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Film as Catalyst

The 10th annual RVA Environmental Film Fest includes a competition for locally produced environmental film work.

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National Geographic photographer James Balog is on a mission to document how drastically the world is changing around us. His documentary, “The Human Element” uses time-lapse cameras that he set up in 2005 as part of the Extreme Ice Survey to illustrate just how rapidly change is occurring in the form of unyielding wildfires, rising sea levels and increasing flooding. This documentary, along with the Dr. Seuss classic, “The Lorax,” are two of the films being shown as part of the 10th annual Richmond Environmental Film Festival, which kicks off Feb. 7 and is free.

The co-founder and current festival president, Tamara Smith, has watched the event evolve over its first decade. It grew out of the Biggest Picture, Richmond’s first environmental film festival, which rocked Carytown with a one-day event in 2008 that included an appearance by consumer advocate Ralph Nader and a day of screenings at the Byrd Theatre. But after a second festival was staged in 2009 with low attendance, founder John Wade gave up and a yearlong lull ensued. The Sierra Club’s Falls of the James chapter, which took charge in 2011, managed to fund a one-day ticketed festival attracting fewer than 150 attendees.

“But after going free and open to the public the next year, the festival gained momentum, attracting educators, students and community sponsors, enabling the planners to expand the festival to three days, then to an entire week,” Smith recalls. “The festival has seen as many as 2,500-plus attend, a far cry from those beginning numbers.”

The goal has always been to bring awareness of environmental subjects to light, especially where harm is being inflicted on the planet and its inhabitants, whether human or nonhuman, as well as to motivate a new wave of advocates and inspire attendees to become more proactive in the realm of lobbying and activism.

To determine what’s worth screening at the event, a committee combs the internet and social media for current topics and themes. This year, more than 50 films were reviewed, including some it couldn’t find room for last year. Programming and content are debated by the committee and choices made for further review.

“We selected 17 films based on quality, with an emphasis on newly released films,” explains Dawn Williamson, a board member and film-selection committee chairwoman, while also trying to seek diversity in film selection. “We leaned towards more positive outcome films this year to balance the weight of the negative news cycle.” After considering suggestions from last year’s attendees not to end the festival with a heavy, depressing film, the group welcomes feedback to continue improvement.

As in past years, prominent themes emerge organically, including the importance and value of individual passion — demonstrated by films such as “Five Seasons: the Gardens of Piet Oudolf” and “The Butterfly Trees;” the proliferation of single-use plastics — “Drowning in Plastic” and “The Story of Plastic;” and regenerative agriculture, films such as “The Biggest Little Farm,” “Sustainable” and “Farmer’s Footprint.” The aim is to cover a wide range of subjects.

To kick off the festival, the James River Association is presenting the Biophilic cities program, a global community of partner cities committed to planning and designing cities with abundant nature, where residents have contact with the natural world as an element of daily life, followed by a panel discussion at the Main Richmond Public Library. The festival has also worked with the University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Union University for screenings and discussions.

Another aspect is the Virginia Environmental Film Contest awards, selected by a committee of board members and past board members who determine the first-prize winner and two runners-up. The selections are culled from original, newly produced works on environmental themes made in Virginia by filmmakers currently living in Virginia. Williamson says there’s always an eclectic selection of films and the awards add a local flood of energy and excitement to the event. Festival co-founder Scott Burger has been the film contest manager since its inception in 2014 and champions the contest as a core part.

Besides the appeal of free films, the festival is also a great place to meet fellow environmentalists. The organizers encourage people to continue the conversation post-festival.

“The overwhelming nature of climate change has brought several issues to the forefront, such as wildlife extinction, the value of trees and invasive species,” Williamson says. “Ultimately, though, I think we take ideas from the films and apply them to our own lives first and then ask how we can make system changes and collaborate with others for greater impact. The festival can be a catalyst for action.”

The 10th annual Richmond Environmental Film Festival is held between Feb. 7 and 14 at various venues. Visit rvaeff.org for information.

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