 times beyond its normal average, man-made carbon emissions are putting the planet on pace for another mass extinction event — is bound to succeed early and often in scaring the shit out of viewers. All of it — the tension, the doom saying — has the potential to be overwhelming and repellent. Psihoyos understands this predicament and intersperses the films anxious and hopeless moments with gorgeous footage of exotic creatures (many of them seafaring) and small success stories, like when his team triumphantly exposes a trendy, yet whale-serving, L.A. sushi joint.
Racing Extinction, which didn’t earn an Oscar, but did receive a respectable 83 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, screens at Corazon Cinema & Café in St. Augustine on June 23, as part of the U.S. Green Building Council of Florida’s Green Carpet Film Series. According to Sarah Boren, director of policy and programming at USBCG Florida, the film was chosen because of its potential to foster dialogue.
“We had a group of volunteers vet all the films. [The films] are all really powerful and well done,” Boren says of the six environmentally conscious documentaries chosen for this year’s series. It won’t be just a screening. According to Baron, one of the main goals of the series is to initiate conversation surrounding the messages or problems presented by the films. “What we want to do is break them down to a local level, so that’s where our panel of experts comes in.”
After the screening of Racing Extinction, the audience will hear from a panel that includes Erin Handy, the Florida Climate and Energy Campaign Director for Oceana, the largest international advocacy organization focused solely on ocean conservation. Attendees will also have a chance to ask questions and find out how they can get involved with local efforts to curb some of the negative impacts discussed in the film.
Now in its fourth year, the Green Carpet Film Series has partnered with four Northeast Florida venues (The Museum of Science and History, St. Augustine Amphitheatre, Corazon Cinema and Café, and Ponte Vedra Concert Hall) and the nonprofit center in the Jesse Ball DuPont building, where they’ll premiere six films, all of which are focused on environmental issues.
With a mission to promote sustainability-focused practices in the building and construction industry, USBCG uses the film screenings as an outreach tool for its Florida chapter. “We focus our efforts on buildings because 60 percent of all energy usage happens inside and 40 percent of all carbon emissions come from buildings,” Boren says. “But, being a professional group focused on green building, our mission often comes off as too technical. The films help us gather like-minded people, experts, and interested citizens and get our message out there.”