“Every tree and stone are full of Godliness, everything above and below are One”. – Baal Shem Tov.
The Jewish community around the world celebrates Tu B’Shevat on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat. It literally translates to the New Year of the Trees, and really is a celebration of the birthday of the trees. It’s a modern day festival celebrating the environment, and there are definitely movies you can watch to fit the theme!
A Bit of Background:
So, how can trees have birthdays? In ancient times, Tu B’Shevat wasn’t celebrated as a festival, but was a way for farmers to mark the cycle of the fruits grown on their land at the end of winter in Israel. According to Biblical law, for the first three years after a fruit tree was planted, it was forbidden to eat any fruit that was grown on it. The fruit from the fourth year was offered as a tithe to the Temple, and from the fifth year on the fruit could be eaten. To make everything a little bit easier, the ancient Rabbis stated that the 15th of the month of Shevat would be considered a “birthday” for all trees, no matter when they were actually planted.
In modern times, Tu B’Shevat has become a festival with themes of environmentalism and environmental stewardship. There’s a Jewish ethic from the Bible (Torah), Bal Tash-chit which essentially means Do Not Destroy. This means that even in times of war, the natural world is to be protected. With the climate crisis well upon us, this is a timely opportunity to watch movies that get us to reflect on what we can do individually and collectively to take action and protect the world around us.
The Magnitude of All Things (2020):
The Magnitude of All Things is a documentary made by Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Abbott. Abbott lost her sister to cancer, she began her own grief journey that entwined intimately with the grief that so many have experienced related to climate change. For so many people featured in this documentary, climate change is not so distant, far off threat. Their homes and livelihoods have been impacted in real time in the face of wildfires and extreme weather events, all of which have gotten worse as climate change has metastasized. The deepest grief is felt by Indigenous communities. They are open in the film about the fact that for them, the land is a part of who they are and of their very essence. It’s a poignant watch, following difficult emotions that we all need to face.
Dear Future Children (2021):
This is another documentary feature that follows three young activists around the world. Director Franz Bohm spotlights Rayen from Chile, Pepper from Hong Kong, and Hilda from Uganda. Hilda’s education was directly impacted by the devastation in Uganda that is directly due to climate change. Those around her have been displaced due to increasingly severe weather events. She uses her Fridays to directly protest the inaction of her government and governments around the world when faced with this crisis. Although Rayen and Pepper’s stories aren’t directly about climate change, it’s clear that climate change impacts every facet of life in this generation. When Rayen protests against government corruption in Chile, it’s clear that Indigenous communities are impacted the most by climate change as it continually interferes with their way of life. Pepper’s fight for democracy in Hong Kong makes it clear that any action on climate change will require communal solutions and banding together. The fight for truth regarding climate change is an ongoing one.
Soylent Green (1973):
Soylent Green is a classic science fiction/police procedural based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison. It stars Charlton Heston, an actor known for playing many notable Jews on screen including Moses and Judah Ben-Hur. In Soylent Green, Heston plays NYPD detective Frank Thorn in a world devastated by climate change and overpopulation. He is joined by his sidekick, the very Jewish Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson) who brings his memories of real food and plants to fill in the blanks of what this fictional world is missing. It’s set in 2022, which gives the whole movie an extra eerie and urgent feel. With themes of corporate greed, overpopulation and food insecurity, it was definitely ahead of its time when it was made in the 1970s. The overall dark, grimey and dirty feel is appropriate, and gives the audience a picture of a world we all desperately want to avoid.
Woman at War (2018):
Woman at War is an Iclandic-Ukranian comedy film. The movie follows Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a choir director and eco activist who attempts to interrupt the operation of an aluminum plant by cutting off electricity in a clandestine mission. In the course of her environmental activism, a long-ago forgotten application to adopt a child from Ukraine is approved, and she must focus her attention on battling the government and business’s effort to discredit her. The entire movie includes a three-man band playing traditional Ukrainian folk songs which really adds to the movie’s chaos. It’s about family, political activism, and protecting the land, which makes it a perfect watch for Tu B’Shevat.
Two years after he suited up as Captain America in The First Avenger, Chris Evans starred as a hero of a more vigilante kind in Snowpiercer. It follows survivors of the climate disaster that was set off by the ill-advised injection of an aerosol into the atmosphere leading to a catastrophic global freezing. Survivors of this disaster are trapped on a train circling the globe. The outstanding ensemble cast in this movie are brilliantly brought together by directing legend Bong Joon-ho. The society that develops in this train is a brutal one, and is a commentary on our current world. Exploring themes of class only emphasizes the urgency of protecting our climate. Climate change cannot be extracted from our political realities, and Snowpiercer balances this reality beautifully.
