In the opening moments of director Ben Addelman’s documentary Kivalina Vs. Exxon there’s an interesting contrast of shots within a few moments of each other that puts his thesis into perfect perspective. After opening with gorgeous, sweeping shots of glassy, foggy waters leading to the titular coastal Alaskan community, there’s a brief but telling shot of a large pool of water encroaching both innocuously and dangerously towards the town’s only school.
A stark and prescient portrait of the dangers of ignoring global warming and allowing big energy to go unchecked, Addelman places a human face on an issue that most people tend to ignore because it never personally affects them on a day to day basis. The former whaling community of Kivalina – populated entirely by indegeinous peoples – hasn’t been the same since the 90s. The ice they depended on for their livelihood hasn’t been stable since they caught their last whale in 1994. The village started eroding in 2004 to the point where sandbars and sandbags had to protect the coastline. In 2006, the US government deemed the community unliveable and in need of relocation despite not having the infrastructure or organizations to make such a relocation necessary. By 2009, the start of the film, priorities in the area for the government have remain stuck on building a giant oil pipeline and keeping an equally controversial Zinc mine in business instead of offering any help other than a $20 million rock wall to help as a band-aid for about 10 years (which still won’t protect from a flood of any sort).
Taking a page out of the cigarette litigation playbook (and hiring a former big tobacco lawyer as their own), it’s understandable why the community would want to sue the corporations that have not only claimed the land for their own, but have placed them on the verge of very real extinction with their unchecked power and without governmental caps on their emissions. The title is a bit of a provocative misnomer since there are actually a total of 16 corporations in various sectors getting sued, but it’s hard to not zero on the one company notoriously tied to ruining Alaska more than any other.
Addelman has effectively done what Al Gore couldn’t quite do with his speeches and talks. There’s a real human component to his film that most environmental advocacy docs overlook, and it shows the community for all its problems and profiles real people with their flaws and all intact. No matter what personal issues these people can have with each other and no matter the fact that Kivalina isn’t such a nice place after the sun goes down or what one might think about the morality of whaling, these people haven’t done anything to warrant the lot they’ve been given recently. Conversely, Addelman also briefly shows the one bit of resistance to greenhouse emission and waste caps by attending a conference full of big business professionals who see such necessities as being issues of “freedom” and the implementation of some sort of insidious “social control.”
It’s all a very effective call to action and awareness, as Addelman doesn’t necessarily beat the drum for the issue so much as he simply lets it play out for the viewer. The wise decision to stay out of his own film does lead to a bit of awkward, but necessary expository title cards every now and then, and the film does lose quite a bit of steam in the final third when the community leaders take their case to the World Climate Conference in Copenhagen with little results, but it ends on a particularly graceful, if righteously pissed off note. Still, Al Gore could learn a lot from Addelman with his “show, don’t just tell” approach.