Carolyn McMaster | May 9, 2017
I recently had the pleasure of spending a week watching movies at the San Francisco Green Film Festival. This event, now in its seventh year, combines two of my favorite things: film and the environment. And my binge reaffirmed my belief that films and storytelling have the power to bring about change and inspire action.
Seeing 10 feature-length documentaries plus nine shorts in six days, I spent a lot of hours in the dark. It was worth every minute: The films illuminated little-known horrors in places as disparate as China, East Africa and Ohio, and I came away with new insight into front-page stories, like the Standing Rock occupation against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
I was inspired by the filmmakers’ dedication to exposing problems that are seemingly insurmountable, like giraffe extinction, corporate land grabs that robbed people of their farms and the death of rivers from fast fashion’s toxic waste.
Great characters, strong narratives, emotional resonance
The best films had strong characters, a narrative, and emotional resonance. Michelle Latimer’s Rise: Standing Rock provided historical and cultural context for the occupation, and we see how it grew through the eyes of the two women who built the resistance. Plastic China was devastating in its simplicity: For a year or more filmmaker Jiu-liang Wang followed the lives of two families working and living in a plastics recycling facility. The details of their lives exposed a story of social injustice, pollution and the effects of consumerism, no expert commentary required.
Another favorite, Pangolin, used traditional narrative and beautiful filmmaking to reenact the journey of the most illegally trafficked animal in the world, from being poached in Indonesia to being eaten in a Chinese restaurant. Katie Schuler and Nick Rogacki deserved their award for best short.
So many movies about so many problems could have been depressing, and sometimes it was a bit bleak. But audiences also got stories of people fighting the good fight—and sometimes winning. In The Memory of Fish, Jennifer Galvin and Sachi Cunningham profiled Dick Goins, the fisherman-activist who led the successful, decades-long effort to bring down dams on the Elwha River in Washington and bring back the salmon population. San Francisco filmmaker Dan Goldes profiled local activist Karen Topakian in Arrested (Again), which—in five minutes!—was at once a funny, insightful portrait and a primer on how to be activist, even if it’s not a full-time job.
It’s a fact: facts alone don’t usually change hearts and minds. The power of these films resides in the visceral way they tell stories and explore issues in ways the written word can’t. The SF Green Film Festival and others like it not only bring vital films and their makers to audiences, they also provide a stamp of approval that can open doors to bigger audiences and other opportunities to educate. Giving these issues a voice a platform matters now more than ever, and I hope these films break out of the green ghetto to wider audiences. And no matter what, they deserve to have long, productive lives.