Film Festival Previews
Here is a rundown of some of the films at this year's Wild & Scenic Film Festival opening Friday, January 14, 2011 at various locations in and around downtown Nevada City. For ticket, schedule and more information about the film festival go to www.wildandscenicfilmfestival.org.
‘Witness: Defining Conservation Photography’
The photography in “Witness” pops. It peppers you with human beings’ artistic connection with nature. The beautiful photographs are reason enough to see this short film.
The subject matter veers from the more typical tensions and information packing often associated with environmental films. Primarily this film familiarizes you with a job.
The subtitle of “Witness” is “Defining Conservation Photography.” These photographers need to express a passion and purpose beyond capturing the wonders of nature. These environmentalists need to tell stories of our worrisome impact on the natural environment. The job is well demonstrated in “Witness.”
These artists need to communicate that photography is art. Whether or not photography still struggles to keep from being considered as a second-class citizen in the art world, the artists represented in “Witness” are most certainly first class.
‘Percy Schmeiser: David versus Monsanto’
Percy Schmeiser is a little guy. He’s probably better off than most people, but he’s tiny compared with the Goliath company, Monsanto. This film brings you the fight that this resilient farmer has mounted against corporate domination that is riding roughshod across the landscape.
Consider for a moment that Percy Schmeiser has victimized Monsanto. Monsanto sells a genetically modified seed that sets up the opportunity for farmers to purchase Monsanto’s pesticide. They also sell the seed. They have won in court that they own the gene modification and therefore the seed and therefore the plants.
If insects, the wind or whatever fripperies of nature carry their seed onto Schmeiser’s land and cause as little as 1 percent of his crop to include Monsanto’s plants, Monsanto owns all his plants. Is Schmeiser the victimizer when the court thus rules on what seems to be the rape of Schmeiser’s land?
Watch Percy Schmeiser and his wife stand up to intimidation and the risk of financial ruin. Get a feeling for how pervasive Monsanto’s stranglehold is against individual rights and sustainable sensibilities. Schmeiser fights to stop Monsanto from trespassing on his land, indeed, to pay him to remove their unwanted stuff from his property.
See this film. Get angry. Experience a ray of hope that corporations can be held accountable.
‘The Olmsted Legacy: America’s Urban Parks’
The United States is much characterized by vast open spaces. As early as the first half of the 1800s, our land of opportunity also teemed with the explosive growth of its cities.
The USA might breathe proudest at the accomplishment and significance of its National Park System. As early as the first half of the 1800s, the seed was first sown to address the fundamental need to be “free from the disturbance of noise and jar.” This sentiment, expressed by Frederick Law Olmsted, was part of his design concept for New York City’s Central Park.
Olmsted designed hundreds of urban parks, college campuses and other projects engineered to “keep nature in cities.” It’s fair to say that Olmsted deserves to be respected on par with John Muir. Seeing the film “The Olmsted Legacy” helps to crystallize how much this man is responsible for a counterpoint American spirit.
Part of Olmsted’s growth as a landscape architect included helping to foster the early notion of National Parks with his work in and around Yosemite. Overwhelmingly, though, his devotion focused on urban spaces like the mile long meadow in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park or creating urban park systems as he did in Buffalo and Boston.
At his core a city planner and a servant of the people, Olmsted solved problems like channeling storm water and handling sewage problems while enhancing such urban spaces for public use. Foremost, Olmsted addressed the need for the pastoral, for the picturesque, for relief from the contrived and stressful demands of urbanized life.
“The Olmsted Legacy” is the kind of personable history lesson that is perfect amidst the heightened pitch and the issue-laden devotions that fuel the Wild & Scenic Film Festival.
‘Butterflies and Bulldozers’ bring San Bruno into view
A plan for the early 1960s involved removing the top 200 feet of San Bruno Mountain and filling in “susceptible parts” of San Francisco Bay. Build, literally, on the Bay. Build on the flattened mountaintop.
Such was the drive for progress and development back before the term “environmentalist” had been coined. The population was exploding around San Francisco, and Pete Seeger sang a song that added some satire to the pop charts: “Little boxes / On a hillside / Little boxes made of ticky tacky.” The “little boxes / all the same” referred to homes in Daly City, immediately south of San Francisco.
The film “Butterflies and Bulldozers” centers on San Bruno Mountain, the largest undeveloped urban land mass in the United States. It’s a telling history that captures a sense of process. It chronicles decades of people’s involvement and dedication.
