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“Nature Is a Concept That Exists to Divide Us From the Land”: Josh Fox on His Documentary Theater ‘The Edge of Nature’

By Lauren Wissot

A man stands strumming a banjo in the middle of a stage, singing into a microphone. Other musicians and players surround him while “The Edge of Nature” plays on the screen behind them all.

The Edge of Nature performance at LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club. Courtesy of Josh Fox.

Josh Fox’s (GaslandThe Edge of Nature is as description-defyingly complicated as the simple question behind its conception might imply: What is nature? It’s both a subdued, standalone feature-length doc consisting almost entirely of Fox’s narration and a Pennsylvania forest filled with equally alive beings; and a rousing theater piece with Fox reprising/mirroring his role onstage alongside an 11-member ensemble (from International WOW Company, the activist troupe Fox founded nearly three decades ago) who add an experimental, American folk music-filled dimension to the film playing above and behind them

The Edge of Nature is also an exploration of our long-forgotten, inherent integration with nature, intergenerational trauma, the effects of long Covid and even longer colonialism. Indeed, with the fast-moving urgency of a flooded Pennsylvania waterway, Fox and his team reconnect topics ranging from the climate crisis, to the Native American genocide, to the Holocaust, to the pandemic, to global corporate capture and the MAGA movement—all culminating in a passionate call to once and for all return humanity to its original role as environmental caretakers. Post-show Q&As frequently include climate activists and celebrity travelers such as Extinction Rebellion and DJ Spooky.

To learn all about this multimedia extravaganza, Documentary caught up with the veteran director-playwright-environmental activist the week after The Edge of Nature’s run at NYC’s LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club, which critic Bernie Sanders succinctly deemed “great work.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: What exactly made you decide to translate the film into a theatrical experience and what did that process entail?

JOSH FOX: The film itself grew out of pieces of it that I performed, and then the performance really influenced the film and vice-versa. I had made a version of this film a couple of years ago that didn’t include the opening speech and some other key scenes. I was invited to a big outdoor design conference in Mexico City called What Design Can Do. They had this huge screen there, and I was invited to do the closing lecture for this very environmentally concerned conference. And I saw the screen and I had my banjo with me and I was like, 
I want to make something.” I felt really inspired. I quickly threw together clips and then just started to play the banjo and speak and narrate at the same time. And it was a huge success, a big hit, and people really loved it. Then they invited me back to do that again in Amsterdam. And that too was a big success. My longtime collaborator Matt Sanchez and I started to integrate that kind of narrative approach into the film. I then realized that the film should have that opening monologue, which is sort of a trademark to a lot of my movies: Gasland (2010), Gasland Part II (2013), How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change (2016). That really changed the movie.

I’ve been astounded since despite all the effusive reactions to the film, the movie has been rejected by about 30 different film festivals and all major distributors. As you probably know, we’ve had a very, very difficult moment in documentary right now, specifically political films. I spoke with Sheila Nevins recently, and she said, “Oh, Gasland would never have come out in this climate right now.” 

D: You’re attributing that to the political climate right now?

JF: I have no idea. It’s like all I see is true crime, pop music and celebrity driven pieces. I don’t see what we call the golden age of documentary. And I think that is extremely short-sighted because I think it’s really hampering the art form as a whole. There were two crucial people, namely Lisa Nishimura and Sheila Nevins, who were real pioneers. And Nancy Abraham at HBO is doing an amazing, amazing job. I love her. 

D: Are you always creating multiple formats to reach multiple audiences?

JF: Yes. And I would say that that’s a very important part of what I have always done, right? Our ecosystem is (1) make a movie, and (2) that movie goes to a major distributor so that it gets seen across the United States, across the world. Gasland was seen by hundreds of millions of people, the same for Awake, [Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock, 2017] and also all the other movies. But a very crucial part of what we do is tour, and those tours always involve a very significant live component. Because live changes the room. For How to Let Go of the World, we toured with the musicians. We did big rally events called Climate Revolution that had musicians and speakers and myself. For the other films, we toured—I played the banjo, I talked to people —and worked with activist groups on the ground to create those tours town by town, city by city, and I’m not just talking about major cities. Yes, we did LA and Chicago and New York and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; but we also did Rochester and Plattsburgh and Redding and York and Scottsdale, Arizona. We hit lots of small places like Abita Springs, Louisiana where people were having big environmental battles. When you’re running a presidential campaign, you show up in people’s towns and they remember that. For the environment and against the fracking industry and to fight climate change, that showing up is crucial.

