A Sneak Peek Into This Year’s Best Environmental Films
By Katie O'Reilly
Hollywood loves history. Awards season 2018, after all, is buzzing with films that explore world wars, arms races, governmental and Olympic scandals. For those environmentalists who get behind the camera, however, the silver screen becomes an avenue to engage audiences in the issues, threats and hopeful developments shaping their children's future. In spite of the rapidly changing and increasingly fragmented media landscape, cinema remains a powerful tool for swiftly transforming lay viewers into impassioned advocates and activists. That's why the volunteers laboring to protect the Sierra Nevada's Yuba watershed launched the Wild & Scenic Film Festival in 2003.
The title is apt for an event that takes place within the nature-nestled Gold Rush relics of Nevada City, California. The festival's namesake actually commemorates the 1999 designation of "Wild & Scenic" status for 39 miles of the nearby South Yuba River—a landmark achievement for the South Yuba River Citizens League. Each January since the event's founding, South Yuba River Citizens League has used the festival to fundraise for its pet cause (pulling in a cool $850,000 this past year), host activist workshops (the fact that it always falls on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend does much to amplify the revolutionary spirit of the event), and screen 150-some films that explore a wide range of other local and global environmental issues.
Last Sunday, the four-day-long festival culminated with champagne, cake and an awards ceremony, but the 2018 event is far from finished. Wild & Scenic is about to hit the road, where it'll broadcast select films at museums, nature centers and nonprofits around the world.
So, which films dominated the world's most far-reaching green film festival? Here are the movies—vetted by a jury of esteemed conservationists, writers, activists and reviewers—to add to your 2018 must-watch list.
The jury awarded honorable mentions to two films: Describing the first as the contender that best captured "the tenor of our times," jurors selected David Byars's No Man's Land for its detailed, on-the-ground account of the 2016 standoff at Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge between armed militants led by Ammond Bundy and other protesters (many of whom are now serving jail time) and law enforcement. The former group, largely composed of right-wing activists, claimed that the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other agencies are constitutionally required to turn over much of the federal public land they manage to individual states. No Man's Land grimly documents the occupation from its inception to its dramatic demise and sheds light on the dangerously disenfranchised ideologues behind it.
The other jury award went to the decidedly cheerier Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, a star-powered foodie frenzy that reveals what some of the most influential chefs—among them Anthony Bourdain, Dan Barber, and Danny Bowien—are doing to "use the whole buffalo" i.e., turn what most would consider food scraps into dishes that wow gourmands and help foster a more secure food system. Wasted shows how food waste is contributing to climate change and lays out the small, often delicious changes that anyone can make to help respond to the ongoing crisis.
"Best Short" went to A Letter to Congress, a stirring three-minute film that shows off many of America's most wild and stunning places. The real star, however, is the soundtrack: a voiceover starring Wallace Stegner as he orates his 1960 letter to Congress emphasizing the importance of preserving wilderness. The effect couldn't be more prescient, nor Stegner's words more relevant to our current state. It's a kick in the pants to unify viewers against the transfer of public lands—arguably our most valuable heritage—to private and corporate interests.
Outdoor adventurers and anyone who loves an epic tale of reinvention would be wise to check out this year's "Most Inspiring Adventure Film," Charged: The Eduardo Garcia Story. The unorthodox survival documentary tells the story of a vivacious young chef who in 2011 was shocked with 2,400 volts of electricity while hiking deep within Montana's backcountry. Despite doctors' prognosis that he was "a dead man with a heartbeat"—and the subsequent discovery that Garcia was harboring stage-2 testicular cancer—the protagonist, minus four ribs and his left hand, pulls off an emotional recovery. He also becomes an ambassador athlete and speaker for the Challenged Athletes Foundation and builds a better life after the tragedy—largely thanks, in his own estimation, to the healing power of time spent in the great outdoors.
The theme of this year's Wild & Scenic Film Festival was "Groundswell." "The idea is to encourage environmental awareness and action from the ground up—to provide the inspiration and tools people need to protect their hometown rivers and landscapes," said festival director and South Yuba River Citizens League executive director Melinda Booth. It felt appropriate, then, to see "Best in Theme" go to Water Warriors, a 22-minute film about a motley, multicultural group of Canadians—including members of the Mi'kmaq Elsipogtog First Nation, French-speaking Arcadians, and white, English-speaking families—that for months in 2013 set up a series of road blockades to keep frackers away from their beloved natural resources in New Brunswick. Not only does the community succeed in protecting their water from the oil and natural gas industry, but they also elect a new governing body and win an indefinite moratorium on fracking in their province. It'll inspire you, too.
You might not expect a jury of mostly white progressives to bestow its prestigious "Spirit of Activism" award upon a feature-length documentary that defends the infamous Inuit seal hunt. Out of Canada, the artfully nuanced Angry Inuk makes a strong case for the fruits of this hunt—both seals' meat and pelts—as a vital means of sustenance for Inuit peoples. Viewers journey to director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's beautiful community of Iqaluit to meet sealskin-dependent advocates, lawyers, and even seal fur clothing designers, all of whom are fighting to overturn the EU's ban on seal products. The devastatingly eye-opening Angry Inuk does much to highlight the importance of activists' responsibility to seek input from diverse voices, and the fallacy of drawing false distinctions between oppositional parties—in this case, native subsistence hunters and profit-driven commercial hunters.
As for "Best of Festival"? The most prestigious Wild & Scenic award went to Rodents of Unusual Size, which you may recall Sierra reviewing last month. The hair-raising feature-length documentary offers a lively message about the threat of invasive species (in this case monstrous 20-pound swamp rats that some Louisianans feel make for great pets) and showcases creative ways to address it.
A second jury, made up entirely of children, selected an alternate "Best of Festival" winner. The kids' award went to My Irnik, a 15-minute film about a young father and dog musher who finds delightful ways to teach his young son about the value of shared adventures, and of keeping their ancestral Inuit heritage alive.
Jonesing to check out these winners? You may be in luck. Wild & Scenic films are already en route to Berlin, Houston, Denver, Havre, Missouri, and beyond. Find the full touring schedule here. And if you'd like to channel some movie magic to inspire environmental action within your community, you can still apply to host a leg of the tour.
Happy viewing and change-making!
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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