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Green Days: DC Environmental Film Festival Turns 20

By Brianna Townsend

Film festivals devoted to a full spectrum of environmental topics did not exist in the United States until 1993, the inaugural year of the DC Environmental Film Festival (EFF; official name: Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capitol). This once niche-interest festival has expanded from 1,200 attendees to over 30,000 this year on its 20th anniversary. "The festival is organically and incrementally growing, which is a testament to interest in documentary and in the environment," says Executive Director Peter O'Brien.

Since its inception, the DC Environmental Film Festival has helped launch an international phenomenon that focuses attention on global environments by serving as a model for similar endeavors such as the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival in California, and the Green Festival in Seoul, Korea.

The festival submissions covered an unusually wide variety of topics this year, according to Helen Strong, public affairs director. The complex and inextricable relationship between health and the environment was the theme.

"The hardest part is to choose [what you want to see]," said O'Brien with a laugh at the EFF launch party. He wasn't kidding--180 films were presented in a span of 12 days at 64 venues across Washington, DC, so festival-goers had to prioritize. Part of the fun was getting out to visit the embassies and other unique DC venues that hosted screenings and panels, like E Street Cinema, The World Bank and the National Geographic headquarters.

The festival opened with a documentary called Switch and closed with a full house at the Carnegie Institution for Science for Mark Kitchell's adaptation of the book A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet.

Between these bookends were many issue docs, but also animated, archival, children's and experimental work. Chris Paine's Revenge of the Electric Car follows four entrepreneurs over the course of three years as they compete to bring the electric car to the world market. The documentary personifies General Motors, Nissan and Tesla Motors so that they become not just big companies, but the livelihoods of thousands of people.

Paine and his crew enjoyed great access during critical moments in the race to solve the myriad problems associated with manufacturing electric cars on a large scale. "It's like eating a glass sandwich every bloody day," Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk admits to an exclusive meeting of customers who had pre-ordered cars--and on whom Musk had to raise prices.


From Chris Paine's Revenge of the Electric Car. (c0 2011 WestMidWest Productions


Harry Lynch's Switch boasted outstanding cinematography, his crew having utilized ten cameras to shoot 500 hours of footage. In an hour and a half, the film takes us to energy sites around the world to address ambitious questions such as "How risky is hydraulic fracturing?" and "What are the biggest challenges, and most promising solutions, to our energy transitions?" The film provides a survey of energy alternatives, but feels like a whirlwind tour suited for viewers who are new to energy debates.

Establishing a responsible balance between depth of coverage and entertainment value is a common obstacle in documentary filmmaking. With the prospect of a dense film in front of him, Lynch got creative. "Switch is not a documentary film that has a complementary website," he explains. "It is an interactive media project that includes the film, the Web and the education program, all the social media components, and a campus ambassador and screening program we're setting up with another nonprofit partner."


From Harry Lynch's Switch. (c) Arcos Films


The necessity of multi-pronged communication strategy was a hot topic of discussion at the panel "OK, I've Watched the Film, Now What?" "Whether a film is a 30-second clip or a two-hour feature film, it has to be part of a bigger communications package," said Joanna Benn, senior officer of international policy at Pew Environmental Group. Diane MacEachern, founder and CEO of Big Green Purse, suggested The Story of Stuff as a model to follow because a great public education campaign accompanied the film. She also praised its straightforward message: buy less stuff. MacEachern rejected the sentiment from filmmakers who said that it's not their job to tell viewers what to do. MacEachern was adamant: There is no time for indirect environmental films. There is also no place for the hopelessness that indirect films create.

The panelists put one more burden on the filmmaker. If distribution and marketing efforts don't begin until after the film is completed, the filmmaker has "really messed up," said Steve Michelson, executive producer of Specialty Studios/Video Project.

