A nonpartisan pitch for the planet
Organizers of the 25th Environmental Film Festival hope this year’s selections speak powerfully to both sides of the aisle
Dusty Crary is everything you’d expect a cowboy to be. The subject of the documentary “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” is a fourth-generation rancher, and he’s a rugged dude with a big hat who trots around on a horse wearing fringed chaps and a bandanna around his neck. He’s also a conservationist. “When you got more shingles than grass, it’s too late, partner,” he says in the movie, just before we see him surveying the pristine Montana plains and mountains around his home. “You’re not gonna get that back.”
In an era when environmentalism seems exclusively the Democrats’ purview, it’s surprising to see a movie about conservation starring a tough guy from Trump country. But it’s also a good reminder that the issue wasn’t always so politicized.
On Tuesday, the 25th Environmental Film Festival gets underway in Washington, and with movies like “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman,” the fest is hoping to appeal to both sides of the aisle.
Perhaps that’s why, in her welcome statement, the festival’s new executive director, Maryanne Culpepper, leads with a quote from none other than Ronald Reagan: “Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it’s common sense.”
And, lest we forget, Richard Nixon is the president who pushed plans for the Environmental Protection Agency through the House and Senate.
How we got to a place where saving the planet is viewed as a job for hippies and liberals is a long story — “I mean environmentalists did not invent the word treehugger,” Culpepper said during a recent sit-down. But in the meantime, conservationists are trying to remind everyone that taking care of the planet should be a no-brainer for people of all political affiliations.
And yet, President Trump has proposed to cut the EPA staff by one-fifth and eliminate dozens of programs dedicated to cleaning up the nation’s air and water. Instead, he wants to “prioritize rebuilding the military and making critical investments in the na- security,” according to a March 2 report in The Washington Post.
In that case, the White House may want to look into another surprising film at the festival.
The documentary “The Age of Consequences” examines how climate change influences — what do you know? — national security. Through interviews with military personnel, intelligence officials and security experts, the film unravels, for example, how historic droughts in the Middle East led to migration, which led to destabilization, which led, in part, to the Arab Spring.
The movie’s director, Jared P. Scott, intentionally shied away from politics. He used neither highranking Democrats nor Republicans as talking heads in the final cut. “We even thought at one point of not including the term ‘climate change,’ ” he said, because of the baggage that comes with the phrase. “But it didn’t make any sense; we couldn’t really do it.”
“The Age of Consequences” was practically reverse-engineered to appeal to an audience beyond progressives. “We started this process by trying to figure out how we could talk to people that might not consider themselves to be in the climate choir,” Scott said. “That was the starting point. From there we tried to figure out, okay, what’s the story?”
The movie has the feel of a thriller, with suspenseful music and military characters warning of the butterfly effects of natural disasters around the world. There are no heartstring-tugging images of child refugees. Instead, the film frames the issue in a systematic way, showing how extreme weather breeds chaos, resource scarcity and political turmoil.
According to Culpepper, “Contion’s sequences” is part of a larger trend of documentaries embracing the characteristics of feature films, focusing on main characters with story arcs instead of broad topics. Before heading up the festival she was a filmmaker and president of National Geographic Studios. She’s also seeing an increased emphasis on accuracy and science in films that strive to be more than opinion-based polemics.
“Water & Power: A California Heist,” for example, looks nothing like a typical documentary. It’s aptly billed as a real-life “Chinatown.”
The movie was produced by documentary king Alex Gibney and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, shocking audiences with the tale of water barons who have taken advantage of privatization to hoard and reroute natural resources while entire California towns have dried up, leaving resipolitical dents with no drinking water.
Director Marina Zenovich had made a lot of profile films before this project — she may be best known for “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” — so “Water & Power” was a departure, but a welcome one.
“I think it’s a public-service film,” she said during a recent phone conversation. “It’s kind of a duty to do this kind of work . . . . I think the time has come for us to pay a little more attention to it.”
She doesn’t see this as a political movie so much as a movie about breathtaking greed. Likewise, “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman” director John Hoffman — also head of documentaries for Discovery — sees his film as more than a movie about three unlikely conservationists in the heartland.
“Our power as a nation, and the power of any country, so much depends on sovereignty, and sovereignty depends on the ability of a country to feed itself,” he said. “If these landscapes are not productive, if we deplete the soil and aren’t able to grow the food to feed this country, if we deplete our oceans so that we can’t fish them to feed the U.S. population, then we put ourselves and our sovereignty at risk.” Talk about national security. Culpepper is quick to point out that not all of the movies at the festival are issue-driven documentaries. There’s also “Born in China,” a new Disney nature doc about panda bears and golden monkeys. The highly anticipated adventure film “The Lost City of Z,” starring Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson, also gets its local premiere at the festival.
Still, she knows there will be people with preconceived notions.
“I sometimes wish we could call it the ‘Natural World Film Festival’ or something else, because I think the name does ring certain bells for people,” she admitted. “Sometimes it sounds like we’re earnest do-gooders.”
“It doesn’t sound fun,” her colleague Helen Strong, the festival’s public relations director, chimed in.
“It’s more fun than it sounds,” Culpepper said with a laugh. “We’ll use that as our tag line.”
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Conservationist Dusty Crary in “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman”; a refugee in “Age of Consequences,” which looks at climate and national security; a panda in the Disney nature documentary “Born in China”; and green and fallow orchards in “Water & Power: A California Heist.”