Woods Hole Film Festival: “The City Dark”

August 3, 2011

“The City Dark” Ian Cheney explores light pollution in “The City Dark,” a feature documentary to be screened tonight at 5 PM in Redfield Auditorium.

An amateur astronomer, Mr. Cheney moved from Maine, where, as a teenager, he studied the stars through his homemade telescope, to New York City. There, the Great White Way and  myriad other artificial lights obscured all but a few stars. Mr. Cheney felt the loss of the night sky and decided to find out what the effects of a loss of darkness are, not only on humans, but on animals.

All over the world, cities are brighter than ever—even in Maine, where Mr. Cheney’s father installed a bright light on the barn to deter break-ins. When we lose that awe-inspiring sight of a sky filled with stars, Mr. Cheney says, we also lose an understanding of our place in the universe.

The film is magnificently photographed. We see what we cannot often see when we go outside at night: the stars, the Milky Way galaxy, in all their glory. We also see the lights of the city, and of the suburban shopping mall, as their brightness extends our day around the clock.

Light has non-utilitarian uses: it serves as art, celebration, and tribute. “We love the light,” Mr. Cheney says, “but we also need the dark.”

The film takes us to Hawaii, one of the few places where sufficient darkness can be found for telescopic study of the stars, planets, and asteroids. We learn how sea turtles and migrating birds depend on light from the stars to guide them in their travels, and how light pollution is disorienting them.

Artificial light has impacts on human health, too. Studies have shown that women shift workers who work at night have one and a half to twice the risk for breast cancer as those who sleep at night.

Mr. Cheney also looks at recent trends in light ordinances, intended both to save energy and preserve the night sky.

“The City Dark” is an enlightening look at a topic that is not frequently addressed. It is not jam-packed with scientific information, which makes it very accessible for the average filmgoer and for children, but some may want a more in-depth look at the topic. In any case, it is a beautiful film.

The film opens nationwide on January 18, 2012.

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