Two nights earlier in the same venue, Chris Palmer, director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University, and member of the EFF Advisory Committee, showed several film clips, evaluating the ethics behind them as part of his dynamic lecture, "The Best and Worst of Wildlife Films." He named The Grey, Turtle: The Incredible Journey, and Animal Planet's Into the Pride in the category of "worst films" for promoting conservation. About Turtle The Incredible Journey, Palmer said, "In my opinion, and you may differ with me on this, it isn't ethical to have so much unlabelled artificiality and artifice in a so-called documentary. Viewers naturally assume everything they are watching was shot in the wild with free-roaming loggerheads. As The New York Times said in its review, audiences have no way of knowing when nonfiction ends and fiction begins."

During the question-and-answer session, an audience member pointed out that Turtle had been screened that morning as part of the EFF.  "I was shocked, I didn't even know it was in the festival," Palmer admitted to Documentary following the lecture. "What I meant to say about Turtle: The Incredible Journey is that it does carry a good conservation message. Where it falls down, I think, is in deceiving the audience as to what is real footage and what is CGI. I worry when people find out that so much of it is CGI, animated and digitally enhanced, people will say, ‘Well, wait a minute; maybe the conservation message is also fallacious.'"

The episode underscores the reality that judging whether a film with good intentions is effective in furthering conservation efforts is not a clear dichotomy. But labeling staged footage, mentioning a conservation message, and not harassing the animals are ways to tip the scale favorably. 


From Nick Stringer's Turtle: The Incredible Journey. A SeaWorld Pictures Release


For a change of pace, there was Michele Oka Doner's otherworldly presentation at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Oka Doner is best known for her public installations, created on-site in places like airports and subway platforms in New York City. Approximately 25 attendees gathered in an intimate round theater to witness a slideshow presentation and two short films that challenged what might be expected from a film festival. SoulCatchers and A Walk on the Beach are simple films, just footage of Oka Doner's art works accompanied by music. In SoulCatchers, still images of haunting clay sculptures flash on screen in coordination with striking original soundtrack by Teddy Abrams, the new assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

A Walk on the Beach sounds like a melody of shell horn and piano and feels like flying, looking down at the terrazzo floor in the Miami International Airport, where, for nearly a mile, thousands of Oka Doner-designed bronze shapes have been inlaid. The forms--of plankton, marine invertebrates and other marine fauna-- have been made into larger-than-life bronze castings that allow the complexity of these organisms to be seen with ease. To Oka Doner, the installation is a philosophy essay on the origin of life.

The presentation came from a different place than a feature-length environmental documentary might, but it sought to inspire viewers with an appreciation of the natural world just the same.

Oka Doner used the majority of the time to recount how her union with the beauty and variety of the natural world began. She "peered into" textbooks with renditions of cells and algae and began to draw their forms. "The most beautiful place in the world is where your soul first opens," Oka Doner maintained.

The final festival event was introduced and moderated by EFF founder Flo Stone. A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet, a chronicle of the history of the environmental movement, "makes us think deeply about where we are and where we can go in the future," Stone said. Mark Kitchell's film is still in the editing process, but currently ends with the message that efforts to halt climate change must be initiated from the grassroots rather than from the top down. But as Diane MacEachern had said earlier in the week, films that don't give explicit instructions as to what to do can leave passionate people without direction.


From Mark Kitchell's A Fierce Green Fire


The sacrifice of Glen Canyon, the ideological division in the Sierra Club's leadership, former President Ronald Reagan's dismantling of solar panels from the White House rooftop, and many other historical events in the film create the expectation that future progress will be two steps forward and one step back.

"I thought the environmental movement was going to save the world. Now I'm not so sure," Philip Shabecoff, author of the book on which the film is based, said during the panel. It was inarguably inspirational, however, to see Lois Gibbs sitting on the panel. A significant story in A Fierce Green Fire is that of her leadership during the Love Canal chemical waste disaster in the 1970s and '80s.


Brianna Townsend is a graduate of the journalism program at American University, and is currently curating a group show in the university’s museum at the Katzen Arts Center. She does media and communications work for SeaWeb, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization.