One of pop culture’s favorite stereotypes is the modern environmentalist. You know the gag: Teva-sandal-wearing, Clif-Bar-eating rabble rousers with a deep fear of soap. Richmond’s sixth annual Environmental Film Festival hopes to change all that. An environmentalist, organizer Scott Burger says, looks like you and me.
Like it or not, everyone’s a little green because of the unsustainable road the world is on. That’s the message, at least, from several films being shown across multiple venues this week. But don’t think the films will hit you over the head with a textbook.
“Part of the fun here is being able to change, or add onto, your expectations about environmentalism,” Burger says from his Oregon Hill home. “The film selection celebrates nature and doesn’t try to dive too far into the disaster porn.”
Indeed, the bleakness of past selections such as “The Cove” — which documents dolphin slaughter — are balanced by joyous excursions this year. Take “Blue Hue,” which is about year-round naked swimming in Snowdonia, Wales. Or, for a more kid-friendly choice, consider “Monkey Kingdom,” about monkeys cavorting in ancient ruins.
But it would be amiss not to recognize harsher realities. The fossil fuel industry, in particular, has hit Richmond hard in recent weeks. As Style reported Jan. 14, Dominion Virginia Power plans to dump treated coal ash wastewater into the James River. Many residents decried that drinking water and wildlife aren’t the only things affected. Recreation is, too. And who wants to bring a hazmat suit down to Texas Beach along with a case of beer?
“People are starting to understand that everything’s tied together as far as the environment goes,” Burger says.
One of the grabbing highlights, “Overburden,” centers on a philanthropic name familiar to many Richmonders: Massey. Director Chad Stevens follows two women, on both sides of the coal debate, and watches how they ultimately band together against the formerly Richmond-based Massey Energy — legally unconnected now with the local Massey family. The film, which spans seven years, is punctuated by 29 deaths at the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in 2010.
“People never think they’ll identify with a pro-coal, anti-Obama character,” says Stevens, from his office at the University of North Carolina, where he teaches photojournalism. “That’s what this film can do to a liberal audience.”
Regardless, Stevens is appalled at the process of how coal comes to dominate town economies, giving families little choice of alternative employment.
“I wanted to counter negative Appalachian stereotypes and humanize these people,” Stevens says. “They’re faced with Catch-22s.”
Burger says he’s thrilled that Stevens will be on hand for a question session on Feb. 6. That’s one of his favorite things about putting on the festival, making sure people can connect with creators. Stevens will have plenty of stories ready. He notes that it took two years of quality time with one family before it would agree to appear on camera.
“Impoverished Appalachia has been exploited by the media for decades,” explains Stevens, who’s collaborated on a Pulitzer-winning project at the Los Angeles Times. “Time is the only antidote to that. I couldn’t have made this film in one year, or two.”
Burger’s only lament this year is that few people entered the local documentary contest. “I’d really like to see that take off more,” he says.
The contest winner will still be screened Feb. 7, and viewers can catch another local flick, “Bay to Bay,” on Feb. 4. Produced in conjunction with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center, the latter is about a migrant warbler that nests along the James River. Further afield, there’s “Cowspiracy,” a beef industry documentary with Leonardo DiCaprio as executive producer. Unlike some of the other fest films, this one is unavailable to stream online, and has been requested by past attendees. So now’s your chance, Burger says.
If audiences want to scratch their ecological itch, there are workshops throughout the week on such wide-ranging topics as solar energy, electric cars and urban gardening. These will link with programming, such as “Plant This Movie,” which explores urban gardening as a worldwide phenomenon.
For Burger, motivation comes from his backyard. A Richmond resident since 1992, he’s started to worry that overdevelopment is causing James River wildlife to dwindle. “I’m all for more density here and urban core redevelopment,” he says. “I just get afraid of everything being pushed so close to the water. It feels like a Northern Virginia model.”
It’s not too late to do something about it, he says. This festival offers a chance to grab a seat, sit back and become inspired. S
A film schedule is available at rvaenvironmentalfilmfestival.com. All screenings are free.