Assessing environmental impact through film

Sustainability has become a buzzword in policy and government circles, but efforts to protect the environment are not restricted to the inner halls of Congress. In fact, some of the most dedicated advocates in D.C. have taken to a more creative method to express their ideas: film.

To combine their efforts in a meaningful and collaborative way, more than 155 filmmakers from around the world descended on the nation’s capital this March for the Washington D.C. Environmental Film Festival. The festival, now in its 18th year, seeks to raise awareness of the many environmental issues facing the planet.

For nearly two weeks, films that focused on problems – ranging from unsecured nuclear material to the effects of river damming – were screened at more than 56 locations in the District, Helen Strong, director of public affairs for the festival, said. Venues included museums, embassies, universities, libraries, and local theaters. Most of the screenings were free to the public.

Strong said the style of films shown varied, as did their content.

“[There were] lots of documentaries, but also feature films, animations, archival, experimental and children’s films. [Films] spanned a wide variety of topics, from climate change to the connections between food and the environment, to green energy solutions… and portraits of environmental heroes,” Strong said in an e-mail.

Despite its breadth, the event this year did have a theme: the relationship between people, the food they consume and the environment from which it comes. In addition, with filmmakers from around the world submitting their works, it had a distinctly international flavor.

“Solar Energy for Life,” produced for the French Association pour le Développement de l’Energie Solaire, was one film that reflected these traits, examining the connection between food and environmental security on the island nation of Madagascar, located off the southeastern coast of Africa.

In the 11-minute short, director Elfi Letterman-Kaba highlighted the efforts of ADES, a Swiss-Madagascar nongovernmental organization that works on the island to change local cooking practices by reducing the use of charcoal and firewood in an effort to conserve energy and reduce costs.

Another film, “The Last Giants (Wenn das Meer Stirbt),” looks at the conflict between marine life and international commerce in the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco. Directed by Daniele Grieco, the full-length piece chronicles the crusade of environmental activist Katharina Heyer in her quest to start a hospital for sea creatures threatened by the activity of corporate shipping merchants.

Several award-winning filmmakers were given the chance to spotlight their works at the festival, too. Director Josh Fox, whose film “GasLand” received the Special Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, was in attendance, as was director Pete Docter, who won an Oscar for the movie “Up” last year. Students from various area schools, including American and Georgetown, participated as well. As part of the event, students at AU’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking hosted the Student Environmental Short Film Festival, where films concentrating on America’s dairy industry and the preservation efforts of Maryland’s Natural Resources Police were among the films screened.

The festival continues to be one of the biggest cooperative cultural events in D.C., Strong said. For her, that is a positive, as the gathering seeks to mobilize filmmakers’ creative talents to achieve a healthier and safer environment.

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