The environment and the arts meet, collide & promote social action

environmental film fest

It’s not that I’m anti-environment, just anti-environmental film. Or at least that’s what ran through my head on the way to the Whitney Humanities Center for the first night of the 2011 Environmental Film Festival at Yale.

This was supposed to be straightforward. A couple of graduate students at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies were (cutely) throwing a week-long viewing party. It astonished me that some tree huggers had the audacity to slap the title of “film festival” on what amounted to a glorified “family movie night,” or, at the most, an awkward teen date with your middle school crush.

Perhaps the underlying purpose of EFFY was never clear to me, so I decided to ask Director of Public Affairs Catherine Fontana GRD ’15 for an explanation.

“The purpose of EFFY is to present incisive, cutting-edge films that raise awareness of environmental and related social issues,” she said. “We aim to facilitate meaningful discourse and spark action and innovation throughout the Yale community and beyond.”

I was skeptical, but upon arriving at the Whitney auditorium, I found it packed, filled to the brim with an audience mixed with both young and old.

The first patron I spoke with, a local New Haven resident, gave me an answer I didn’t quite expect.

“I came to see good movies.”

“There’s Netflix for that,” I (rather wittily) thought to myself.

The lights began to dim shortly thereafter, and I scrambled for a seat. The introduction came, which I didn’t listen to, and then “Waste Land” began — ninety minutes later, I was floored.

“Waste Land,” the Oscar-nominated documentary, kicked off the festival. The film follows Vik Muniz as he works with Brazil’s “catadores” (garbage pickers) to create artwork out of garbage, showing through the landfills of Rio de Janeiro, how we can recycle ourselves physically and spiritually. But much more than uplift, the film began to tear down the walls I’d erected between the environment and art.

“Waste Land” definitely began to elucidate Fontana’s point. But EFFY’s lineup, which drew on three-hundred submissions, presented seven other features and nine shorts over the week — all focusing on a different social issue, from pollution to overpopulation to animal conservation. Perhaps “The City Dark,” chronicling light pollution and the “disappearance of darkness” in the New York City, is more up your alley than Brazilian garbage pickers. “Queen of the Sun” examines the global bee crisis; “Bag It” is obsessed with plastic. The story of the rise and fall of the radical Earth Liberation Front — America’s number one domestic terrorist group — in “If A Tree Falls” rounds off the thematic variety of the festival.

But just why is EFFY so popular?

I polled a few people making their way out of the auditorium. One Yale freshman said she was interested in majoring in environmental studies, so the festival gave her the opportunity to further explore the field. Another woman, a researcher, was interested in how the films related to a symposium she conducts. A third guest came on the recommendation of a cousin.

With each person I talked to, the more it began to really sink in: there is no solid motivation unifying the audience other than pure interest.

I returned the second night (the film: Tiffany Shlain’s “Connected”) to see if my theory would hold up. The auditorium was still packed, the audience was still varied and invested, and I still remained perplexed at the success of the event.

Of course, many attendees are connected to environmental studies in some shape or fashion. But this isn’t the point of EFFY. While the films are visually impressive, their mission is to stir us to confront the social and ecological problems present in our world.

“I hope that our audience is informed about [environmental] issues and inspired to make more sustainable choices in their lives,” she said. “If these movies don’t move you, I don’t know what will!”

A few nights in, and Fontana has found herself at least one convert — mission accomplished.

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