Singing to save the planet

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Belgian film director Nic Balthazar talks to Emma Portier Davis about putting climate change back on the agenda

Nic Balthazar shot to international fame with his movie Ben X about an adolescent suffering with Asperger Syndrome who flees to a virtual world of video games, scooping awards at the Montreal Film Festival. His movie about the first Belgian to win the right to die under the euthanasia law, Tot Altijd (Time of my Life), took the Berlin European Film Festival by storm, winning distribution deals in Italy, Turkey, Switzerland – and even Iran, not known for its love of movies by Western producers.

In the run up to the 2009 talks in Copenhagen for a global deal on climate change, Balthazar directed the Friends of the Earth’s film clip of 12,000 people dancing for the climate on the beach at Ostend. At the time, a host of Hollywood stars graced the covers of dedicated green issues of Vanity Fair and MarieClaire airing their views on the climate change issue. But where are the celebrities now?

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“The momentum on the whole ecological movement seems to have totally gone,” says Balthazar.

A television and radio presenter, reporter and producer as well as a film director, Balthazar claims he is not just another celebrity who jumped on the climate change bandwagon when the topic was hot and ditched it when the talks in Copenhagen failed to produce a global treaty: he is busy with his next campaign.

“I call myself a positive pessimist and I’m ready to take up the battle again.” Together with Friends of the Earth, Balthazar is planning the next round of what he describes as “cinemactivism”: protest marches mixed with film. In September he hopes to make a film of thousands of people singing for the climate in cities across Belgium.

“IT’S A LITTLE MORE SEXY TO ASK PEOPLE TO COME TO DO A FILM ‘‘ CLIP RATHER THAN A PROTEST MARCH”

CONFIDENT

And he says he’s confident this will work. “It’s a little more sexy to ask people to come to do a film clip rather than a protest march where often you can’t hear their slogans or read their signs,” says Balthazar. “Their message will be, we are doomed to remain optimistic. We can’t afford to be pessimistic.”

The song they’ll use has not yet been decided, although Balthazar did attempt to lobby singer/ songwriter and former Beatle Paul McCartney during his visit last year to the European Parliament, giving him the film clips from Dance for the Climate.

“He left them on his desk,” says Balthazar. “We’ll go for an existing song.”

Despite the fact there have been two more rounds of climate change talks since Copenhagen, in Durban and Cancun, it seems the world is no closer to a global treaty. No country wants to make emission cuts and risk economic growth without everyone else doing the same. In these post-credit crunch days of austerity, people could perhaps be forgiven for focusing on their immediate economic needs. But Balthazar, like many environmental activists, warns that this is exactly the problem.

“This whole financial crisis, this is exactly what the ecological movement has predicted for ages. But it kind of annoys people to hear this. They would rather listen to the same fairytale that when we all consume more, we will finally get out of the rut we are in.”

ARDENT ECOLOGIST

Balthazar shrugs off his celebrity status – “the name and function don’t interest me at all” – yet defends those who have left the field. “If you stick your neck out, you are bound to get your head shot off. For fundamentalists, these are guys who come on, make a show and disappear on a plane.”

While known on his home turf as an ardent ecologist, whose first television appearance was on a show about the environment, Balthazar is currently hosting a travel show. He’s willing to confess that by encouraging people to take heavily polluting planes to see the world, he too could be accused of hypocrisy.

But when it comes to the climate, Balthazar points out “I would not go around scaring people were it not for the fact that I’m scared myself.”