In this eye-opening documentary about the adverse effects of electric light, filmmaker Ian Cheney (Rooftop Alum, King Corn) tackles the problem from multiple angles, exploring the impact of light pollution on the environment, animals and even the potential effects on human health.
The film follows Cheney on a journey from the dark nights of rural Maine to the twenty-four hour glitter of Manhattan; from killer asteroids in Hawaii to injured birds in Chicago and confused baby turtles on the Florida coast. Cheney’s film is a must-see for anyone that misses the vast beauty of the uninterrupted night sky.
We spoke to Cheney about how astronomy can help us put our lives into perspective, and where he goes to enjoy darkness under the 1,000 watt smile of New York City.
Rooftop Films: Describe the film for someone who hasn’t seen it.
Ian Cheney: THE CITY DARK explores the human relationship to the dark, by investigating the way in which light pollution has wreaked havoc on astronomers’ starry skies, the earth’s ecosystems, and humans’ circadian rhythms. Filmed mainly at night in America’s brightest and darkest corners, and featuring cosmologists, ecologists, chronobiologists and philosophers, THE CITY DARK reveals how we’re losing more than just our view of the heavens.
RF: Your film presents both sides of the argument over the damage versus the necessity of electric light. What is your personal opinion on the subject? Did that opinion change throughout the course of making this film?
IC: Admittedly, I’ve never met anyone who has said we don’t need electric light. If we design our lights properly, we can gain the benefits of light – for navigation, security, entertainment – without losing the dark, and the stars.
RF: Do you think we as a species need to take steps towards lessening light pollution? If so, what steps would you recommend?
IC: Because light pollution often falls in the category of the “commons,” many communities are enacting legislation that promotes smarter lighting; by encouraging folks to use shielded or “full cutoff” lights, certain policies can prevent wasteful light trespass — which is what happens when poorly designed lights spill photons into neighbors’ windows or needlessly up into the sky.
RF: It is almost impossible to be without lights in the modern urban world, but do you take any steps to enjoy the darkness while you live in New York City?
IC: There are dark places in New York: my bedroom with the blinds drawn; the woods of northern Manhattan; deserted runways out by Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennets Field where the astronomers congregate; the Highline in Manhattan which is featured in the film.
RF: Do you think that astronomy is still as necessary in today’s world as it has been historically? Do you think studying the night sky is still important today? Why, or why not?
IC: Well, I do think we run the risk of becoming a rather solipsistic people, and there’s something about astronomy that runs against that current; seeing the stars reminds us of our context. Our place in space. In many ways, now is precisely when we most need astronomy: we are battered by wars and terrorism; overwhelmed by the specter of global warming; struggling with a struggling economy; consumed by social media. The stars not only remind us how unique our lives are, but also beckon us outward, I believe. But I mean, really, this is a larger conversation.
RF: Do you think that the non-human species affected by electric light, such as the baby turtles, will ever evolve over time to cope with their new environment?
IC: Not my area of expertise, alas…but it’s my general sense that evolution occurs on a much longer time scale than we’re giving our fellow species.
RF: What first drew you to the subject matter of the film?
IC: I grew up an amateur astronomer, building my own telescope, spending countless hours wasting countless rolls of film trying to take pictures of the stars…how could I avoid wondering what we lose when we cannot see the stars?
RF: What do you hope the audience takes away from The City Dark?
IC: I hope audiences look up more, and seek out the stars; and I hope the film changes the way we think about the way we light our world, so that kids in the future can still have a chance to gape at the big old universe up there.
RF: What excites you about screening at Rooftop?
IC: Much of the film was filmed from rooftops in New York City; Rooftop’s support of the film during post-production and now during its festival run is a profound and fitting help.
RF: What is your next project?
IC: It’s a secret!
Get your tickets now for the NY Premiere of The City Dark, this Sunday at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus/Park Slope, Brooklyn.