I’ve never been a fan of Tuesdays. You’re so near to the dreaded Monday and yet so far from the much-needed comforts of the weekend. So it should come as no particular surprise that this past Tuesday I was in a sullen mood having contemplated the impending monotony of my remaining week.
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love what I do. I get to share the gospel of clean energy with my friends and neighbors, all the while making our world a greener, healthier place to live. But you probably already knew all that as a dedicated reader of the Revolve Solar blog, right?
Anywho…On this particular Tuesday—gloomy and unappreciated as it was—I made my way to a local smoothie joint to get my morning nourishment (and to justify the anticipated unhealthiness of the rest of the day’s meals I suppose). After conversing with the staff about my busy day ahead, I was stunned to meet the fiancé of the woman who had helped organize the Texas premiere of the highly-anticipated solar documentary “Catching the Sun”, directed by award-winning filmmaker and eco-activist Shalini Kantayya.
Having followed the development of the film for some time, I naturally took the conversation as a positive sign of things to come as several of my colleagues and I were set to attend the screening later that night. I should note that none of this conversation would have taken place had the friendly cashier not remembered my name and the fact that I worked in the solar industry. Never underestimate the power of good customer service my friends. The Daily Juice on Far West now has a customer for life (or at least until I grow tired of living a pseudo-healthy lifestyle).
But enough with the expository pleasantries. You found your way to this article to read about the documentary and how it’s going to kick the renewable revolution into high gear, right? Well, I wouldn’t lavish it with that kind of praise, but yeah—it’s definitely worth a watch.
A Film that Accomplishes Everything It Set Out to Do (Sort of)
I’ll say this, Shalini Kantayya is extremely competent as a filmmaker, despite the hour and 15 minutes of Catching the Sun being longer than the rest of her filmography combined. It’s evident that she—like all solar enthusiasts—has a passion for the subject matter, in addition to her technical expertise in crafting a mildly engaging, thought-provoking look at the future of energy in both the United States and the world at large.
The film begins with a literal bang as we’re treated to archival footage of the 2012 Chevron refinery explosion in Richmond, California, which resulted in nearly 15,000 Bay Area residents being hospitalized. Following the disaster, Chevron raised gas prices and sought further tax breaks despite reporting a healthy profit for the quarter. Because that isn’t at all ridiculous…
Initially grounding itself in Richmond, the film follows local civil rights activist and New York Times best-selling author Van Jones as he discusses his nonprofit “Green for All” and how building a green economy can simultaneously solve the energy and social crises plaguing today’s America.
“We have an opportunity to do what no generation of Americans has ever had the opportunity to do,” Jones said in a 2009 hearing before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. “We can build a green economy Dr. King would be proud of. We have an opportunity to connect the people who most need work with the work that most needs to be done, and fight pollution and poverty at the same time, and be one country about it.”
The film then segues to a group of low-income residents training to become solar installers through the Solar Richmond program. I felt these segments were some of the strongest in the film though they didn’t really seem to gel with anything else other than to stress solar energy as a powerful job creator. Bear in mind this film was shot over the course of five years, so much of the film is set prior to the beginning of our ongoing solar boom.
Some trainees featured in the film come out of the program successful (meaning they get jobs), others are not so lucky. Still, it was refreshing to see a community rallying around these individuals who were climbing their way out of economic impoverishment with the help of a few extra “green rungs” on the socioeconomic ladder as Van Jones puts it.
From Richmond, we make our way to the hustle and bustle of a China, which—according to Peggy Liu, Chairperson of Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE)—is now the “leading country in terms of how fast they are implementing sustainable technology at a really large scale.”
She adds that, for China, the large-scale adoption of solar energy is not motivated out of a desire to improve the livelihoods of its more than one billion inhabitants, the motivation is fear. Growing energy demand and dwindling fossil fuel supplies dictate that the Chinese government needs to invest in sustainable solutions for its future. Else there will be rioting in the streets when basic energy demands are not met. As a result, solar technologies have been heavily incentivized over the past several years making China the world’s leading solar country.
Specifically, the film follows the ever-entertaining Zhongwei “Wally” Jiang, an entrepreneur who lived until age 7 in a village without electricity and went on to found a solar company that today employs over 15,000 individuals worldwide. Let me just say this: Catching the Sun is not without humor, and more often than not we have Wally to thank for the occasional chuckle.
