Verge Meets – Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

Recently released in cinemas was Al Gore’s follow up documentary to An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which was entitled An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. This documentary continues to follow Al Gore through his time of waking people up to the dangers of climate change, while also showing us just how close we are to a renewable revolution in energy.

I was lucky enough to have interviewed the lovely married couple who directed this documentary and who have both worked on many others as well.

Verge: What’s it like following Al Gore through his day to day career?

Bonni: Well you know, I laugh because we often joke with Al Gore and refer to him as the Energizer Bunny as he’s got more energy than somebody half his age. We are a lot younger than he is and even we could barely keep up with him. He’s got so much energy and enthusiasm for the work that he does and a tireless conviction, it’s just kind of incredible. So that’s the first thing, we were exhausted.

But I have to say, to have a front row seat during this period of time, particularly when the political landscape in our country at least is pretty dark. To see someone who has turned a political career into a new career of activism is actually incredibly meaningful and he is full of factual information and truth. With forwarding motions towards solutions focused on solving the climate crisis, which was very inspiring for us.

V: So with following his climate change journey, did you learn any new information on climate change or anything that really shocked you?

Jon: Al Gore has an incredible team of people who have all the latest information and are constantly updating the slide show. You see in the film, for example, he goes to Greenland to meet with scientists and he also studies the rise of sea levels in our country. He’s constantly updating so you can’t help but learn an incredible amount. The thing that really shocked Bonni and me, I mean we are people who consider ourselves fairly educated about the environment but it was how close we are with the solutions with sustainable energy. Like how much of the world’s energy now comes from solar and wind, how much potential there is because of the price decrease in solar and wind technology. It’s really sped up in the last few years.

I mean in the last film it was kind of a hopeful thing on the horizon that these technologies might save us but now it is really here. When we actually get to the point that it is cheaper for a Republican town in Texas to use solar and wind than oil and gas, you know things are changing.

V: So with the making of the film, was there one moment in the film or one moment while making it that particularly stands out for you?

Bonni: Being in Greenland with Al standing at the foot of the Jakobshavn Glacier was a little bit harrowing because here is a man who has been trying to solve the climate crisis for 4 decades now. There we were at one of the wonders of the natural world and its melting faster than you can believe, it’s melting faster than the last time he had been there. That was a reckoning for us.

On the other hand, one of the scientist he met at that time (Eric Rignot). Eric had just published a new study on Antartica and Al was extremely upset and it rattled him to the core and he said to Eric “How can I think about this in an optimistic way, such that I can go forward with this work?” Eric said, “look at this as having one pinky finger cut off there is a loss but there is also still nine others to save”. So that was very meaningful for us to hear that perspective and hear it at the same time Al Gore was hearing it. To understand how he synthesises this information in an optimistic way and keeps moving forward. We can’t be paralysed of the damage we’ve done, we can’t fear it, we just have to move on.

V: It’s kind of oddly beautiful seeing all these lovely sights but seeing and knowing the damage that is being done.

Bonni: Right, then at the same time trying to figure out the way forward despite the damage.

V: So what are your hopes for this documentary, what do you set to achieve or what is its purpose?

Jon: Well we really feel that this film will stand on the shoulders of the first film. Which gave so many people the language to have a meaningful conversation about greenhouse gases and fossil fuels. We hope this furthers the conversation by telling people the danger and how close we are to the tipping point with the environment. Also the incredible hope that’s in reach with these sustainable energies that have come easier to deploy. We really feel like there is a new story.

Al Gore is at a point in his life where he allows us to have access to these incredible scenes, the negotiation in Paris for example. He has an emotional passion where he connects the movement to other great social movements like the civil rights movement or the gay rights movement. We really feel like that is another tipping point occurring, that people are getting more emotional about this. They are starting to make it a priority with what they do in their lives.

V: So because you are following Al Gore’s life you obviously have the events before Donald Trump was elected and then the fact that he was elected, what was it like to follow Al Gore during this shocking development?

Bonni: His reaction and response to Trump becoming president were very similar to what a lot of us were feeling at the time. There’s no way to sugarcoat it was shocking and devastating to the environment on the one hand mostly because of the appointments he put into his cabinet. Then there was the threat of Trump pulling the US out of the Paris agreement. So it was a tough time, Al does attempt to meet with Trump in the film a couple of times to explain the agreement and the accord and how important it is. There were moments where we thought it was a 50/50 that Trump would stay in Paris and was, of course, disappointed when he pulled out. Overall what was really inspiring for us was to see how Al was concentrating on what local communities were trying to do here in the US who are still incredibly committed to doing the right thing for the environment. So while we are devastated by what’s happening with the federal government there is still optimism if you look at the other good work that is done around the country.

