The City Dark

The City Dark

A scene from THE CITY DARK, a film by Ian Cheney. Picture courtesy Argot Pictures. All rights reserved.

The City Dark

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The City Dark (2011/2012)

Opened: 01/18/2012 Limited

IFC Center01/18/2012 - 01/24/20127 days
Downtown Indep...04/06/2012 - 04/12/20127 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Twitter, Facebook

Genre: Documentary

Rated: Unrated


THE CITY DARK is a feature documentary about light pollution and the disappearing night sky. It premiered in competition at the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize for Best Score/Music. After moving to light-polluted New York City from rural Maine, filmmaker Ian Cheney asks: "Do we need the dark?" Exploring the threat of killer asteroids in Hawai'i, tracking hatching turtles along the Florida coast, and rescuing injured birds on Chicago streets, Cheney unravels the myriad implications of a globe glittering with lights--including increased breast cancer rates from exposure to light at night, and a generation of kids without a glimpse of the universe above. Featuring stunning astrophotography and a cast of eclectic scientists, philosophers, historians, and lighting designers, THE CITY DARK is the definitive story of light pollution and the disappearing stars.

Film Summary

THE CITY DARK chronicles the disappearance of darkness. The film follows filmmaker (and amateur astronomer) Ian Cheney, who moves to New York City from Maine and discovers an urban sky almost completely devoid of stars. Posing a deceptively simple question--"What do we lose, when we lose the night?"--the film leads viewers on a quest to understand how light pollution affects people and the planet. In six chapters weaving together cutting-edge science with personal, meditative sequences reflecting on the human relationship to the sky, THE CITY DARK shines new light on the meaning of the dark.

The City Bright

On Staten Island, we meet Irve Robbins, a Brooklyn-born astronomer running one of the last remaining observatories in New York City, where he is limited to showing his students only the brightest objects that shine through the city's light-polluted sky. As Robbins puts it, "I've seen twice the Milky Way in New York--when there was a blackout." At a Hackensack, New Jersey, warehouse filled with thousands of different light bulbs, owner Larry Birnbaum explains the evolution of electric lights since Edison's first tungsten bulb. Birnbaum notes that each successive generation sought to maximize its light output; today, lights produce thousands more lumens than Edison's original. Through history, as city lights grew brighter, and cities themselves grew bigger, fewer and fewer young people grew up with a connection to the stars. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a leading astrophysicist who grew up in the Bronx, describes falling in love with the stars during his first visit to the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan, and notes the irony of falling in love with an artificial night sky; in the Bronx, after all, there were never more than a few dozen stars.

Islands of Dark

Seeking the astronomers who have fled cities for darker skies, the filmmaker finds his way to rural Arizona, just a stone's throw from the Mexico border, where a community of stargazers have established "Sky Village," a dark-sky haven for astronomers from all walks of life. The astronomers struggle to put into words what drew them to the stars, but time-lapse photography of the Milky Way says it all: it's one of the clearest views of the universe available in the United States. One of the other best places for stargazing-- and said to be the best professional astronomy sites in the world--is under threat, on the islands of Hawai'i. Here, astronomers' attempts to detect earth-killing asteroids with the world's newest, largest camera are frustrated by urban population growth in the cities below. As Nick Kaiser of the University of Hawai'i puts it, "It's as though you're looking through fog." A brief animation sequence illustrates the haze of light that covers much of the planet, and findings by researchers in Italy that two-thirds of all humans now live under skies polluted by artificial light. In the researchers' words, "Mankind is proceeding to envelop himself in a luminous fog."

Nature and the Night

As it turns out, astronomers are not the only ones losing the night. Biologists along the Florida coast trace the death of thousands of hatching sea turtles due to their disorientation by Miami's lights. Volunteers at the Field Museum in Chicago collect from the city sidewalks thousands of dead birds, victims of light-induced disorientation and collisions into brightly lit buildings. As Chad Moore of the National Park Service explains, "When we add light to the environment, that has the potential to disrupt habitat, just like running a bulldozer over the landscape can." Which raises the question: do humans need the dark?

Night Shifts

Suzanne Goldklang, a breast cancer patient who for years worked a night shift selling jewelry on late-night TV, says she spends little time wondering what gave her cancer. But epidemiologist Richard Stevens of the University of Connecticut has been struggling for his entire career to understand why women in industrialized societies suffer from increased rates of breast cancer. In 1987, he woke up in the middle of the night staring at the streetlight pouring in his window, and became the first scientist to suggest a link between light at night and breast cancer. Stevens' research led to the revelation that night-shift workers are almost twice as likely to develop breast cancer as day-shift workers, suggesting that disrupted circadian rhythms cause us more harm than we might think.

Why We Light

But don't we need lights? The filmmaker recalls a burglary at his childhood home in Maine; his family responded by installing an enormous, bright light on the corner of the barn. Historian Roger Ekirch confirms that humans have long feared the dark, and that crime was the original impetus for widespread street lighting on the planet. In Newark, New Jersey, a criminologist shows how city parks have pushed back crime by introducing bright new lampposts; residents agree that lights have made the community more livable and sociable. From here, the film tilts towards an exploration of the human attraction to light. As author Jane Brox says, "The struggle to create more and more light was a struggle to dominate the night, rather than be dominated by the night."


And yet, as Cheney notes from his rooftop in Brooklyn, "Though we may love the light, we may also need the dark." In the film's last chapter, we encounter the ways in which lighting designers--atop the High Line in Manhattan, and in a tiny Maine town--are balancing the human love of light with our need for darkness, our love of the starry skies, and our desire to cut energy costs with more efficient designs. In a final montage of starry skies, we hear remembrances from the film's interviewees, recalling their first experience seeing the heavens; Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Bronx-born astrophysicist, has the final word: "When you look at the night sky, you realize how small we are within 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."

Director Bio

Ian Cheney is a Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker. He grew up in New England and earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees at Yale. After graduate school he co-created and starred in the Peabody Award-winning theatrical hit and PBS documentary King Corn (2007), directed the feature documentary The Greening of Southie (Sundance Channel, 2008), and co-produced the Planet Green film Big River (2009). Ian maintains a 1/1000th acre farm in the back of his '86 Dodge pickup, which is at the center of his film Truck Farm (2011). He has been featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Men's Journal, and on CNN, MSNBC, and Good Morning America. In 2011, Ian and longtime collaborator Curt Ellis received the Heinz Award for their environmental advocacy. An avid astrophotographer, Ian travels frequently to show his films, lead discussions, and give talks about sustainability, agriculture, and the human relationship to the natural world.