By T.R. Merchant-Knudsen.
From the carefully curated selection of films and grouped programs… there were a variety of options for viewers, from talks with directors and conservationists, shorts that highlighted issues from around the globe, and feature films at the edge of documentary filmmaking.
At the beginning of 2020 and the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, there was a flurry of videos and stories about how nature seemed to be coming back: videos of dolphins in the clear waterways in Paris, reports of the decreasing pollution from shutdown factories, and the stories of people eating at home. Each of these began to paint a picture of how humanity has power over nature that exploits the land and Earth around us. It’s a powerful image that flashed across multiple social media platforms. With the lockdown and continued precautions taken with the pandemic, many film festivals are moving to a virtual, online appearance to celebrate filmmaking; the fourth annual Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival highlights environmentally conscious films. In the climate of today, especially in light of the stories and videos mentioned, the festival provides a glimpse of the possibilities and problems facing our planet. From the carefully curated selection of films and grouped programs, the festival had some clear focuses that highlighted the issues of climate change. During the weekend of the festival, there were a variety of options for viewers, from talks with directors and conservationists, shorts that highlighted issues from around the globe, and feature films at the edge of documentary filmmaking. The curation of films at the Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival included animated films and intimate documentaries that expertly provided glimpses of impactful, small stories that highlighted larger issues in a way that never failed to forget that at the forefront of the climate issues lies humanity.
The festival cleverly embraced this theme by leaving the choice of ordering the programs up to the viewer. In my case, my first program was Program 4: Global Shorts. I was immediately interested in the environmental stories told through the mode of animation. Divorced from pure reality, these shorts each captured an intriguing sense by discussing and utilizing resources. “Antarctic – Little Animal” (2019) and “Back to Nature” (2018) open this program, which takes on painted animation and collage filmmaking. In the first, two Arctic creatures, a seal and penguin, traverse through multiple environments, layered animations with painted frames of clear brush strokes, until they arrive at their home. The outlines of the animals separate them from the backdrops with popping solid lines and colors that dance alongside the music in the background. The second film of the program, “Back to Nature,” told a story through time that gazed at how nature flourished, then diminished due to our effects on nature and our separation from each other, and then at last regrew alongside us pulling back in unity to save nature; during the entire film, the usage of older photos, magazines, and other print media harkens back to reuse of materials in order to continue telling stories. Later in that same program, “Polarbarry – Let’s Break the Ice!” (2019) made a clever riff on a YouTube vlog starring polar bears discussing climate change and its effects. Near the end of the winner of the Best Animated Short, the film reveals how the interviewer asked people on the street and then added a layer of detachment further with the animated style that utilizes primarily primary colors. These clever plays with the environmental themes through animation made for engaging stories that felt lighthearted in comparison to the heavy subject matter of the other shorts in the program.
“Kofi and Lartey” (2019), the winner of the Best Short Award Over 6 Minutes, was the highlight of the starting program I chose. While my initial choice of Program 4 hinged on the animated films, the effects of this short remain the ones implanted in my head. The layered story, in which the two main children along with their teacher, Abdallah, create a film alongside the director about Agbogbloshie, Ghana, produces a meta-documentary that implicates both the medium of filmmaking and the act of displaying the events with nuance. The city becomes a toxic waste dump that turns into a source of income for those living there despite health risks. Abdallah gives Kofi and Lartey cameras, and the documentary crew captures the children juxtaposed with their own footage. The stories of the people who live there become real and tangle together in images of thick smoke as recycled electronics melt and leave the villagers infected from the occurring residue left in the air. The film remains highly affecting and clearly makes connections to news footage about the region additionally cut throughout the film, providing a glimpse of the outside gaze that the spectator might already possess. The resulting montage between the documentary crew, the children’s cameras, and the news footage give a sense of the issue at play in the context of the world. The wonderfully composed “Kofi and Lartey,” directed by Sasha Rainbow, will remain one of those short films that remain highly topical, affective, and powerful. The emotional rollercoaster about family bonds and working against the ticking clock associated with the pollution of the recycled electronics remains truly affecting as the film catalogs both the political climate of pollution as they intersect with the personal stories of Ghana’s citizens.