V: A lot of people still dismiss climate change, so after working on this documentary what would you say or what do you think about that?

Jon: Well I think it is becoming more difficult for people to dismiss it, as more people around the world are witnessing the harsher storms. Actually today in Texas we are experiencing a hurricane which like a lot of storms these days is stronger and intense than they have been in the past. We are experiencing a frequency that’s becoming alarming to people. Actually, a lot of the film is made up of user generated footage of people filming from their phones as they can’t believe what they are seeing, Mother nature is really screaming very loudly about this right now.

We took a page out of Al Gores book where we have to patiently explain to people what the danger is, what the cause is, what the basic science is and denying that is really akin to denying the effects of gravity. We must find solutions and they are here so we are at a very exciting time where we can move in the right direction.

V: So I thought the first documentary clearly highlights the issue and people still seem to sort of ignore it but now this documentary makes it clear there is a danger, so what were your thoughts on the fact this was a follow-up documentary? Was that your idea to get it into peoples head that the danger is worse now but here is hope and a way to fix it?

Bonni: Exactly! The idea was to look at the climate crisis, extreme weather events that were much worse than they were 10 years ago, look at the science and look at the new studies. Sound the alarm bell about that but at the same time signal to populations that we have in the hand the solutions to turn this around. Which is very hopeful news as opposed to 10 years ago. That kind of two pronged attacks of sounding the alarm bells but also empowering people to make a change that’s really in their hand at this point.

V: So where do you start with making a documentary like this?

Jon: Well we were invited to get involved with this project by participant media who did the first film and the first thing we did was went to visit Al Gore, in his home and he gave us a 10-hour version of his updated slide show. This had all the nightmare stuff going on, the ecological system being damaged it was horribly alarming and depressing but then later in the presentation, he showed us all the hopeful information of what was happening with renewable energy.

What we walked away with was a deep understanding of where we were with this issue but even more importantly we walked away with this incredibly inspired sense of where Al Gore was as a human being, this energy he has and how emotional he has become about this issue. So we pitched the idea of doing a behind the scenes film to go a little deeper into his personality and see the work he does on these presentations. Fortunately, he went for it and gave us the access which really is an incredible view of his life as an activist on the issue, as an educator, as a politician who’s working behind the scenes. We really think it is a privilege to have seen the view of him.

V: Has it made you more involved in the cause?

Jon: We do what we can! We’ve made one other film about the environmental crisis called The Island President. We really find this work very meaningful, in our personal lives Bonni and I have two teenagers and we’ve worked in their schools and showed our films in their schools. We have moved towards electric vehicles and solar power in our homes, we try to do what we can do on an individual level and in our community to help bring awareness to the issue. I mean we do what we can with our careers and storytelling skills to make these types of films.

V: Is it more beneficial that you get to make these things together, as it must be nice for the both of you to get to work together?

Jon: It’s really amazing. Bonni and I are a married couple and we met in film school. Co-directing this film was very emotional because the climate crisis for people like Bonni and me who are in our 40’s have really lived with this issue. We were both aware of it in college but there was always a sense of frustration as an environmentalist as people weren’t taking it very seriously. It wasn’t high enough of a priority on the political agenda but that’s one thing we have noticed working on this the last couple years is that it has become more emotional for people. Young people are very emotional about it and Al Gore points out in the film that it is a social issue. So I think more people are becoming more emotional about it and Bonni and I share that. We feel very emotional about it, we feel scared for our children and the world they will inhabit so it drives us from that point of view as well.

V: So my last question for the both of you, what does it mean to be inconvenient?

Jon: I think it means to be unafraid to speak the truth, to make solving the climate crisis a priority in your life. To ask yourself what can you do in your personal life, whether it is for your school, your company or your home. To move towards to solutions, to see this movie first of all and start with the basic of education and move forward with the change. The amazing thing that has happened is anybody can get involved now. If you work for a company, you can ask the leaders of the company where does the energy come from? How can we be part of the solution here?  If you live in a home you can change the energy source, you can talk to your landlord about where the energy comes from? It’s about turning inwards and asking how you can be part of the solution?

Bonni: The way I have thought about it, is that is doing something in your life that feels difficult. That extends you or your family and the way that you’ve been living for many years and do something to change the ease of which you have been living your life that will benefit the environment. Whether that’s not having a car and taking public transport or whether that is putting solar panels on your roof. Being inconvenient means stepping outside the flow of your normal life, taking a look at the world around you and seeing what kind of changes you can make. To help the climate crisis come along.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is out now!

Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huX1bmfdkyA

Verge Meets with Al Gore – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3t4dR2juhI