The City Dark, a feature-length documentary showing at the San Francisco Film Society, asks the question, "What do we lose when we lose the night?" With writer/director Ian Cheney as guide, the film explores five parts of the issue, traveling from the brightest city to the darkest mountaintop, exploring light pollution's effects on nature, humans, communities, and on our very sense of place in the universe.
A variety of articulate experts provide testimony and charming animated graphics help illustrate technical points, but Cheney is ultimately undecided. He experiences an "unnameable feeling" towards the night sky, leaving the viewer with a cache of new information about the loss of darkness, but no direction to proceed.
Cheney's dilemma is framed by a childhood spent in rural Maine obsessed with the night sky, and a recent move to New York City as an adult. Some of the most engaging moments in The City Dark feature kids with the opposite trajectory. A Bronx Boy Scout troop on a camping trip supplies the most eminently quotable lines: "Oh my god. There's like 100 stars," says one.
The film makes an attempt at balancing light and dark, pros and cons, but the damages caused by light pollution definitely outweigh time spent discussing its benefits. We learn from amateur astronomers around New York that their hobby has been rendered impossible. We visit a lucky group of individuals in Star Village, Arizona, a 450-acre tract of land where dedicated astrophotographers and total solar eclipse chasers revel in the darkness. And we stop at the University of Hawai'i, where encroaching city lights are making it harder for astronomers to identify 'killer asteroids' (the ones that will take out life on Earth). These quirky stargazers are the most entertaining characters in the documentary and Cheney successfully matches their passionate descriptions of their interests with stunning footage of starry nights.
The film leaves behind its lighthearted tone in two sobering segments about the negative effects of light pollution on life -- both animal and human. It then shifts, almost grudgingly, into an admission that human history is a story of mankind's struggle against darkness. Bringing light to an urban center was a triumph. To Le Corbusier, visiting New York in the 1930s, the city was "a Milky Way come down to earth." Light can be art, Cheney points out, celebration, and tribute (as in the case of the 9/11 memorial Tribute in Light). It is a vital part of urban life -- any city would be unimaginable without it.
But if we love light, there must be ways to use it sparingly, as needed, to preserve the dark. Because without access to the night sky, how can we form any sense of our place in the cosmos? "Imagining how far away the stars are and grasping that... What is coming of age but realizing you're not the center of the universe?" Cosmos producer Ann Druyan points out.
Cheney supplies just one example of residents taking matters into their own hands, visiting Bar Harbor, Maine, where an ordinance to limit light pollution is voted into effect. It would be heartening to see in The City Dark more examples of actionable ways for urban residents to reduce light pollution. Earth Hour, for example, is an annual effort promoted by the World Wildlife Fund in which the entire world is encouraged to turn off all non-essential lights for just one hour. It goes unmentioned.
The City Dark is a well-crafted overview of the impact of light pollution, but it purposely refrains from prescribing a solution. Perhaps it is most persuasive in filling viewers with an ardent desire to see the night sky for themselves, spurring individual efforts to reconnect with darkness.
The City Dark is showing at the San Francisco Film Society on December 6, 2011. For more information visit sffs.org.