Green Film Festival illuminates the power of movies

Carolyn McMaster | April 27, 2016

The Green Film Festival looks like it’s here to stay. Attendance rose 20 percent this year (its sixth), venues expanded to include the Castro Theater, and the quality of films was high. This is all good news for sustainability advocates. Out of the 70 films on offer I saw eight feature-length documentaries and a few shorts—just a fraction of the weeklong program. Here are my highlights:

How to Let Go of the World (and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change) is a charming personal essay from Josh Fox, chronicling his journey from elation over a personal environmental victory, to being overwhelmed by the problem of climate change, to going on a quest for optimism. He finds it in activists around the world. The movie was a fitting festival opener—and you have to love that the film starts and ends with dancing.

In Pursuit of Silence—my favorite—is a fabulous meditation by Patrick Shen on the meaning of silence and why it’s important, positing that “without silence, we lose our humanity.” The film is framed by John Cage’s groundbreaking “silent” composition, 4’33”. The surprise appearance by poet and activist Anne Waldman, who read from recent work and performed Cage’s composition, was like a gift.

The true costs of oil addiction and fast fashion
The Burden was one of the biggest eye-openers for me. Everyone who thinks climate change and our addiction to petroleum aren’t security problems (a group that probably includes most of our elected officials) needs to see it. The compact documentary looks not only at the obvious—how we’re waging war to protect oil resources—but also at how heavily U.S. military might depends on petroleum-based fuels and how oil and climate change contribute to instability and violence. It’s a cogent argument, made by the military itself. The panel following the film featured a three-star general and a combat veteran active in the Truman Security Project, a network of ex-military people who are working to make the case to U.S. leaders.

The second eye-opener was the clothing industry’s status as the second-largest global polluter, behind energy. Andrew Morgan’s The True Cost documents fast fashion’s high price, in both environmental and human impact.

Jumbo Wild tells the story of how Jumbo Valley in British Columbia is threatened by development of a ski resort. The European developer is obsessed with the project, despite its negative environmental impact, local opposition and the fact that there are many ski resorts in the immediate area. Within its simple story line, Nick Waggoner’s film conveys the complexities of development versus the environment.

I also enjoyed Of the Sea, from Marin filmmaker Mischa Hedges, which profiles the lives of Northern California fishers who are working to provide sustainable seafood and a sustainable living for their families.

COP21: the journey to Paris
I went into the closing-night screening of Not Without Us wondering whether the subject would hold my interest. Happily, I shouldn’t have worried. Mark Decena’s documentary, about seven activists who went to the COP21 climate meetings in Paris to put pressure on world leaders to do what’s right, is a strong work, made all the more wonderful by the fact that it was finished only a few days before the showing. The characters are compelling and Decena tells their stories well. (And the film was finished just a few days before the screening—a minor miracle.)

I came away both worried and hopeful. Worried, because nations’ pledged actions are nonbinding, and even if they all fulfill their promises, it still won’t be enough to keep the world temperature rise to the needed 1.5° Celsius. And the agreement, signed only last Friday, doesn’t even mention fossil fuels.) Yet hopeful, because the seven people profiled in the film (and countless others) are working to make things better.

The Green Film Festival drove home the importance of film in telling stories about complex sustainability and environmental issues. These challenges are often abstract and removed from our everyday lives, and films illuminate them by bringing us closer to the people affected and illustrating the problems in ways that reports, articles and even still photos can’t. I’m looking forward to seeing what the 2017 festival brings.


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