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Sierra Club Film and Video Fest Challenges Documentary Status Quo

By Steven Montgomery

A man in overalls looks upward while holding his hat on his head from Pare Lorentz's 'The Plow that Broke the Plains.'(1936)

After a harsh winter, the coming of spring in New York City this year occasioned a joyful grin, even from the most ill-tempered New Yorkers. This phenomenon occurred during the same week that an innovative film festival hit the city—the First New York City Sierra Club Film & Video Festival (May 29-June) ­ featuring programming that explored hard-hitting environmental issues. The event brought welcome relief to a documentary scene which - at least in the opinion of this reviewer—has been in the midst of a bleak "winter": wherein the documentary form has been threatened with compromise by a deluge of personal documentaries or "films about me." In such works, the filmmaker too often conveys a bitterness towards the world, forever moaning about being victimized by one thing or another. In stark contrast, the Sierra event presented a roster of films and videos featuring heroic individuals and communities struggling to stem the tide of damage done to the earth by short-sighted public policy and unscrupulous corporations. With cameras mounted on canoes, airplanes and landrovers, producers evoked stirring images of the land of America and the world and showed how it is used and misused. They covered such subjects as innovations in organic farming, historic landscape preservation, trends in energy-saving public transportation and alternative fuels—always from a markedly human perspective. The works harken back to the great documentary era in which films such as Pare Lorentz's The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and Willard Yan Dyke's Valley Town (1940) explored man's relationship to the land, evincing such a large concern for humanity and the world.

The Sierra festival, held at The New School, brought together an audience of both environmental and documentary enthusiasts. And indeed, in contrast to an evening of "films about me" where people often leave the theater looking bleak and lost in themselves, the Sierra event stirred people into an eagerness to talk afterwards, perhaps even hopeful about the future.

A highlight of the festival was the film Power (1996, 76 min.), by Magnus Isacsson and Glen Salzman, in co-production with the National Film Board of Canada. Power tells the inside story of one of the major environmental and human rights battles of the 1990s: the Cree tribe of Northern Quebec allied themselves with Canadian and American environmental activists to prevent the Quebec government and its state-owned power utility from building the James Bay hydroelectric project on Cree hunting, trapping and fishing territories. With superb craftsmanship, the film captures the drama of harrowing public debates as well as private moments: particularly poignant is a late-night campfire scene where a Cree Chief vividly lectures on what the land and rivers mean to his people; nearby, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. listens quietly, his face glowing in the light of the fire, recalling the looks and idealism of his late father. Power avoids the all-too-often approach of depicting indigenous peoples as overly benevolent and alien from other cultures. Here the hopes of the Cree people and the goals of the environmental activists are shown as closely related. In an interview after the screening, Mathew Coon Come—the Grand Chief of the Crees and a guest at the festival drew a fascinating parallel between the ideals of his people and the qualities that make for a good film maker: "A good hunter has to know the seasons, the lay of the land, and the behavior of animals—and must take only what he needs. In the same way, the filmmaker must demonstrate a desire for knowledge of a situation and be responsible. The filmmakers [Isacsson and Salzman] showed they wanted to know and respect the Cree people."

Throughout the festival, audiences were granted a unique look at the America panorama through both a critical and appreciative eye. A high point of this examination was the screening of Connections: Preserving America's Landscape Legacy (1996, 60 min.) by Gina Angelone and Charles Birnbaum, about landscapes across America and the cultural histories that they reveal. A three-person crew photographed sites in nine states and the rich images often resemble classic landscape paintings, with the scene of Jefferson's Monticello and Martin Luther King's boyhood home in Georgia particularly memorable. What could have been an unfortunate choice—that omniscient narration that assumes no sensibility of an audience member—is surprisingly successful in Angela Lansbury's impassioned and ingenuous narration: her conviction about the need to halt the destruction of historic sites is deeply felt, and she speaks as though she wrote the narration herself, having walked the terrain and fallen in love with each landscape.

Another tour of the U.S. came via the documentary Fat of the Land (1995, 56 min.) by Nicole Cousino, Gina Todus, Sarah Lewison, Julie Konop and Florence Dore. These five women, dressed in waitress uniforms and mechanic's cover-alls, make a cross country road trip in a van run on a mixture of diesel fuel and processed used vegetable oil. Through their travels, we find out what renegade inventors, cutting-edge scientists, fast food workers and regular Americans think of alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. The piece is filled with fascinating facts about the field of biofuel development and loaded with a hip kind of humor that is never sarcastic.