Before I made movies, I was in the theater. I’ve been in the theater my entire life since I was 11 years old. My International WOW Company had sort of ghetto superstar status in New York City for 15 years. We had huge hits and we existed downtown. I have a pre-existing relationship with La MaMa where we just did the show. And music has always been in my background. I’m a musician, I’ve grown up as a musician, I play music in my movies. And so this is really the perfect integration of performance, theater, acting, politics, music, and film—all in one.

D: I noticed that the doc does include past clips of you on shows like Tucker Carlson’s, which made me wonder if you’ve maybe given up on attempting to engage more conservative audiences at this point in your career. Have you gotten more cynical since the rise of MAGA?

JF: Look, right now we’re in the worst media atmosphere, but let me just say this: What is the other side? There is no such thing as the other side. All of my touring and all of my work exists in red states, or in the red areas of blue states. In the anti-fracking movement, our areas are not the red-blue division. We don’t see that. That is a very different type of political calculus than I have. 

Having said that, I don’t think Martin Luther King, Jr. spent a lot of time trying to convince the KKK not to be racist. You do have to work where you’re able. I believe that these values should be universal. Protect nature, protect our children, protect our health, have a future on the planet—these should not be politicized issues.

And so when I’m talking about those things, my experience is that they are not heavily politicized. When I go out to the world and tour—and I’ve toured to 500, 600 cities—that message is being received by all “sides.” These are non-controversial things.

D: So did you have any sort of plan for all the footage you shot in the wilderness? Why film as you were there in isolation, attempting to heal from Covid?

JF: I’m an investigator. I start a project when I have a question and I don’t know exactly what the endpoint will be. It could end up a short, it could end up a full feature film, it could end up a performance. I had been touring my one-man show, The Truth Has Changed, which was commissioned by Sheila [Nevins] at HBO, and that tour was shut down by Covid. I was in the middle of all my plans, had all my equipment with me of course, and I had the ability to make. When I started out in the woods, I had this idea to build this platform. I then started having these crazy symptoms—the facial ticks, the brain fog, the not being able to find the next word, the irritability, and long Covid PTSD—and that got integrated into my journey. 

D: How has your own personal experience with Covid and its aftermath affected your work, both as a filmmaker and as the artistic director of a theater company? Have there been surprising pros and cons from having gone through that?

JF: Absolutely. Absolutely. Every project changes you. Every project is a learning event. My question and my principal investigation, as you asked me what started this, was “What is nature?” And I got an answer. I learned what nature is. The answer came through my advisors in the Native American community, like [EP] Myron Dewey, who I worked with very closely on Awake, and then was tragically killed in 2021; and it came through the New American Dictionary, Webster’s Dictionary. And other folks were saying, “There is no such thing as nature.” Nature is a concept that exists to divide us from the land. We are not separate from the land. We are not separate from the forest. We are not an alien species on this planet. And I very much was challenged by that. Then I’m looking at the dictionary, seeing nature is “opposed to” humans. That definition in Webster’s was extraordinarily alarming and eye-opening. Well, that is not the definition in other languages. It’s certainly not the definition for a lot of Indigenous people, and it’s certainly not the definition that’s deep inside of Judaism. And as a person who grew up and lives in the forest and in nature my whole life, it was a real aha moment.

But then there’s the question of what is a human being’s role. It was so apparent to me that the beavers create where water goes; when the birds eat berries, the berries then get deposited all throughout the landscape with a little bit of fertilizer as they pass through the birds. But a human being’s role? That was very, very unclear to me. 

At the same time, people in the environmental world were saying to me that human beings are a virus. Human beings are bad. And I knew that that couldn’t be true. So for me, understanding that different civilizations have different definitions of nature means that yes, some of those ideologies are viruses. The ideology of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos is a corruptive, corrosive virus, and that is colonialism. But I don’t define myself as those people. I don’t define myself within the same ideology as a Nazi. Nazis loved creating national parks. They loved separating people from nature. And as the son of Holocaust survivors, as an enduring victim of intergenerational trauma, I definitely know that I will not define myself in that way. 

Instead I define myself as a co-creator of this planet, as a gardener, as many civilizations do. I don’t think Thoreau even got to that answer.  I think he was too wrapped up in his own moment.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She also writes regularly for Modern Times Review (The European Documentary Magazine) and has served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.