Other animated films throughout the festival acted as palette cleansers more often than not between films that highlight heavy issues. For instance, Program 7: Honeyland placed two animated shorts before the feature-film at the end of the program. “Land Without Evil” (2018) is a cyclical film that questions the placement of unity between humanity and nature. By utilizing layers of glass, physical objects, and playing with depth through the panes of glass, the short film explores how animals are constantly feeding on each other and thus giving a reason to other lives. With the introduction of humanity in the film, the viewer witnesses how they also become a part of the cycle of life that houses all of life itself. The pieces in front of the camera naturally evolve over the stop-motion animation and bleed together from scene to scene. This film is then followed by “See Animals” (2019), which uses the same layering process; however, the animation is created through computer means instead. By displaying the cycle of life again through this animation, it initially seems like the film is replicating the feel of the first film until suddenly a “Continue?” screen appears and reveals the facade: a person is utilizing a VR helmet to see these animals in a highly technological society. There’s a cut to the outside street and signs glow in the dark saying “Realistic” and “Lifelike.” The film suddenly takes a horrifying outlook on the placement of animals at a time when they could disappear. The film’s insistence towards this digital reality highlights the environmental issue of humanity’s greed by not only placing the future within a highly technological society but also one without animals living in coexistence with humans.
Honeyland (2019) is the feature film that ended Program 7 and won the Best Feature Film award for the festival; it rightfully deserves the title as the documentary calls attention to a global issue without ever losing focus on the intimate story about Hatidže—a wild beekeeper in the remote village of Kekirlija. The film, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and Best International Picture earlier in 2020, follows Hatidže over three years as she struggles with the changing world, diminishing resources of bees and honey, and deals with nomad neighbors that move into the village with her. The story of the family paints a harsh tale about the greediness of consumerism and the negligence towards the needs of others in similar situations. Throughout, the film embraces the direct cinema approach to documentary filmmaking: enact as little as possible to bring attention to the presence of the camera and watch the events unfold. The result is a powerful staple of documentary filmmaking that highlights the possibilities of losing livelihoods in the face of regaining some sense of stability. The family’s story is just as depressing as the harsh reality they are dealt, but the documentary explores how their attempt to make money and remain financially stable can cost friendship and the livelihood of Hatidže. The film’s subjects are seemingly doomed from the start; the montage of extreme long shots at the beginning and near the end of the film display just how far Hatidže has to walk to obtain honeycomb lodged in the face of a mountain. The metaphor drawn in these scenes simply declares that humanity must both climb distances to remain stable, and that perhaps they are doing too much against the environment. The twists and turns of the narrative, along with the masterful cinematography and editing, portray the years with a flair that makes the film appear constructed. The final shots, in which Hatidže revisits a mountain in search of the honeybee and their honeycomb, leave us with a hint that things will continue after the credits begin to roll.
This same sense of impossibility and emotional stories about families as tied to problems of the changing climate came out strongly in Program 8: Environmental Justice. These films about tales of justice within the backdrop of environmental focus give previews into the lives of citizens of the United States that are facing troubling times due to the changing climate alongside the encroachment of large companies and corporations. “Detroit Hives” (2019) begins the program on a lighter foot by highlighting a project of turning older homes and properties into honey farms in the city of Detroit. There is a sense of hopefulness as these urban bee farms build into the community and turn the city into something sustainable for the future. The next short, however, immediately recognizes the problems facing the United States by looking at the country’s first climate refugees: the citizens of the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana. In “Lowland Kids” (2019), the main family at the center of the film displays the larger problem at play by focusing tightly on the stories of the two high school students and the uncle that cares for them. In a discussion about the lives they’ve constructed in the community, the knowledge of their inevitable move away from the isle due to rising sea levels adds the tension of loss to their family structure. Instead of then going light again like the introduction to this program, the feature film Mossville: When Great Trees Fall (2019) follows on the coattails of the short to explore how a large-scale corporation does not have the interests of the citizens of the small community at Mossville and force the citizens to leave the land. After the purchase of the land, SASOL, a chemical and energy company based in Sandton, South Africa, offers to buy out the citizens in order to build a chemical plant on the grounds. In an attempt to keep the land and stand up to the interests of the large company, one of the citizens, Stacey, stays in his home which ends up being near the center of the acquired land. Throughout the film, his case becomes more and more impossible until he is forced off the land due to his failing health after being subjected to a loss of power, privacy, and clean water at his home. The program highlights the apparent impossibility of environmental justice, but the intro short contextualizes the other two films as creating a possibility for the future of saving both the environment and humanity from the interests of large companies.
