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Lost In 'The City Dark': Documenting Missing Stars


Back in 2007, the filmmaker Ian Cheney won a Peabody for the film "King Corn." The documentary explored the role the corn industry plays in our diets and also in our politics. In his latest film, Cheney's tackled a subject that's less tangible, though perhaps more audacious: "The Night Sky."


GREENE: Cheney has missed those nights, as a boy, capturing photos of the stars, because now he lives in New York City. If buildings aren't in the way, the sky has this glow from all the city lights and it's hard to see any stars at all. Cheney talks about so-called light pollution in his new film "The City Dark." It's being featured on PBS later this week. We wanted to chat with Ian Cheney, but it felt wrong to stay in the studio. So, on a sweltering summer night, we ventured out onto the National Mall here in Washington. Now, Cheney may be a city boy now, but he is still the same guy from Waldoboro, Maine who grew up respecting the stars.

: Really outs me as a geek but when I first moved to New York City and I couldn't find my way around, I actually sometimes would try to find, you know, the Big Dipper, which points its way to the North Star, to think, wow, at least that can generally help me find my way north and...

GREENE: Wow. Jump back to old-fashioned navigation.

: I know. It's almost kind of hard to believe.

GREENE: As we're walking, the sun has set now, streetlights have flickered on and the monuments are all lit up. But there weren't too many stars when we looked up.

: We can probably see Saturn, which is pretty bright tonight. We can certainly see the moon.

GREENE: That's there. That is there.

: We can probably see Arcturus and maybe a handful of others. Other than that, it's pretty much a purple wash.

GREENE: That's the light pollution. And Cheney believes it's changing how humans behave.

: I feel that I'm looking down more. And some of that is just dodging cars and traffic and people on the city streets. But it's also, I think, fairly metaphorical for becoming a little bit more self-obsessed. So, it really resonated with me when I spoke to astronomers and other thinkers who were suggesting that in losing the night sky, we're not only losing something beautiful, we're losing this reference point, a sense of perspective. And to think that most kids now will grow up without that perspective, without a sense of our place in space.

GREENE: One message that Cheney sends in his film is that cities might design their streetlights better. So, let me place us. We're standing at the corner of Third Street and Maryland Avenue, a few blocks from the Capitol, and there's this very elegant-looking old-style streetlight that sort of makes Washington pretty. But I think based on your film you would say that there are a lot of problems with this kind of street lamp.

: Yeah. It's the right idea. It's nice to make lights look pretty. But it's not actually functioning very well as a light. If you look at the base of the lamp, you can see that it's all in shadow. So, the light is not actually coming down where it's needed. Most of the light is shining, glaring into our eyes or essentially heading up into outer space. I mean, imagine if this were a sprinkler on the street and this sprinkler were a straight-up hose, you know, every...

GREENE: Instead of sprinkling the grass, it's just...

: Every second, instead of sprinkling the grass...

GREENE: ...maybe feel like it's a waste of water.

: We'd be like, oh, it's a waste of water. Perhaps because light is intangible, we don't see it as a waste. But there is coal being burned to send that light up into outer space.

GREENE: And, Ian, as we're sort of walking through the streets of downtown Washington, D.C. - this has not always been known as the safest city in America. It's had its crime problem like a lot of large cities. And that's one place where you say light can help. I mean, a lot of people light their streets and cities to make things safer.

: I wanted to acknowledge in the film that light is useful, and making people safer on city streets is a tremendously helpful thing. I mean, I think we're conditioned from a very early age, from the day our parents put a nightlight in our bedroom or in our hallway, to associate more light with more safety. But actually, we can also see pretty darn well in the dark. And one of the amazing things about taking a group of kids, a group of Boy Scouts out into the woods for the first time is to see their initial terror dissolve as they actually find they can make their way in the woods without a flashlight on a moonlit night.


GREENE: That's some sound from Cheney's documentary "The City Dark." The film is not alarmist, but it does raise questions about the potential impact of too much light. There's some evidence people can be more prone to disease if they sleep by day, and work in artificial light at night. Animals, like birds and baby sea turtles, have struggled to navigate because of light pollution. Still, as we walked around the Mall, there was the dome of the U.S. Capitol, all lit up.

You know, I can remember times getting off work as a journalist, you know, like in the middle of the night and looking at that and just sort of pausing and saying that's a special thing to see - the U.S. Capitol kind of lit up. Are there some things where it's worth it, I mean, where it's worth it to keep some things lit all night long?

: I think so. I would be creepy if that Capitol went completely dark after midnight. Something I find incredibly beautiful, if problematic, is the tribute in light in lower Manhattan every September. Two...

GREENE: Mimicking the Towers.

: Yeah, two beautiful towers of blue light. And I've spent countless evenings on my Brooklyn rooftop just gazing at those lights and photographing them and thinking about September 11th and thinking about where our country is headed. Folks have talked about how birds grow disoriented in those lights and get caught and trapped. But still these lights are such powerful symbols of that city and of this country and I think in many cases there is something sacred about light that we shouldn't touch.


GREENE: Ian Cheney's new documentary is called "The City Dark." And you can catch it on the PBS show "POV" this Thursday.


GREENE: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.