Wealthy people – characterized then as mere housewives married to “ruling-class males” – organized to “Save the Bay.” Development pressure shifted but never let up. Lower middle class, grassroots types took up the banner to “Save the Mountain.”
Two men, perhaps the most central players, are still at it 40 years later. David Schooley tended more toward working outside the system. Fred Smith developed a career path more on the inside. They worked together well and less well in an unending struggle to preserve a unique ecosystem. San Bruno Mountain is a marker for what once was, before progress paved it.
The butterflies and the bulldozers symbolized in the title butt up against one another. Whatever the resolution for the San Francisco Bay Area or open spaces anywhere, it’s a long drawn out process.
‘Waste Land’ visits the highs and lows of Brazil
The film “Waste Land” may tug at your heart or annoy it. It may raise an eyebrow toward a kinship of possibility for all or to the continuity of exploitative imbalance. It may transport you to a new avenue of artistic integration or bounce you off the celebrity marketing of art.
However you take to it, “Waste Land” offers something more engaging than a mere message film. Its spirit speaks through a high-profile artist, Vic Muniz. His art has taken him far from his poor urban upbringing. Now, he mixes his art with social projects.
Muniz spent two years with garbage pickers – that is the recyclers, humble relievers of the planet’s burden. In Rio de Joiner’s Jardim Gramacho, he included them in his process of using garbage dump materials and images of the pickers to create high-priced depictions of their humanity. The art is impressive as is the process.
Muniz transports a select few to fancy art shows where they see hundreds of thousands of dollars raised to improve their lives. These low-end servants to a consumer world walk amongst people who have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on works of art.
Back these people go to the largest landfill in Brazil. Some go with an inspiration to improve their lives beyond what it has been. All seem genuinely proud and uplifted from having been a part of something so much bigger than what they have ever experienced.
Muniz also seems entirely genuine, besides his clear talents with innovative art and money-making and people of all stripes. He looks upon the experience and suggests that it is “better to have nothing and want everything than to have everything and want nothing.” His reflection does not seem to include the elite advantages of having everything and wanting everything, but this does not stop “Waste Land” from being a provocative and quite beautiful documentary.
‘A Murder of Crows’ challenges bird-brain theory
Rarely does the word “fascinating” seem to apply to movies.
Very few animals besides humans use tools: great apes, chimpanzees, elephants.
Crows, it turns out, do more than use tools. They make tools. They do more than pick up a twig to poke and pull inaccessible things they want. They’ll sculpt and shape a hook to make a tool more effective. They’ll even use a tool to acquire another tool. Crows: go figure.
The scientists documented in “A Murder of Crows” study something even more fascinating. It seems that a crow can recognize an individual human face. If that human has done him wrong, the crow can remember it for months and months. The amount of time young crows are nurtured by parents, as well as the social behavior of extended family in a crow’s upbringing, add to understanding crow intelligence.
“A Murder of Crows” exposes you to these and other aspects that humans are learning about these unusually intelligent creatures. It only adds to the allure to watch the behaviors of scientists pursuing knowledge and evolutionary kinship.
Humans and crows have been watching each other for a long time. It may be that crows still know more about us than we do about them.
‘Bearwalker of the Northwoods’ is warm, fuzzy
Gentle is as gentle does. Lynn Rogers, the bear biologist who centers the film “Bearwalker of the Northwoods” exemplifies gentle. The tone of his narration matches his stated hopes. He wants people to understand that black bears are not scary. They are not dangerous. They are loving, intelligent creatures.
For more than 40 years, Rogers has interacted in a way that black bears routinely trust. Mostly, this devoted scientist just watches the bears. Because of the way he interacts, he gets very close. Bears eat from his hand. They let him attach radio collars without having to be tranquilized. Mama bears don’t mind him around their babies.
The cute factor is very much a part of this film, but the real success is joining Rogers in the field as he documents black bear behavior in the wild. Until about a year and half into their second year, bears suckle with mom. You watch with Rogers as the cubs reach the time when she pushes them to live on their own.
In that time frame, moms are ready to mate again. You see bears marking territory and making new babies. Eased by the relaxation and confidence that exudes from Rogers, you get to see a family of bears grooming and playing (bears love to play) and behaving just fine around well-behaved humans.
