Film Director Peter Byck teaches Sustainability Storytelling
By Kimbel Westerson
In a world of many “glass-half-empty” (or completely empty) environmental documentaries, filmmaker Peter Byck is a glass-half-full guy. Consider his 2010 documentary, “Carbon Nation.” Not only does the title indicate that its maker doesn’t take himself too seriously, the solutions-based film reaches out to everybody–whether they believe in climate change or not.
Byck, a freshly minted addition to the Arizona State University (ASU) faculty, didn’t set out to be a teacher. After finishing film school at California Institute of the Arts, he embarked on a career in the film business, spending more than 20 years doing things like directing shows for MTV, and editing documentaries and promotional shorts for big names and big studios. Yet even though he didn’t plan on becoming an educator, his mind sort of worked that way.
“It’s funny… says Byck, “when I was in film school, which is a long time ago, ‘82 to ‘86, I was already thinking of ways to teach—not planning on it, but things were popping into my head. There’s always been something there.”
STUDENTS LEARN TO MAKE DOCUMENTARIES
This fall, Byck will start his new job as Professor of Practice at ASU’s School of Sustainability and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Media. There, in a class called Sustainability Storytelling, students will learn how to make documentaries about clean energy. Byck describes himself as a big fan of solar power, the perfect thing to explore in Arizona.
“The first place that we’re going to delve into is all the solar work that’s going on in Gila Bend. The class starts in August and we’ll start shooting in September,” he says. Byck’s goal is to teach his students everything he knows in the process. “You can’t replace experience, but you can give the rules… all the mechanisms I’ve learned in filmmaking.”
BYCK TAKES POSITIVE APPROACH
One of the recent mechanisms he has used is approaching environmental issues, most notably carbon, from a positive standpoint. Byck notes that there are films he admires for their ability to motivate change by focusing on the current situation, but he wanted to take a different approach. “When I saw “An Inconvenient Truth,” I thought it was a very well-made film about what the problem was. And then I wanted to make a film about the solution.”
That fresh perspective has opened doors. According to Byck, donors, audiences, liberals and conservatives all liked the approach. “I’ve been asked to show the film and speak at places all over the world and I don’t think it would happen if it wasn’t about solutions,” Byck says. “No one knew who I was before I made the movie, so it wasn’t that.” Nor is he focused on making everybody believe the same thing he does. In fact, one of the individuals featured in the film does not believe that humans are causing climate change, yet has created breakthrough geothermal technology. By setting aside the debate about whether or not climate change is happening, people can look at larger issues. Byck suggests that the commonality between us is that we all seem to like clean air and water.
Most of us can agree that, by their nature, documentaries are educational—so much so, at times, viewers might feel like they’re being hovered over by a watchful parent and being forced to eat those mushy Brussels sprouts. Carbon Nation is a meticulously researched educational tool, but it’s more than that. “We look at it as entertainment, too,” says Byck. If it’s not entertaining, no one’s going to watch it. Even our title has a sense of humor. We want people to know that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. … (But) we took the art and the entertainment piece seriously to make sure it communicated to people.”
ABOUT CARBON NATION
That approach is working. The film received a standing ovation after a screening for 250 high school students in Lexington, Kentucky.. “What we’ve been told and what we’ve seen is that climate and energy films really scare the living daylights out of kids. Our film doesn’t scare them. It was a relief to them.”
The film’s reach into educational settings will expand even further this fall. When Byck learned from leaders at The Boeing Company (which sponsored the film’s premiere in Seattle) that the film could be an important supplement to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, he decided to make sure it was accessible. Recently, at the Clinton Global Initiative America, he announced that “Carbon Nation” will be made available—for free– to students and teachers. Interested educators and students can go to carbonnationmovie.com to sign up for a viewing.
In addition to his teaching duties at ASU, Byck has started work on “Carbon Nation 2.0.” Still in the early stages of putting together the pieces for a new film, he’s already sure that the follow-up project will be delivered with the same light touch as the first film. “When I’m laughing, I’m also more apt to take action. That’s part of the inspiration.”
Green Living asked Peter Byck about his influences and inspiration:
“If you’re going all the way across the arts, you gotta start with the Beatles – just the outrageous amount of skill and talent and execution. But they were truly about love. They used their platform to talk about the best part of human nature. I think they inspired the planet. You don’t get bigger than that.”
Director: Errol Morris
“The film … actually helped find (Randall Dale Adams) innocent.
Since then, there’s been a lot of work on The Innocence Project
for those who were wrongly accused and wrongly convicted.”
Director: Morgan Spurlock
“There was a ruling in Brooklyn against a woman who was suing McDonald’s for making unhealthy food, so Morgan Spurlock made that film. But the film itself had an effect.”
Directors: Bestor Cram and Mike Majoros
“It’s about the Vietnam War and the veterans who had fought in it and came back and said, ‘We gotta stop this.’”
Director: James Marsh
“An amazing movie about Philippe Petit and his walk across the World Trade Center. It’s so moving, especially since it’s gone.”
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
“I don’t know how you make a better documentary than that, and being there when that story changes.”
Director: Chris Paine
“I really like the Chris Payne film. He got a lot of access to car companies. He took Who Killed the Electric Car and flipped it.”