Filmmaking, in general, is a messy, polluting process. The lights, cameras, and action use an incredible amount of electricity in the process, releasing thousands of pounds of greenhouse gas into atmosphere. Ali Selim was determined to produce a good movie without emitting that much carbon when he directed his first feature film, Sweet Land, and he succeeded.
Set in 1920, just after World War I, Sweet Land tells the story of Inge, a mail-order bride who arrives in a small Minnesota town to marry Olaf, a Norwegian farmer she has never seen before.
"His parents, back in Norway, felt that maybe a bride would be a good thing for him," film director Ali Selim says. "So they sent a young German girl who had been sent from Germany to Norway to hide from the war.".
Selim says Inge's German heritage, inability to speak English and lack of official immigration papers make her an object of suspicion in the community.
The local minister refuses to perform the marriage. Unable to marry, Inge and Olaf live together openly despite the scorn of the neighbors. But when the farm is threatened by foreclosure, the young couple takes a stand and the whole community unites around them, finally accepting Inge as one of their own.
Sweet Land was filmed on location in a small town in Minnesota. Ali Selim took care to limit his energy use and waste on the set, making Sweet Land the first independently produced carbon neutral film in America.
"Carbon neutral means that basically you just think about what you're doing," he says. "I come from Minnesota where we were raised to recycle and turn the lights off all the time and make sure the TVs aren't on. We unplug the toaster, all these little things that help utilize less electricity, which emits less carbon. It's not a political issue that says, 'Global warming is going to kill us' or 'global warming doesn't exist.' It's a personal life style that says clean up your mess, just pick up after yourself."
So, the director used sunlight instead of film lights whenever possible during the shooting, and had actors carpool to the set instead of driving on their own. He also kept them on location for the entire month of filming, rather than pay to have them fly back and forth from Hollywood on days they were needed.
That approach appealed to Tim Guinee who stars in Sweet Land as Olaf. "Our first task was to make a good movie," he says. "I think we've made a really great engaging epic love story, but I was thrilled that Sweet Land was going to be made as a carbon neutral film. I've made an awful amount of movies and it's a much dirtier industry than you would think. I hope carbon neutral catches on. I don't think it's the thing where anybody opens the newspaper and goes, 'Hope there is a carbon neutral movie I can go see.' I don't think it's a marketing technique, and for that reason, I don't think producers are going, 'Wow, let's go carbon neutral!' But I think it's the right thing to do."
So did the directors of An Inconvenient Truth, The Day After and Syriana, who tried to keep environmental damage from their filmmaking to a minimum.
Selim worked with a British company, called the Carbon Neutral Company, to identify areas where his production team could cut their energy use.
"At the end of the production, "he says, "my wife, who produced the film, added up all the miles driven, all the plane tickets and all the gas receipts and we sent it to the Carbon Neutral Company, and they assessed how much carbon we emitted."
It turned out that in spite of all their efforts to reduce energy use, the making of Sweet Land released about eight tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Still, that is roughly one-third less than the amount of carbon they would have emitted if they were not making the effort. Selim had agreed to pay a certain sum of money to the company to compensate for their carbon emissions. "They, in turn, invest that money in projects like reforestation in Germany or wind mills in Jamaica," he says. "These are carbon neutral projects and it allows us to offset the carbon that we did generate."
Nevertheless, Ali Selim says producing a carbon neutral film saved him money.
Sweet Land has been shown in 30 cities across the United States and at international film festivals. Selim says he hopes audiences will pick up the dual message behind his movie: that survival depends on cooperation, whether it's on a farm in an immigrant community, or in a world facing environmental challenges.