The most apparent aspect of the film festival to consider is the incredible effort it took to put the festival on through the virtual format—something that many festivals are also experiencing in the current climate. This festival delivered over a weekend of films that each highlighted specific facets of issues through carefully organized programming, as evidenced by the named programs throughout this report. To name another apt example, the first program listed for the festival, Indigenous Perspectives, featured films that focused on the encroaching issues plaguing populations threatened by the advancement of global issues like climate change and protected land. “Throat Singing in Kangirsuk” (2018) began the programming with an extreme long-shot highlighting a landscape of Kangirsuk, an Inuit village in northern Canada. In the center of the shot, two villagers begin throat-singing and the montage of the film follows the dramatic tone of the vocalists: Kaukai and Chamberland. As the song cuts and moves to something different, the landscape changes from ice to grassy mountains. Under the programming of the festival, these changing seasons seem to be implicating humanity’s encroachment on nature. Sweeping long shots of the environment juxtaposed with some close-up shots of the vocalists and give off moments of personal drama intertwined with the world around them. From there, the program highlights indigenous lands in the United States that are protected and cared for by “cultural burning practices” in the short film “Fighting Fire With Fire” (2018). The care of the forest is intertwined with the cultural heritage of the land and those who have lived on the land for a long period of time. Finally, the program has the feature-length film Tribes on the Edge (2019). The film explores several indigenous tribes in the Amazon that are being threatened by the government of Brazil and its capitalistic interests. While Céline Cousteau’s film focuses a little too intently on the filmmaker and her crew as they travel through the land, the film does highlight the traditions and heritage that permeates throughout the Amazon forest.
As hinted at throughout, the highlights of the festival were films that focus on the intimate and small subjects as they participate within the larger forces of environmental issues. The Great Green Wall (2019) closes Program 9: African Lens by focusing on an attempt among Saharan African countries to replant trees across the continent in an effort to keep nature alive. Instead of only focusing on that issue, the film follows Inna Modja, a musician, as she travels to the countries to make an album centered on the wall of trees and the people around it. The stories that the film weaves together paint a variety of emotional tales regarding the waning environment and distraught citizens as they deal with forces of militia that threaten their livelihoods. Another feature-length, Modified (2017), focuses on GMOs and modified produce as the centerpiece of Program 6: Planet Foods. The story, though, focuses on the experience of the filmmaker, Aube Giroux, as she attempts to interview officials and deals with the connection that she has with her mother. The personal story highlights the larger issues at play, and the twisting narrative evokes a sense of the possibility for change that most of the festival centered on.
The Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival expertly crafted online programming that highlighted issues of environmental justice, conservation, and humanity’s role in preserving it. The format provided glimpses at the struggle across the globe and the necessity to begin acting now. 2020 saw wildfires plaguing the West Coast of the States and Australia, videos of animals roaming once-bustling streets, and a record number of hurricanes hitting the gulf coast. The timely festival begs the viewers to consider multiple facets of environmental issues and asks that they act as the spearheads for the movement. Humanity can no longer sit idly by when these issues plague their everyday attention, and the problems seem to grow worse with each passing year. The films throughout the festival consider what matters at the center of these larger issues: the intimate families that are inexplicably tied together and vying for a chance to grow and live in a thriving world. It asks us to not forget about the larger issues by weaving them together with personal stories that remind us that we are all in the fight for the environment.
T. R. Merchant-Knudsen has a Master’s in English with a concentration in film and media studies. He is an instructor and the Image Editor for Film International. His work has been published in Film International, Language, Literature, and Interdisciplinary Studies, and Southeast Asian Review of English. His interests in film and media studies are on phenomenology, sound design and music, animation studies, and narratives within spectacular media environments.