We rarely think about the night sky in New York. Mainly because there’s so little to see beyond the moon and a star or two. It’s only when we leave (as many will do this weekend) that we try to pinpoint Orion. Otherwise, few of us came here or stay here to see the Milky Way.
“Unlike air, water, food and shelter, it’s not always abundantly clear that we need the stars,” says Ian Cheney, director of The City Dark, the latest production from his Brooklyn-based documentary project, Wicked Delicate, which is also responsible for King Corn and Truck Farm (the star of which you’ve likely seen parked around Brooklyn). Shot across rooftops in Brooklyn and starry skies above Long Island, Maine, the Arizona desert, and Maui, The City Dark will make its New York premiere next Sunday, June 5 at Rooftop Films in Gowanus, on top of the Old American Can Factory.
Forty minutes into Cheney’s film about light pollution and how it affects our ability to see the night sky, you may start to think, “So what?” Yes, lighting up our cities at night makes it hard for astronomers to do their work, but now that we’re no longer sailing around the world (without GPS), what does the average person really need the stars for?
That’s when the film takes a surprisingly dark turn, and starts to look into all the health risks of being bathed in a continuous haze of streetlamps and fully lit parking lots. There’s no denying we need light to operate and feel safe at night, but after watching City Dark you wonder whether we need so much of it.
Going into this film, Cheney says he too knew next to nothing about the ramifications of light pollution—how it messes with the habitat of sea turtles, kills thousands of birds, and perhaps, kills humans too. “I knew it was annoying for astronomers. But I knew nothing about the way artificial light affected wildlife and human life. The way the film progresses really reflects my own journey.”
By the time the film makes the connection between artificial light at night and an increase in cancer rates (at least among women), you begin thinking about the quality of your own sleep. That glaring streetlight that pours into your room at night is no longer a nuisance, it’s a menace. Since the film, Cheney himself has installed black out curtains in his apartment, and now, he says, “I don’t go anywhere without an eye mask.”
Beyond being slightly frightening, though, the documentary is also a poetic reminder of how breathtaking and essential it is to look up. Along with transfixing cityscapes and night skies, many of the experts Cheney interviews reflect on our profound relationship with the stars. The director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, makes a particularly moving statement at the end: “When you look at the night sky, you realize how small we are in the cosmos. It’s kind of a resetting of your ego. To deny yourself of that state of mind, either willingly or unwittingly…is to not live to the full extent of what it is to be human.”
The City Dark is still making the festival rounds—it premiered this year at SXSW, and is scheduled to screen at Telluride, Maui and Sri Lanka, and of course at Rooftop Films. As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, Rooftop has a history of exposing important documentaries–it helped the director of last year’s Academy Award-nominated film Gasland take a six-city tour to places affected by natural gas drilling. For The City Dark, Rooftop Films facilitated a $10,000 grant for post-production work. Says Cheney, “Any independent filmmaker will tell you, that’s a stage at which you’re often totally broke, because you’ve spent all of your money making the film, so to have the support of folks who can get you to the finish line is so great.”
Before it screens on the Old American Can Factory roof next Sunday, Cheney will attempt to ask Con-Ed to shield the metal halide security light that shines on its parking lot below, and casts its glow onto the rooftop and into his Wicked Delicate office in the factory. But if they don’t, it will just drive home the point of The City Dark. “It’s just the local example of what is a global problem of bad design. Because it affects others in ways it shouldn’t, and it wastes energy,” says Cheney.
“We don’t usually think of light as something that’s capable of trespassing—but it really is. If they had a sprinkler set up and they were watering our rooftop and my windows all night, we would be up in arms, but because it’s photons we think of it a little differently.”
Tickets for The City Dark, which premieres in New York on June 5, are $10 at the door or online at rooftopfilms.org.