The Wild & Scenic Film Festival historically holds a place in its heart for movies about bears and “Bearwalker of the Northwoods” adds further enlightenment to this legacy. Share the gentle scientific devotion of Lynn Rogers. Visit his Minnesota in the largest U.S. wilderness area east of the Mississippi River.
‘Carbon Nation’ adds up our energy equation
The film “Carbon Nation” emphasizes a small number: 16. What’s the 16? The 16 is watts. Actually, the 16 is terawatts. What’s a terawatt? Just remember we only need 16 of them per day to run the whole planet.
“Carbon Nation” explains that the Earth generates 32 terawatts every day in geothermal energy. It experiences 870 every day of wind energy. We only need 16. The Earth receives 86,000 every day of solar energy. We only need 16. None of these resources will get used up like carbon-based energy. None of these costs what carbon-based energy really costs, not if you factor in toxic and similar hazards and resource depletions and that global warming deal.
Corporations don’t pay for the side effects of what they produce. They “externalize costs.” Learn more about that term.
Curiously, we wouldn’t even need 16 terawatts if we found satisfaction, that is, if we cashed in on the savings of not wasting energy. Beyond curious, we seem to ignore any economic construct that inspires satisfaction traction around consuming less.
“Carbon Nation” wraps our arms around how much our carbon economy dominates the true cost equation. It spends much of its feature length outlining ways to better address the energy number that sustains modern life.
‘Alexandra’s Echo’ says something fishy at salmon farms
Alexandra is a hero or a crackpot depending on how you feel about fish farms.
Her home ground is Broughton Bay and Echo Bay, 300 miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia. Her enduring passion is studying orca whales. They’ve been acoustically harassed out of the Broughton Archipelago by unnatural sounds as loud as jet engines.
Her reluctant passion is studying wild salmon. In 2003, Alexandra catalogued more than 800 salmon. In 2004 and 2005, more than 2000. Sea lice, sea lice, sea lice. Diseased salmon live in farms open to tidal waters. Also, Atlantic salmon escape into the wild Pacific stock.
Alex projected a collapse of wild salmon of more than 80 percent. The reality in Broughton matched Norway where 90 percent collapses have occurred. The farmed salmon corporations, headquartered in Norway, spread their industry to Scotland, Ireland, Chile and British Columbia. Disease, disease, disease, disease. And that’s besides things like high levels of PCBs in farmed salmon.
Diligent and outspoken, Alexandra has been largely ignored by government and denigrated by the farmed salmon industry. Industry claims she has proven no connection between farmed salmon and wild salmon issues. Government slapped her for gathering samples without a science license. Young scientists are coming to the region to fill the official vacuum in a fight that is only beginning. The crackpot isn’t Alexandra. It’s yet another industry bouncing between pathological denial and catastrophic disregard.
Fortunately, Alexandra Morton is spiritual as well as spirited. Experiencing her across decades in the film “Alexandra’s Echo” plays the bittersweet sound of a hero.
‘Living Downstream’ has a flow you need to know
Keep “the precautionary principle” forefront in your mind. Curiously, the film “Living Downstream” is all about the precautionary principle without ever using the term.
If there’s a reasonable suspicion that a policy or action is causing harm, those who may be causing the harm must prove it is not harmful. The burden is not for potential victims to prove it is harmful.
What does Sandra Steingraber, the central focus of “Living Downstream,” say? This biologist specializes in environmental health. In particular, she focuses on the killer of hundreds of thousands of North Americans every year. She wants people to look upstream from the money and the effort and the worry spent on people who have cancer. She wants people to apply themselves to preventing what causes cancer.
Science has produced enough suspicion about Atrazine, for instance, that the European Union has banned this pesticide. In the United States, the official declaration is that there is insufficient proof about its dangerous effects.
The precautionary principle directs us to avoid and actively investigate the risks when frogs change from males to reproducing females and when rats exhibit poorly developed reproductive systems. It directs us to seek correlation between widespread intensive use of pesticides and the rise in breast cancer and other cancers.
As a scientist, writer, activist and cancer survivor, Steingraber is likened to Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring.” Carson’s devotion resulted in banning DDT and helped usher in an era of environmental awareness.
One huge challenge in raising concern for the environment and advocating for a better one is how depressing the call to action often sounds. In Steingraber’s voice is a sound of calm and reason. In “Living Downstream,” she’s almost hypnotic in the way she communicates well-placed concern and knowledge seeding action.