A header image showing Chris Hardee.

A Filmmaker Who Uses Story to Shape the World

How do you tell the story of land that was shaped by a house—when that house no longer exists? When all that’s left is a field and an old barn,  with the low peaks of Mount Monadnock in the distance? 

These are the sort of questions that are coming up in one of the current film projects of Chris Hardee, an alum of Antioch University’s MS in Environmental Studies. This documentary is inspired by an essay that Hardee read in Harrisville, New Hampshire’s bi-monthly newsletter, Common Threads, about land that held the story of some of the first European colonists in the area, and the house that used to stand there. The house is gone, but as Hardee sees it, the house’s absence is another chapter in its history. This history, and the way it informs the present, is what draws Hardee’s attention—in this case, leading to his current production of the documentary Good-bye to a House. It’s exactly the sort of story that he works to capture through archives and images. 

Through his work in many mediums, from early slide-projector storytelling to radio journalism and from museum exhibits to documentary feature films, Hardee’s decades of creative work all center on the ways that story shapes the world. And his work continues to circle around the topic that he studied at Antioch, and that has fuelled his interest ever since: the natural world, its relationship with humans, and the perils it faces. 

Filmmaking as a Treasure Hunt

As a filmmaker, Hardee is drawn to stories. But not ones that are heavily scripted or narrated or that pedantically lead the viewer toward some sort of political or policy point. He’d rather tell messier, truer stories. As he says, “I prefer the ones that are the most human.” 

He finds these kinds of stories by staying open to interesting people and their circumstances. Then he just starts filming. He talks to one person, and then they introduce him to the next. “They tell you to talk to someone else or go somewhere, and you’re on a treasure hunt,” as he puts it. Sometimes the hunt isn’t a straightforward one. He goes on, “It takes a lot of time. You never know what you’re gonna find. But you always find something interesting.” 

This approach is, in part, due to his time at Antioch in the late 1970s. Having just graduated with an undergraduate degree from Brown, Hardee found himself drawn to Antioch because of his interest in the growing environmental movement. His undergrad degree had been in biology and geology, but he wasn’t drawn to an academic career as a professor or researcher. “I was not attracted to the specialization. I was more interested in something that was expansive,” Hardee explains.

So he decided to come to the Environmental Studies department at Antioch University’s New England campus, which at the time was one of just a few programs in the country offering that area of study. He enrolled in a master’s program in Environmental Education for Science Teaching. (Today, that program has evolved into the MS in Environmental Studies with an Environmental Education concentration.)

Ironically, he chose this degree despite knowing that, as he explains, “I didn’t want to be a teacher. I was certain of that.” He was fairly sure, though, that despite being centered around education, the program would prepare him to do the work he wanted to be doing. “The teaching focus didn’t matter,” he explains, “because the subject matter, the people, and the atmosphere were just where I needed to be at that point.”

A Project at Antioch That Ignited a Passion

It was Antioch University as an institution that had attracted Hardee in the first place. Even as there were huge cultural shifts happening across the United States, Antioch pushed the envelope even further. “I came up through Antioch during a period of history when the environmental movement was just coming of age,” Hardee says. “It was an exciting time, with lots to learn and do.”

He didn’t think non-profits were doing a great job at communicating how important environmental issues are. Nor were scientists, who had a tendency to lead with facts, as if that alone would convince people of the urgency necessary to change how humans use resources and care for the planet. But Hardee was beginning to see that stories were more impactful. 

Particularly influential to his thinking were a few environmental documentaries made about the nuclear power industry. These films inspired hope in Hardee, hope that things really could change. “They presented the issue from a human perspective, rather than a fact-based-only, analytical perspective,” he says. “Someone lived these stories, believed this way, and took some action.” Ultimately, though, it was the emotional impact that most impressed him and that set films apart from other ways of communicating. As he says, “Film made me feel something.”

In his second year at Antioch, Hardee got the opportunity to think about new ways to tell stories by working on one firsthand. Several work-study positions had recently been funded to create a multi-image presentation about a 13,000-acre, undeveloped state park near Keene, New Hampshire, where the Antioch campus is located. Hardee was one of the students involved. 

