Ever step into your suburban backyard or climb to the rooftop of your urban apartment building during the evening hours and thought to yourself: What in the world happened to that beautiful and vast night sky? Where did the darkness go? How can I wish upon a star if I can't even see any? I myself, as a long-time resident of the city that never sleeps (or turns the lights off), have wondered these things.
Late last July, I spent a long weekend with friends at a cabin situated on a remote lake in the Adirondacks where we enjoyed some truly spectacular weather during the daylight hours. It was after the sun went down, however, that things really came alive. It was like I had never seen the unblemished, star-filled sky before. I could have lain there, splayed out on a diving board jutting over the lake, for hours with my head tilted upwards towards the heavens and nothing around me but trees and water. And, along with my friends who had traveled not just from New York but from the similarly darkness-starved cities of Los Angeles and Chicago, I did just that — stargazed for what seemed like eternity.
This all may sound trite but for an urbanite who rarely experiences the night sky in its mysterious, full-on splendor, it was magical, even transformative. I didn't want the darkness to end.
Ian Cheney’s “The City Dark,” a new feature-length documentary about light pollution and the disappearance of the night sky, attempts to answer the above questions. I haven’t yet seen the “The City Dark” in its entirety but based on clips and trailers, it looks to be a haunting, thought-provoking film. And for me, it’s a film that hits home, literally, as parts of “The City Dark” were filmed right above my very head, on the rooftop of my apartment building (Cheney is a former next door neighbor) in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It’s a place where I myself have often attempted to stargaze up while completely surrounded by the perpetual glow of New York City.
If Cheney’s name sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because I’ve featured two of his previous endeavors before: The Truck Farm film/food project and the LEED-demystifying green building documentary, “Greening of Southie.” In a 2009 interview, Cheney — he also appeared as one of MNN’s featured “40 Farmers Under 40” and co-created and co-starred in, along with longtime collaborator Curt Ellis, the Peabody Award-winning documentary, “King Corn” — explained to me the premise of his latest project: “The film asks a simple question — do we need darkness? — and sets out from the city that never sleeps to see our darkest (and brightest) places around the world. Along the journey, and from the film’s home base in New York, we learn how light pollution not only affects our connection to the broader universe, but also affects our ecosystems and human health as well.”
Two-and-a-half years later, it’s great to finally see “The City Dark” get its big New York theatrical premiere at the IFC Center (it takes place this evening, by the way). The film has done well on the festival circuit, picking up a Jury Prize for Best Score/Music at SXSW (The Fishermen Three and Ben Fries did the music) and the Grand Jury Prize at the Yale Environmental Film Festival. Critical response has been overwhelming positive with The New York Times heralding it as a Critics Pick (no small feat) and noting that the “entertaining and thought-provoking” film “makes you want to go find a starry sky to camp under quickly, before it’s all gone.”
And as Cheney alluded to in our 2009 Q&A, “The City Dark” isn’t just about the effects of light pollution in and around his homebase of New York City (he's actually a native of rural Maine) although much of the film is based there. He travels to a “Sky Village” in Arizona for some good, old-fashioned stargazing; to the Florida coast to observe, first hand, how Miami’s constant glow disorients, and ultimately kills, hatchling sea turtles; and to Chicago where thousands upon thousands birds perish or are injured after becoming disoriented by artificial light and collide into buildings.
Along his journey, Cheney chats about light pollution with a wide-range of characters (many with titles that include “astro,” “cosmo,” or “ist”) including astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, astronaut Don Pettit, and astrophotographer Jack Newton (Cheney himself, in addition to being a Heinz Award-winning filmmaker and activist, is an accomplished astrophotographer).
Head on over to the “The City Dark” homepage to read more about the film and the creative team behind it. And if you’re in the New York area, click here for a schedule of upcoming screenings at the IFC Center. The film runs through Jan. 24 and it would be a shame to miss it on the big screen before it goes, well, dark. I'm going to try and catch it myself but in the meantime, I'll be dreaming of that dazzling night sky in the Adirondacks.