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Max Max ‘Fury Road’: Environmental Ethics in Filmic Texts and Production

2015 May 13
by Shared by Steve Rust

If you’re headed off to see the new Mad Max film this weekend at your local cineplex, you’ll be sure to encounter a number of thematic issues related to environmental ethics.  As in the original Mad Max films, director George Miller has set this film in a world plagued by environmental disruption, including oil and water shortages, species extinction, and climate change.

As Miller explained in a recent interview with the Sierra Club, “Everybody on the set had to start from the same ground rules,” Miller said, “which was that all the worst-case scenarios you read in the news have come to pass.”

However, when asked by reporter Steve Hawk, “Is there an environmental message hidden behind all the explosions and high-speed chase scenes, or were you just out to entertain?” Miller responded, “There is an environmental story, but it’s in the subtext. The sad thing is that it doesn’t really require much exposition for the audience to buy a degraded world, because we already see evidence of it happening all around us.”

Miller’s subtle dodge of the last part of Hawk’s question, speaks to a number of issues raised by ecocinema scholars over the past ten years about the role of mainstream narrative films in shaping and responding to cultural attitudes about environmental issues.  I am reminded of David Ingram’s argument in his chapter for Ecocinema Theory and Practice that attributes meaning of such films largely to the cognitive interpretation of the film by individual viewers, not necessarily the content of the film itself. In other words, environmentality comes from how we interpret mainstream films far more than the intentions of the filmmakers. Let’s not forget, for Hollywood, the primary intention is always to make money, not teach lessons.

Although he eschews financial considerations, Miller’s suggestion that he is not out to set the ideological agenda for his audience confirms Ingram’s arguments about how we make (environmental) meaning from film:

Hawk: “You once said that movies like An Inconvenient Truth do little to change attitudes, because if you really want to motivate people, you have to touch their hearts and move them emotionally. Not just give facts.”

Miller: “There’s an interplay between the two. When you give someone a purely logical argument, you’re only involving the intellect. Which is fine in itself, but it’s not a story. A story touches the entire human being. It works with the viscera, with the intellect, and with the spirit. If a story is any good, it will follow you out of the theater. It will come back to you, and you will reflect on it. That’s my greatest hope as a storyteller, really. In the end, there’s no ideological agenda here. I’m just telling a story in response to the way that I perceive the world.”

On a personal note, in a discussion in a class on science fiction and environmental film I’m teaching at Oregon State University this term, my students generally agree that they prefer films that ‘don’t preach at us’ to more direct environmental messaging. ‘We’re beat over the head with environmental issues enough as it is,’ one student said. ‘Don’t preach at us too.’

Of course, what’s perhaps most concerning about Miller’s latest film isn’t the message audiences take away from the text, the actual environmental impact of the film on on the areas where it was filmed in the ecological sensitive desert of Namibia. Back in 2013, when only hard-core fans and industry insiders were following the film’s production, the film stirred up controversy for a short time over concerns that the film crew was tearing up the desert.

On March 5, 2013, Britain’s Guardian newspaper updated a story that was first circulated by a Nambian newspaper regarding the film’s impact on the ancient deserts of Namibia.

As reporter Natasya Tay writes in her article “Mad Max Fury Road Sparks Real-life Fury,” “The Namibian government was delighted when the director George Miller chose to shoot his post-apocalyptic sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road, starring Charlize Theron, in its country, bringing in 370m Namibian dollars (£27m) to the economy, employing about 900 local staff, and paying 150m Namibian dollar in taxes.”

“The film, the fourth Mad Max feature, was shot in the Dorob national park, in the Namib desert, along southern Africa’s Atlantic coast. Scientists estimate the area to be between 50m and 80m years old.

“A leaked environmental report claims film crew damaged sensitive areas meant to be protected, endangering reptiles and rare cacti.”

The original story published in The Namibian, “Mad Max Given Clean Bill of Health” back in February, 2013, Adam Hart reports that the controversy arose after a draft report on the film’s environmental impact was released. That report, written by ecologist Dr. Joh Henschel, had been commissioned by the film’s producers after concerns arose when the Nambian government granted the filmmakers permission to shoot in Dorob.  While Henschel had reported some abuses, the commission “absolved the production team … of any environmental wrongdoing” and said in a media briefing that “the production did not violate any law in Nambia.”

The question remains whether the NFC (Namibia Film Commission) sought to cover up the damage in order to avoid controversy and maintain good public relations so as to bring more films to the country for the economic benefits they provide.

For her Guardian piece, Tay interviewed Henschel about the report and the commission’s response. Henschel’s report documents damage to rare cacti and reptiles, as well as damage to the pristine desert created by vehicles used for production. However, since Dorob had not yet been officially listed as a national part prior to the start of shooting, the filmmakers technically did not break any laws.

According to Tay, Henschel “said the film crews had driven over untouched areas of the desert, and then tried to erase their tracks by sweeping the area smooth.

“They are doing the best of what they can do under the circumstances, but they can’t undo the damage done, to the environment and their reputation,” he said.

“Henschel said the film studio had hired a scientific team of its own to deal with the situation.”

While the crew at least made an effort to fix some of the damage they had caused, the question remains for those of us interested in monitoring the environmental impacts of film and media production whether more stringent environmental regulations need to be imposed on on the studios by the industry itself.


3 Responses leave one →
  1. May 14, 2015

    Nice piece. A key reference here is Weidlich, Brigitte. (2013, March 5). “‘Mad Max’ Accused of Destroying Namib Desert.” Agence France Presse . I also wrote about the issues in a Celebrity Studies last year with reference to the film

    • Steve Rust permalink*
      May 14, 2015

      Thanks for sharing this key reference Toby. I’ll be sure to find your Celebrity Studies piece as well.

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