When Ian Cheney looks up at the night sky, he can tell pretty quickly how much light pollution his particular location experiences nightly. From his neighborhood in Brooklyn in New York City, the night sky gets a grade of D or worse for amount of stars viewable. From his childhood home of Waldoboro, it’s more like a B+ or A. Since he was very young, he has been fascinated with tracking stars, comets, asteroids and planets.
“It was such a large part of my childhood,” said Cheney, who spent part of his youth in Waldoboro. “It’s something that I still come back to as an adult.”
That childhood fascination turned into an adult passion. Cheney, a Maine native and up-and-coming young documentarian, last year directed his first feature-length film, “The City Dark,” about light pollution and its effect on humans, animals and the future. It features interviews with NASA astronauts and astronomers, biologists studying the effects of light pollution on wildlife, and with Neil deGrasse Tyson, frequent “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” contributor and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York.
The film has received positive reviews at the South By Southwest Film Festival and at environmental, science and astronomy film festivals nationwide. It will have its official Maine premiere Monday and Tuesday, with screenings at 7 p.m. July 25 and 26 and 1 p.m. July 26 at the Strand Theatre in Rockland.
In the film, Cheney recalls at the age of 15 constructing his own 6-foot Newtonian telescope, with which he’d observe the heavens from his backyard in Waldoboro and take photographs. His parents taught at Milton Academy in Milton, Mass., during the year, but during school breaks and in the summer he grew up in Maine.
“I was always raised to know that our long-term, real home was in Maine,” said Cheney. “I think those early experiences stargazing and living in the beauty of Maine really informed what I do today. The stars are one reason I am still pulled back to Maine, and plan on being pulled back there permanently once I’m able.”
Cheney received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale, and in 2007 wrote and starred in the the acclaimed documentary “King Corn,” with his filmmaking partner, Curt Ellis. “King Corn” detailed Cheney and Ellis’ adventures as they moved to Iowa to grow and farm an acre of corn and examines the role that crop has had on American society. The film, which was well-received by a number of critics, has since been shown in countless libraries and community groups across the nation.
In addition to “The City Dark,” Cheney has directed “Truck Farm,” a 48-minute documentary about Cheney’s minifarm planted in the bed of a 1986 Dodge pickup, which Cheney has parked at his home in New York. He also has created “The Greening of Southie,” a feature documentary about Boston’s first residential green building, and the workers, skeptical at first, who were asked to build it. Wicked Delicate, the production company founded by Cheney and Ellis, so far has focused on making movies that explore ideas of sustainability and the environment.
“I think our niche is in trying to explore these unsung and mostly unexplored by fundamental topics, especially about humanity’s relationship to the natural world, and the way we step on the planet,” said Cheney. “On the surface, a film about, say, a building is a boring idea. But when you think about the ways in which the structures we live in affect climate change, and how much time we spend inside them and what it does to us, you realize that there are so many ideas to explore.”
Light pollution is one of those topics, as “The City Dark” suggests. Today, there are only a few isolated areas on Earth where true dark can be found, places such as deserts and the Arctic and Antarctic. Compared to a large metropolitan area, Maine is relatively pollution-free, though even small amounts of light can be noticed. Besides the obvious issue of excessive energy consumption, overillumination can have an impact on people’s sleep patterns and create mood disorders, and it disrupts the life cycles of nocturnal animals — as “The City Dark” illustrates, with a sequence on sea turtles in Florida. It’s also increasingly difficult for astronomers who scan the night skies to get a clear picture of just what’s out there.
Cheney has many more topics to explore in future films. Documentary as a genre is growing each year, helped in no small part by events like the Camden International Film Festival, which focuses entirely on documentaries and screened a rough cut of “The City Dark” at last year’s event.
“The great thing about docs is that there are hundreds that nobody has seen yet,” said Cheney. “There’s such a wealth of stuff out there and things to learn. The audience is definitely growing, and it’s exciting to see.”
“The City Dark” will be screened at 7 p.m. July 25 and 26 and 1 p.m. July 26 at the Strand Theatre in Rockland. For information, visit rocklandstrand.com.