The City Dark

Light is generally perceived as a force of good. It symbolises progress, development, modernity and wealth. It provides people in urban areas with a sense of security and safety, even comfort. These positive associations are why few would think of light as a source of pollution. Astronomers, perhaps, come to mind as an exception.

This is precisely where independent film-maker, director Ian Cheney started off with his most recent documentary The City Dark. As an astronomy-aficionado in his youth and born in a rural area, Cheney was disturbed by “the disappearance of the night sky” while living in New York. After talking to professional astronomers about the issue, Cheney realised that excessive light was a concern for other professionals too, from wildlife conservationists to health experts and designers. Too much illumination, in wrong places and at wrong times, can disorient and kill migratory birds and hatching turtles. It can potentially increase the risk of some types of cancer, and prevent astronomers from spotting “killer asteroids” that threaten our planet. Some of the experts interviewed in the documentary poetically noted that we lose sight of how small we are, and become alienated from the environment, the earth’s biosphere and the universe, as we lose sight of the night sky. This is how we humans have become so self-centred and now believe that the same rules and laws of nature don't apply to us.

It might not be as intimidating or spectacularly dangerous as climate change, disease or wars. But light pollution appeals more direclty to our senses. The City Dark manages to make an impact on the viewer precisely because it's delivered in a visual medium. Replete with striking images of stars and dark, cloudless night skies, Cheney’s point about the importance of connecting with the universe this way is compelling.

After it premiered in Texas in March 2011, The City Dark had its first Gulf showing last week in Doha, Qatar. Presented to a selected group of university students and staff at the beautiful Qatar Foundation Student Center, designed by architects Legorreta+Legorreta, a documentary about light pollution felt almost surreal. The Student Center is just one architectural masterpiece among many which form Doha’s Education City, a pioneering higher education and learning initiative of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah, Qatar’s First Lady. With Education City, Qatar’s ruling elite hopes to project the tiny country to the global map as having successfully fast-tracked itself into a knowledge society. Education City is located in the outskirts of booming Doha, in the middle ground between the bright city lights and the (at night) jet-black desert. In a way it is a continuation of the rapid and intensive urbanisation efforts that are driven by Qatar’s quest for economic diversification, moving away from the oil and gas sectors. At the same time, with its green initiatives, including LEED-certified student halls (which rank among the first in the country), Education City seeks to maintain the balance between the environment and development.

Qatar’s fast urbanisation, which feels much like “a century in thirty years”, has many parallels with the themes touched by Cheney’s documentary: the bright city lights are pushing away the desert and are forming new welfare generations that are increasingly disconnected from the desert skies and their roots in the harsh and but beautiful environment.

As pointed out in the Q&A session by Cheney, due to the still ongoing urbanisation and state-building process, Qatar has the opportunity to “get it right” from the beginning. This applies to light pollution as well as to urban planning in general. Unfortunately however, although there are little islands of greener planning (or “islands of efficiency”, a term coined by Steffen Hertog), like the Education City or the project to “restore” Doha’s old centre, much of urban development in Doha still has a chaotic feel to it. Doha’s now iconic skyline, an image of the West Bay sea of monumental skyscrapers has emerged from almost nothing in less than decade (see a picture from the mid-1980s).

Qatar’s fast growth is producing other types of contamination. The massive increase in heavy and energy industries and traffic has caused air pollution, construction (or “developmental activities”, as some prefer to call them) and waste have destroyed marine and terrestrial ecosystems and generated another nasty byproduct: noise. It's difficult to escape noise even at night in Doha. In its hurry to catch up with development, the city’s construction activities continue 24 hours a day. Throughout the night, fully lit-up skeletons of buildings dot the city’s roadsides, and the cacophony of heavy construction machinery echoes in most central neighbourhoods.

Like most people, The City Dark’s director Cheney is also an optimist. He believes that there is hope. Like smokestacks, which were once  the symbol of the wealth of a society but which have come to represent pollution, Cheney hopes that electric light, the symbol of wealth in the past century, will succumb to the realisation that both the energy used to produce electricity and light itself require a more sustainable approach.

Tonight, turn the lights off and try to see if you can see stars. Then go and see Cheney’s documentary. The next Middle East showing will be at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in October.