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SXSW 2011 – The City Dark – REVIEW

Posted on March 14, 2011 by Noel

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“The City Dark Illuminates, Could Shine Brighter.

Austin, TX – The City Dark, recently had its world premiere in the Documentary Feature competition at this year’s SXSW film festival.

The environmental film explores the issue of light pollution, and the disappearance of starlight in the urban sprawl of industrialized nations.

Directed and narrated by filmmaker Ian Cheney (King Corn), the film follows his personal quest to answer the question, “What do we lose, when we lose the night.” By interviewing various astronomers, biologists, historians, photographers, and even boy scouts, we learn that there is quite a lot at stake in the ‘open 24/7’ culture of the world, and what better starting point for Cheney’s journey than in the city that never sleeps.

Moving from the natural beauty of Maine, to the concrete jungle of New York City, he soon discovers that his childhood fascination with observing stars becomes difficult amid the glowing city lights that block out the night sky.

Cheney, an astrophotographer himself uses the missing stars as a catalyst for the documentary. We follow his travels around the globe as he documents the quality of sky using his own method of judging the night, through a letter grading scale, A to F. As you would expect some areas are far worse than others, but the impact that major cities have on the surrounding areas, is surprising, stretching for miles in all directions.

Witnessing the affect of artificial lights on nature through disoriented sea turtles on a beach in Miami, is a heartfelt moment in the film. And the death of birds who collide with buildings in Chicago, gives viewers a sense of the harsh reality urban growth has caused.

The correlation of health hazards of late-night shift work, cancer and melatonin regulation in the body, are intriguing, and something I wish the filmmakers had explored more in depth, rather than focusing on the, “if and when” a killer asteroid would hit the earth.

While the film drifts between interviews, and Cheney’s own memories of childhood star-observing, with a sort of dreamlike calm, The City Dark at times feels as if the important subject matter is something to be taken lightly. The music in the film for example, and Cheney’s soft, almost sleepy narration add to the nonchalant, pedestrian pace. For an issue as serious as this, there does not seem to be a sense of urgency with the energy of the film falling relatively flat.

Though the film lacks the production values of BBC’s Planet Earth series, and the narrative skill of David Suzuki, The City Dark still manages to highlight an easily overlooked problem of industrial progress, through breathtaking time lapse photography, and charming cartoon animation throughout the film.

It doesn’t delve deep into solutions, or new technologies that would help reverse the damage made, nor does it highlight any large political efforts in major urban areas where the biggest light pollution offences exist.

The City Dark does however call attention to an important issue, and serves as a poignant reminder that the earth is not the center of the universe. The message to preserve the natural night sky, is one that should resonate with city dwellers and non-urban dwellers, alike.”

Ever notice how clear the night sky is in films? Especially in locations where an inconceivable amount of light pollution exists? Next time you watch a movie, take note of how the sky is portrayed in the film. Depending on the medium, some films show an honest portrayal, while others show a more fantastical portrayal. The aforementioned film, ‘The City Dark’, explores real dark and bright locations in the United States. Hopefully, if this film garners enough recognition, perhaps more and more individuals will be empowered to make a difference around the globe.

Let there be night!

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