His latest film, “Time to Choose,” which opened in theaters Friday and is narrated by Oscar Isaac, focuses on another huge disaster: climate change, and the worsening effects of humans burning fossil fuels.
In an interview with IndieWire, Ferguson discussed the challenges of shooting a documentary in countries where doing so could land you in prison, and the potential solutions to climate change that give him hope for the future. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation.
On the changes in the 10 years since “An Inconvenient Truth” came out:
Most people accept that [climate change] is a problem, but I think that until recently, the general view in the air—and certainly the feeling you get if you watch ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ or the number of other documentaries about the subject— is, it’s a huge problem, and there’s absolutely nothing whatsoever we can do about it. That’s why I made the film—to try and show that that was not the case and that there are things that we can do, both collectively and individually.
The good news and bad news about climate change:
The main good thing is that renewable energy and electric cars are much further along now than they were when “An Inconvenient Truth” came out. Now you can actually see how we can solve these problems, and in fact I think we will solve them. The question is whether we’ll solve them in time. Hence the focus on solutions in the film.
There are also unfortunately some problems that have gotten much worse since “An Inconvenient Truth” or that “An Inconvenient Truth” just didn’t cover. It didn’t say much about coal in China for example. Brazil and Indonesia have gotten dramatically worse since “An Inconvenient Truth” was made. The palm oil industry and deforestation in Indonesia have gotten really bad. It’s quite horrifying what’s happening in that country.
The most surprising thing he learned about climate change:
The thing that really surprised me the most was how deeply connected the climate issue is to inequality and political corruption. That was something that I just had not realized, and it’s very, very deeply true. I had also known vaguely that coal was kind of dirty, but boy, coal is nasty stuff. It’s nasty stuff from the very beginning all the way to the very end. And the coal mining industry is a really nasty industry.
I showed that in West Virginia and China, but it’s kind of true everywhere. The nastiness is either environmental or humanitarian or both. In Indonesia it’s both. Indonesia actually has a big coal mining industry and the death rate in Indonesia coal mining is horrific. It’s even worse than in China, so that was one surprise.
On the challenges of making a climate change movie:
A fair fraction of the filming, especially in Indonesia, China and Nigeria, had to be covert, either because it was illegal or dangerous or both. In the case of our filming in China, we sent disk drives out of the country every couple of days so that if we were caught and our stuff was confiscated we would already have most of our footage.
I asked to interview hundreds of executives of [conventional energy] companies, but not a single one would agree. Literally zero. Filming in Indonesia is also not for the faint of heart. If you’re a foreigner you need a journalist visa, which they never would have given us, given what we were doing, and engaging in journalism as a foreigner without a journalist visa in Indonesia is a crime punishable by five years in prison.
Why he’s hopeful about the future of the climate:
I would say that five years from now, renewable energy will be competitive with or significantly superior to conventional electricity in a majority of the world. The rate of progress in renewable energy was a surprise on the good side.
On the state of documentary films today:
It’s the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand, the theatrical market has certainly shrunk for documentaries and independent films, but on the other hand there are all these new digital or internet platforms and I would say that I’m encouraged by them. I think that it’s a good thing that Netflix and Hulu and Amazon are in the market and in the arena now. Where is that going to go? That’s hard to say.