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The RVA Environmental Film Fest picked films based on impact and diversity


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While an environmentalist can be defined as a person who's concerned with or advocates for protection of the environment, a broader definition can mean to consider the environment the primary influence on the development of a person.

One of the goals of the RVA Environmental Film Festival is to share with the community films that speak to the myriad interests of environmentalists. That means for those seeking to escape the rat race of material consumption and by default, its impact on the environment, there's the film "Minimalism: a Documentary About the Important Things," while "Birders: the Central Park Effect" offers bird lovers and fans of the famous park an engrossing tour of a little-known subculture and an unlikely habitat in Manhattan's green center.

The festival's film selection committee began meeting in August to choose the 13 films for this year's ninth annual festival in February. For 2019, the committee had seven volunteer members ranging in age from a 10th grade student to several who qualify as senior citizens. The group met twice a month for four months, while also doing outside research between meetings to compile a master list before reviewing trailers to narrow down the choices. The intent, says board member and film selection committee chair Dawn Williamson, was to bring as many different environmental subjects into the mix as possible. The goal is to select films with content not always disclosed by mainstream media.

"There's so much hidden behind closed doors that the general public's not aware of unless they seek out alternative education," she explains. "These documentary films are born from a passion for telling the truth, so the stories can be hard to hear, but they're stories that need to be heard so that action can be taken to spread the truth on the ground."

Looking to other well-known festivals to consider for selection ideas, the committee also searches topics on the internet to find obscure films. When a suggested film doesn't work in terms of theme, it's put on a list so that the festival can return to it another year when it better fits the programming. Once selections are made, the committee contacts filmmakers for screening rights and considers speakers to complement the programming.

"This year we had two goals for film selection: impact and diversity," Williamson says. "We sought films that would give us practical ways to lessen our personal environmental impact and films that featured African-American stories."

Among the films selected to add diversity to the festival is the award-winning documentary "An American Ascent," about the groundbreaking first African-American expedition to tackle Denali, North America's highest peak.

"A Man Named Pearl" chronicles a black gardener in South Carolina who taught himself the art of topiary and set out to earn a yard-of-the-month award, which then brought international fame to his homegrown topiary garden. 

In a city known for its vibrant restaurant scene, one film that's sure to resonate is "Straws," a documentary featuring actor and director Tim Robbins narrating a humorous history of straws followed by a look at the culture's obsession with single-use conveniences. It was a viral video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw in its nose that sparked a global anti-plastic straw campaign and a quest for sustainable alternatives.

For gardeners, there's "Hometown Habitat: Stories of Bringing Nature Home," a film that explores the critical role that native plants play in increasing biodiversity, restoring habitats and providing safe havens for pollinators. To the latter point, there's "Pollinators Under Pressure," a short film narrated by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, which seeks to raise public awareness, not only about — bees, bats, butterflies, birds and other mammals — and the crucial ecological and economic roles they play, but the increasing threats they face.

The all-volunteer festival committee always looks for a wide selection of subjects with one recurring thread. Because Richmond is a river city, the festival's programming almost always includes river films such as this year's "A River's Last Chance," a documentary about salmon, timber, weed and wine along California's mighty Eel River.

"Our society is so globally bent that most every environmental issue, it seems, can be related on a local level," Williamson says. "Adding diversity to our lineup also speaks to the local landscape and the intersection of environmental and social issues. These films will give us the opportunity to have conversations which hopefully will benefit our community here in Richmond."

The RVA Environmental Film Festival runs Feb. 4-13 and 16 at various locations. Admission is free, but some events require reserved tickets.