As we trawl through over 40 films (selected from a “long list” of over 150), the committee is repeatedly confronted by the issue of what exactly is appropriate subject matter for an environmental film festival.
Fact: David Attenborough documentaries do not an environmental film make.
This sounds relatively obvious, but the assumption that an environmental film festival will only trade in images of fluffy polar bears and other charismatic megafauna is reasonably entrenched and seriously devalues the genre. Gone are the days where the best of the world’s environmental films are characterised by what is shown on the ABC at 6:30pm on a Sunday night… Nor are they best represented by images of a man, whose distaste of personal hygiene is indicated by the weight of grunge accumulated on his dreadlocks, holding a cam-corder and chasing an Enron executive down the street. The production of feature length environmental documentaries is a very sophisticated film making area, and the quantity and quality of films each year just gets bigger and better.
But what makes an environmental film? This goes back to my first comment. If it isn’t just a wildlife documentary, what is it? The demarcation between “environmental” and “other” is a fuzzy one, I will acknowledge that. In modern times, the concept of “environmental” has expanded beyond issues that drove the first wave of environmentalism in the 60s – issues such as deforestation, species loss, local pollution. It is now a more all-encompassing idea that often takes on a more global and expansive perspective, as the problems we face take on more complex dimensions; ‘environmental’ cannot be easily compartmentalised anymore. One clear example of this is climate change. This could well be characterised as the headline environmental issue of our generation. But root causes and consequences are so far beyond just our immediate impact on polar bears in the arctic…. It brings into its fold human rights, equity, capitalism, consumption, the structure of our institutions and our decision-making frameworks, as well as the continued habitability of the earth for all life. It is so much more all-consuming than the traditional conception of “environmental”.
This shift in thinking was made quite obvious to me during last year’s festival. We screened a film called “Sweet Crude”, which looked at the impact of crude oil extraction on the Niger Delta – from the immediate pollution to social unrest and political instability in the broader region. My father came out of the film, and said, “Great film, but I am not convinced it was ‘environmental’.” This had not even crossed my mind – to me, the clear link between our lifestyles’ dependence on fossil fuels and the social, environmental and political consequences on the local inhabitants at the point of extraction were undeniably subjects worthy of an environmental documentary. That type of link is the very foundation of the field of environmental justice. Yet my father clearly was still a child of the sixties – one where there were clear divisions between human rights, environmental destruction, and probably (although I am putting words in his mouth here) our society’s basic economic model.
So what does this mean for this year’s festival? Our shortlist (query the use of the word “short”… watching all 40 has felt anything but short!) includes films that, again, some will claim are more properly defined as “human rights”. Films that explore our relationship with the universe. Films that previously would have belonged in an economics syllabus (although way more interesting – I promise), without a polar bear or old growth tree in sight. And others that have the sort of scenery that makes your heart sing, and remind you again exactly why what we have is so worth fighting for.
That is the fun of running this film festival. Plumbing the depth of that fuzzy “environmental” zone, and revelling in the variety, quality and sheer entertainment that emerges. Watch this space!