Talking to The City Dark Director Ian Cheney About the Disappearing Cosmos

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06/03/2011 2:55 PM |


This weekend, Rooftop Films presents three films from this year’s SXSW, beginning tonight, with Allison Bagnall’s The Dish and the Spoon, with Bagnall and star Greta Gerwig in person. On Sunday night, they’ll give a very appropriate outdoor nocturnal NYC debut to The City Dark, a documentary (completed with help from a Rooftop Films grant) by Maine-born Brooklynite Ian Cheney, about light pollution—that is, the impossibility of seeing stars in a night sky so saturated with artificial light. His investigations radiate outward from the view to his own roof and the bug light on his childhood barn, to Hawaiian observatories and Southwestern New Agers; from the biglight astronomy and inner-city Boy Scout camping trips, to health (does night-shift work cause cancer?), the altered migration patterns of birds, city planning, and philosophy. He answered some questions over email this week.

I enjoy the curiosity with which the film ranges to engage with historical/medical/sociological/philosophical perspectives and case studies from stargazers to animal rescue volunteers. How did you go about researching and exploring your topic, and how did you find your subjects?
The film’s narrative very much echoes the way the film was produced. I knew nothing, at the outset, about the myriad issues associated with light pollution; I was merely a stargazer who missed seeing the stars. So I started with the obvious: I sought out astronomers. It was the astronomers, in fact, who pointed me towards the chronobiologists, and birders, and other folks working on other aspects of the light pollution problem. I think astronomers have long understood, sadly, that their troubles alone won’t get the public up in arms.

Was there anything you wished you could have devoted more screen time to?
Just about everything! But in particular the sleep science—it’s a fascinating topic. There’s both a rich history and a dynamic science unfolding around how light affects our circadian rhythms; it’s the kind of stuff that actually changes the way you go to bed at night.

Were you ever concerned about how you’d make light pollution an appealing subject of a feature film?
Ha! Always. Talk about an obscure topic! But I do believe that there is something fundamental and universal about the stars—who hasn’t looked up at the stars and thought big thoughts? And where in the world can we go and not see lights? Now everywhere I go, I look at lights—how they are designed, whether they waste energy or send photons trespassing into people’s windows or into the sky. (Hopefully this has not made me too boring a guy to hang out with. Will keep you posted.)

A subtext of the film, which addresses the isolation and solipsism of life without stars in the night sky, is that you, a Brooklynite, seem ambivalent about the hum of city life, and nostalgic for the peace and perspective of your childhood home in rural Maine. To what extent do you consider this a personal film? Did your feelings evolve at all over the course of making it?
Having never considered myself a city-fella, I’ve grappled with city-life ever since moving to Brooklyn three years ago. In many ways, this film is a very selfish attempt to come to terms with the fact that I love the city, but I miss the stars. In fact, I miss more than the stars—for me, the stars are emblematic of, and part of, the wilderness. Nature. Or however you define “not-city.” So some of the questions relevant to light pollution—should we create sacred dark-sky preserves out there, similar to fenced wilderness areas, or try to bring back the stars to the suburbs and cities where we live and work, similar to street trees and city parks?—have a lot to do with my own questions about where I want to live. Many members of the “dark-sky” community think cities are hopeless. But I’ve surprised myself, having come to cherish certain moments of urban sky-gazing—the sight of a crescent moon over the city skyline, or the constellation Orion bursting through an otherwise star-less winter sky, refusing to be ignored.