Focusing on the international scene, In Remembrance: Ken Saro-Wiwa (1996, 60 min.) by Glenn Ellis is a portrait of the late writer, political dissident and environmental activist, who organized the first movement to protest the Nigerian government's complicity with Shell Oil. For more than thirty years, Shell has been exploiting the Nigerian Delta, without regard for the dehumanizing effects on the lives of Nigeria's indigenous people, the Ogoni people. Falsely accused of the murders of some of his own followers, Saro Wiwa was executed in November 1995, despite pleas made on his behalf by the international community. Providing never-before- seen footage of the crimes perpetrated by the Nigerian military and Wiwa's final interview before his death, In Remembrance: Ken Saro-Wiwa becomes a moving tribute and a vital document to the dedication and courage of one man; it also boldly implicates the Shell Oil Company in Nigeria's tragedy-prompting audience questions about whether an American filmmaker could venture similar criticism against a petrochemical firm and still get exposure on PBS, so heavily underwritten by American oil companies.

Another film in the festival, The Last Rivermen (1992, 30 min.) by Robert Nixon and John Cronin, boldly points a finger at General Electric, blaming the firm for the destruction of New York 's Hudson River and its once-fertile fishing grounds. Producer Cronin, who is also a full-time environmental activist, claims that American television programmers are intimidated by G.E. and this phenomenon has prevented his outstanding film from being televised.

A more personal view of an environmental tragedy is found in My Father's Garden (1995, 56 min.) by Miranda Smith and Abigail Wright, about the use and misuse of technology on the American farm. Smith's father, a successful and innovative farmer, used the new chemical "miracle" sprays of the 1950s to transform their Florida farm into a man-made paradis—and then died mysteriously soon after. His story is juxtaposed, sometimes confusingly, with that of Fred Kirschenmann, a modern-day organic farmer and leader of the sustainable agriculture movement. Finally, the film succeeds in portraying the profession of farming in astonishingly beautiful and realistic terms: we see farmers toiling to plant and harvest crops, but they also touch and smell the earth throughout the four seasons in an effort to know and understand its essence. The film is an earnest portrait of the farmer as an essential player in the cycle of society's sustenance.

Urban farming is profiled in City Farmers (1997, 77 min.) by Meryl Joseph. Beautifully shot, the film surveys the public gardens of New York: gardeners tell vivid and proud stories about watching their plants grow, yielding blossoms and vegetables; their often blighted neighborhoods are beautified by these green spaces, which become rich symbols of the possibilities for both human and land renewal. A fascinating story of farming away from the capitalist world is found in The Greening of Cuba (1996, 38 min.) by Jaime Kibben. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost its main source of fertilizers and petroleum and has since embarked on the largest conversion to organic farming ever attempted—and with much success. While the major U.S. media gleefully report on Cuba’s shortages and failures, according to this documentary, the communal spirit is alive and well in Cuba, producing abundant and healthy foods.

A less successful effort of the festival was Yakoana (1997, 58 min.) by Anh Crutcher. Though ambitiously produced and featuring beautifully shot interviews with indigenous peoples from around the world, the documentary becomes disappointing as it depicts these people as overly benevolent, forever smiling, while non-indigenous "others" are portrayed as bearers of disease, greed and corruption—all of this underscored sorrowfully by the filmmaker's narration.

This first effort by the New York Sierra Club would have to be judged an inspiring and memorable festival. Festival associate director, Christina Cobb, stated that the goal of the event was to "provide a vital forum for learning and exchange about environmental issues. One of our primary aims was to make sure anyone who attended left with the knowledge needed to actually do something within their own lives that has a positive impact on the environment." Indeed, attending the festival left one deeply impressed by the event's theme: "Take care of the earth's needs and it will take care of you!" Festival organizers—Liz McGregor, Christina Cobb, and Todd Edelman—hope to stage a second festival next year. For the sake of the environment and for the well-being of our documentary community—let's hope they do.

Steven Montgomery produced the documentaries Hobie's Heroes (1981) and Morocco: The Past and Present of Djemma el Fna (1995) and is a former president of the New York Film/Video Council. From 1983 to 1990, he studied the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel, a philosophy concerning mankind's relationship to the world.