Princess Mononoke (1997):
One of Studio Ghibli’s flagship movies had a very important environmental message. The film follows Prince Ashitaka as he journeys to the west to reverse a fatal curse inflicted upon him by Nago, a boar turned into a demon by Eboshi. He teams up with San, a woman raised by wolves to hate humans. Fans of Studio Ghibli will no doubt appreciate the artistic animation as well as the fascinatingly designed characters. Princess Mononoke explores spirituality and identity, essential questions we must all face in light of the climate crisis.
The Lorax (2012):
The Lorax is the animated film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s classic book of the same name. The story itself is about a young boy, Ted Wiggins, who lives in a world that’s artificial in every way. When he leaves the walls of the only city he’s ever known, he discovers the story of the Lorax, the creature that speaks for the trees which were all cut down to create the city. Critics of the movie adaptation said it lacked the political punch and simple story of the original book, and focused more on the zany, child-friendly characters. Some of the whimsy is maintained however, and it may be a great introduction for children to set them on the path of exploring the importance of environmental conservation.
Most people raised on Disney films can remember the absolute trauma the movie Bambi was responsible for during our formative years. Few animated movies have done more to mobilize entire generations in the cause of animal conservation. The evil Hunter is never seen on screen, and yet the villainy of invading the paradise of the woodland is brutally felt. The timeless animation, especially of the woodland and woodland creatures, gives the audience an immense appreciation for the deep and rich lives wild animals have. This is the best kind of Disney classic, and now that it’s available on Disney+, future generations can experience both the pain and hope that this movie inspires.
Erin Brockovitch (2000):
Based on the real-life story of Erin Brockovitch, an environmental activist who has made a significant impact in the course of her career. Julia Roberts plays the foul-mouthed, outlandishly dressing attorney assistant who took on PG&E. With all of it’s problems, this movie is such a good example of how even the most unlikely people can make a massive impact when it comes to environmentalism and protection. The very real health issues that plague the people show in the movie play like horror, and show how our health is at stake when corporations pollute the Earth unchecked.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004):
Before the internet went after Jake Gyllenhaal for breaking up with Taylor Swift, he played a bratty son of a scientist in The Day After Tomorrow. Before we listened to Swift’s Red-Taylor’s Version and demanded to know when Gyllenhaal would return Swift’s iconic red scarf, we were asked to cheer for him as he battled the fictional reality of a world frozen over. Harrison Ford played his father, a scientist trying desperately to sound the alarm before the world descended into frozen chaos. Although this movie shows a fictional mass-freezing event sped up many hundred times, it’s message of urgency is a topical one. It’s action packed with a lot of heart, which makes it worth a watch.
Another Disney movie that has a poignant environmental message is WALL-E. The story of an adorable robot left behind on an abandoned Earth to clean up the mess humans have made resonated with audiences everywhere when it was released. Even though the story was about a little robot, it was an incredibly human story of looking for connection in a world of man-made chaos. The humans themselves, circling the planet for generations when the pollution became too much, are examples of how apathy can impact us all if we aren’t careful. However, when the humans in WALL-E rejected apathy in favor of taking action to reclaim their planet was nothing less than inspiration of the highest caliber. This is a movie for all generations, and has such a simple and powerful message for all to embrace.
Dark Waters (2019):
Another political thriller, Dark Waters stars the Strongest Avenger, Mark Ruffalo, as a tireless attorney looking for justice for a community devastated by chemical pollution. The movie is based on the true story of Robert Bilott, an American attorney who fought the DuPont corporation after it was discovered that a chemical in many of their products causes irreparable health damage. Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA is found in Teflon, a product used in non-stick cookware among other things. This movie shows how long these fights can take, and how many obstacles we have put in our own way when fighting for environmental conservation. The movie always came back to the humanity of the members of the community impacted by the constant exposure to this chemical. We all only have one planet, and this movie showed on a small scale how much we truly are all impacted by damage to the Earth.
These are just some of the many examples of movies to watch for Tu B’Shevat. It’s a time when we can all consider how we impact the environment, our connection to the land, and how we can act as responsible stewards to mitigate damage. We have a sacred responsibility to ensure we and future generations have an Earth we can all inhabit. Ancient wisdom can guide us in best practices to preserve the land, inspiration to do so can come from anywhere.