Why you should care

Because you have to have hope.

Imagine that you leave it all behind: your supermarket, your exhaust-choked highway, your 24/7 screens. You have a garden; you grow your own food. You compost. You take the bus. You do it not because you’re forced to, but because you, your neighbors and the whole world are working together to make a greener, healthier planet.

That’s the promise of Demain (Tomorrow, in English), French filmmaker Cyril Dion’s 2015 eco-documentary, which wasn’t released in the U.S. until this spring. In the past two years, it’s racked up more than $8 million in domestic box office, been seen by a million people in France — most documentaries don’t top 50,000 — and won multiple awards, including a César (the French Oscar) for Best Documentary. Dion, who directed the film alongside actress Mélanie Laurent, wasn’t expecting a rise quite this sudden or meteoric — but he knows just what to do with the opportunity he’s been given.

Dion, 39, had been an activist for years, and in 2007 he’d had enough of seeing money and time and energy go toward trying to convince people that climate change is a looming, catastrophic problem. “I had this kind of enlightenment moment where I just thought what we need to do is show what it would look like if we could make things right,” he tells OZY. “We keep asking people: ‘Quit using your car, taking baths, eating meat, taking planes.’ But we never tell them: If you quit everything, we could live this way, and maybe it could be even better.” Demain showcases projects from across the world — urban farms, Finnish education initiatives, composting — for the most part undertaken by ordinary people who decided in small ways to fix their corner of the world.

People all alone cannot change things; politicians all alone cannot either.

Cyril Dion

The 118-minute film — which cost $1.5 million, helped by crowdfunding on the French site KissKissBankBank — has inspired hundreds to start their own projects, according to Dion’s affiliated movement, Colibris. Colibris offers support and advice for those with ideas on how to make a difference, connecting would-be activists interested in trying to make their communities more environmentally friendly. The film’s popularity, not to mention the renewed spotlight on the Paris climate accord, has people eager to see the environment pushed to the foreground in France and elsewhere.

And France is ready, as the country is moving toward sustainability in a thousand little ways. After the city pledged to rid the capital’s waters of bacteria in time for summer, one canal in Paris is now so clean you can swim in it, and the new government has announced plans to take all diesel cars off the road by 2040. But Dion knows that even receptive politicians need prompting to turn plans into reality; the activist’s job, he says, is to mobilize support and petitions to help pro-environment politicians advance their policies. “People all alone cannot change things; politicians all alone cannot either,” Dion says. “But together, we can do it.”

Demain has also made a difference for the activists highlighted in the film. Emmanuel Druon heads Pocheco, an envelope-making company featured in the documentary that uses ethical suppliers and non-polluting products while remaining committed to fair labor practices. Druon says people assumed making envelopes was an outdated business — “they thought our profession wasn’t a profession of the future.” But for a company that received 50 visitors a week before Demain was released, that number has since jumped to 600, and the factory’s begun a permaculture project and hired more workers. “There are many people who want to listen to me now, after the film,” Druon says.

But it’s going to take more than talk to make a difference. The latest climate change statistics show that a 2-degree Celsius increase is likely by the end of the century. Meanwhile, Jessica M. Nolan, a professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania who studied the effects of the wildly popular environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth, says that while the film educated viewers, any increased willingness to take action on climate change depended strongly on whether people and news stories around them kept them talking and thinking about climate change as a problem. Ideally, she says, movies like this “must have a clear plan for what they will do to address climate change and how and when they will do it.”

For his part, after two years of whirlwind success, Dion is juggling a full slate of new projects: a feature film follow-up to Demain, a documentary for French TV about the impact of Demain and a novel, Imago, due out this month. He’s also developing an animated series aimed at getting children to think creatively about saving the planet — an antidote to the endless Hunger Games–style dystopias projecting doom and gloom. And, Dion points out, it’s not just kids’ books that paint a bleak picture of what’s to come. Shows like Black Mirror, he says, reinforce the creeping despair that as a society, we are headed for a terrifying future, and there’s no way to stop it. For Dion, fiction may offer an even more powerful way to change the planet’s prognosis, to win a cultural fight with younger generations and make them want to live a different way. After all, he says, we have a responsibility to craft a different vision: “We’re the only species that can imagine their reality differently.”

For U.S. readers, Tomorrow will be released on VOD in the United States Sept. 5.

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