This first project sparked his infatuation with the media world. It was constructed from slides and taped interviews, not film. In a darkened room, mechanical clicks interrupted the hum of the projector fan, as photos of Pisgah State Park appeared on the screen. “You can do interesting things with the images fading in and out, creating a sense of motion,” says Hardee. “It’s a unique medium.”

Using interviews with residents, public officials, and policy-makers, Hardee and the rest of the team created a production that stimulated conversations about what the park could look like in the future. This kind of storytelling inspired Hardee to continue down that path. 

Following that project and graduation, Hardee and another student and close friend started Monadnock Media, a nonprofit that made videos, public radio programs, and educational materials about environmental issues for non-profits and museum exhibitions. They were eventually successful, eventually working on many different projects. Monadnock Media still exists to this day, though Hardee is no longer involved. 

Hardee’s relationship with Antioch has continued over the years. He maintains ties with faculty and alumni and still lives in the region. Just recently—over forty years since graduating—he made a promotional video about the Environmental Studies Department, Learning in Community. In the past five years, he also produced two short films for the New England campus’s Education department, focusing on their nature-based education initiatives. These were released as Best Day Ever and Turning School Inside Out and have been viewed widely by educators around the country.

Telling Stories for the Environment and the Self

Although Hardee’s career path was not linear, and he didn’t think he would be a teacher, much of his work does educate people about environmental issues. He doesn’t think of himself as an activist, though. Instead, he describes himself as a person who uses his skills to advocate for what he cares about. 

“Perhaps this is a good model for folks,” Hardee says. “If people can identify what skills they have and what they enjoy doing, then they might be able to find a way to participate in advocacy while avoiding burnout.” 

Flyer for movie Burned.

The most impactful film to date he has worked on is the 2017 feature-length documentary, BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal? For the film, Hardee and two filmmaker colleagues who directed the film traveled throughout the United States and Europe to investigate the international biomass industry, its threat to forests, and how the destruction of forests can affect the climate. The biomass industry burns wood pellets for energy, which it touts as a renewable source. But as the filmmakers show, this process releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide and is more polluting than the fossil fuels it’s meant to replace.

BURNED was selected to show at fourteen film festivals, and it won the Audience Award at the American Conservation Film Festival. But even better than awards, for Hardee, is the way that organizers and environmental activists are using it to provide both a framework for understanding the issue and as a rallying cry to get people emotionally invested. Recently, a grassroots non-profit on the island of Hawai’i contacted the film team to tell them that they had succeeded in halting the conversion of a power plant to burning wood—in part because of the documentary. Says Hardee, “That’s a heart-warming testimonial for the effectiveness and impact of the film.”

Telling Stories of Place

Hardee continues to make and release new films both through his production house, High Cairn Films, and in collaboration with others. One recent film still in production is Views From a Woodlot, which tells the story of Bruce Spencer, a retired forester who Hardee met while filming BURNED. In the earlier documentary, Spencer talks about his forty years managing the 100,000 acre Quabbin Reservation in Massachusetts. But in Views From a Woodlot, which is currently in post-production, the story centers on how Spencer continues to steward his personal 150-acre woodlot and his common-sense philosophy of forest management. 

Views From a Woodlot came to be in large part because the COVID-19 pandemic limited Hardee’s ability to travel for filming. The story wasn’t far afield but instead was right in his backyard. This limitation provided a serendipitous artistic direction.

Empty landscape with trees in the distance.

This constraint also led Hardee to his current project Good-bye to a House, the documentary about a no-longer-standing farmhouse with a stunning view of nearby Mount Monadnock. This subject combined Hardee’s interest in landscape, the past, and, most of all, interesting people who have lived the story.

For Hardee, working on this film has given him a strong appreciation for local stories as well as the opportunity to keep doing what he loves while bringing important environmental stories to others. If I’m out filming the barn and fields in all kinds of weather, and I’m waiting for the right light, or something to happen,” he explains, “I can totally lose myself.”