Everyone loves Wally (at least everyone in our screening did). “I love Texas,” he exclaims at one point in the film before detailing his plans of building a ‘solar city’ in The Lone Star State. He is also one of the film’s more optimistic anchors as we follow Wally on his global journeys to establish international solar partnerships and bring his company’s solar-powered lanterns to millions. Despite his broken English, he also has some of the most powerful and memorable lines of the movie, at one point proclaiming “energy is just like love because many people need love and many people need energy. Especially free [solar] energy.”
There are some other noteworthy appearances in the film from the likes of Danny Kennedy (formerly of Sungevity), clean energy entrepreneur Jigar Shah, and David Crane, the recently ousted CEO of energy giant NRG. All three men command great respect within the clean energy community, so their presence and commentary in the film certainly added a much-needed air of authority.
Tell Me How you Really Feel…
I’m probably going to get a lot of flak for this part of the review, but the film critic and solar evangelist in me have to tell it like it is. Feel free to stop reading here dear reader. Catching the Sun debuts on Netflix April 22nd, just in time for Earth Day 2016. Regardless of my impending rant, it’s definitely worthy of your time, and I sincerely hope that it serves to broaden the public’s awareness and excitement around solar energy.
But I don’t think it will and here’s why.
In my mind, an inspiring documentary does one of two things: it either tugs at your heartstrings or challenges you intellectually by forcing you to ask questions. It’s all about developing a connection to the film in one way or another and nurturing that connection through a good narrative, quality editing, and a clear central message.
Catching the Sun is by no means an amateur production, but it lacks the necessary elements that are going to resonate with the general public. It’s also incredibly unfocused. The editing is superb, and the underlying message is clearly “solar energy is our salvation”, but the film’s narrative jumps around way too much for there to be a defining eye-opener or call-to-action.
For every moment of optimism in Catching the Sun, there is a sorrowful reminder of the struggles the industry has had to endure. In the span of just over an hour, the documentary sweeps from job creation to opposition from the fossil fuel industry to the improved economics of solar energy to combatting global climate change. It’s a whirlwind, to say the least! The word ‘superficial’ also comes to mind.
Although I was pleased the film wasn’t just a bunch of industry rah-rah, it seemed either too underdeveloped as a “here’s the state of the solar industry” documentary or too inclusive for a discussion on solar job creation. We’re all excited about solar outpacing other industries in terms of job growth, but there is a significant portion of ‘main’ characters who are unemployed by the end of the film. Sure they’re full of a certain enlightened optimism stemming from solar energy, but what kind of message is this ultimately sending to someone who isn’t familiar with the industry?
I will say I appreciated the film ending on a high note with the success of the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) this past December, but it was ultimately too little, too late in terms of playing the environmental card. Also, where was the discussion of the solar tax credit extension—arguably the greatest thing to happen to the solar industry in recent years—which occurred only a few weeks later?
Now, if you’ve made it this far in the review, you’re still probably scratching your head as to why I gave such a lengthy introduction involving smoothies and such. Well, immediately following my solar omen in Daily Juice, I stopped off on another errand on my way to work. Sporting my rather suave-looking Revolve Solar jacket, I approached the other store’s cashier who politely commented “Solar? So what…you’re like a roofer or something?”
You can imagine my delight in sharing the benefits of solar with another Austinite, but only later would I realize that this is the primary hurdle in making America a clean energy leader. The economics are there. Solar job growth is on the rise. The environmental benefits are unquestionable. It’s a problem of education.
Too few people know of the opportunities that come with solar energy and even less know of its tremendous potential as a renewable energy source. As Van Jones so eloquently states in the film, we have a unique opportunity to solve the energy crisis with solar, but that’s only the beginning. Solar is a key component in developing a sustainable future of cleaner air, widespread adoption of electric vehicles, a modernized grid, economic prosperity, energy security, and a host of other benefits that go beyond saving homeowners and business owners money on their utility bills.
As I looked around during the sold-out screening of Catching the Sun this past Tuesday, I was refreshed to see so many familiar faces from local solar and eco groups. The film got a warm reception from an audience who was familiar with the issues and technologies, but we’re not the ones the film should be targeting. We have so little time to effectively rewire America with clean energy, and despite touching on the subject briefly, the film did not drive home the sense of urgency that we were all hoping for.
For my solar peers, let the film serve as a reminder of just how amazing and important our industry is. For the casual fan of solar or the new arrival to the party, know that the film is a good way to dip your toes in solar, but there’s so much more to the story of clean energy.
Sunnier days are ahead my friends.