Hanwen Zhang, Contributing Photographer

The Yale School of the Environment kicked off its 15th annual Environmental Film Festival last week.

The showing comprised a total of six panels and screenings that took place between Mar. 29 and Apr. 1. The festival showcased films and documentaries that touched upon various environmental issues, ranging from community health to forest management. Each event was followed by open dialogues between filmmakers and community members, who discussed the media’s role in the environmental crisis.

“We try to attract…different people from the community with different themes and…really [focus] on films that are telling you an important story,” Sam Feibel ENV ’23, one of the event organizers, told the News.

While this was the second in-person film festival since before the COVID-19 pandemic, this was a year of many firsts for the event. The festival offered its participants the option to attend virtually via Zoom, which led to some of the highest turnouts in recent memory, according to Feibel. He added that it also engaged more deeply with the New Haven community than it has in the past, hosting a kid-friendly viewing and nature craft event at the Dixwell Community House.

The opening night featured the new Apple TV+ film series entitled “Extrapolations.” The series follows eight separate characters between the years 2037 and 2070, “extrapolating” a near future in which the climate crisis has drastically altered human life. Executive producer of “Extrapolations” Dorothy Fortenberry discussed the series with School of the Environment professor Anthony Leiserowitz, touching upon Hollywood’s role in climate communication.

Fortenberry said that “Extrapolations” was structured around the following question: “What if we just keep on going the way we’re going?” Rather than use the environmental crisis as a mere premise, “Extrapolations” treats climate change as the “main character,” centering the entire series around the issue.  

Fortenberry and Leiserowitz also discussed the role of the media in counteracting the “spiral of silence” around climate change, directly bringing the issue into popular consciousness and amplifying its significance on a wider stage.

“I think it’s important to note it’s not just that the people who want to talk about climate change have been ineffective, it’s that people who want people to not talk about climate change have been incredibly effective,” Fortenberry said. She explained that she believes climate change is widely portrayed as being rooted in belief — whether individuals “believe” that climate change is occurring — rather than in fact. 

According to Fortenberry, this phenomenon was a product of media campaigns by individuals who sought to prolong the oil and gas industry.

Leiserowitz quoted a 2021 report from Yale Climate Communication which found that 66 percent of survey respondents only hear about global warming in the media at once a month or less often. Another report mentioned at the event was published by Joyner’s nonprofit story consultancy, Good Energy. The report analyzed thousands of scripts from 2016-2020, finding that just 2.8 percent mentioned climate change. The reason, says Fortenberry, is a successful climate communications campaign that has been paid for and engineered by oil and gas industries. 

Shell Oil has been funding and producing films for almost 90 years, with most plotlines celebrating all things powered by fossil fuels: aircrafts, motor races, diesel locomotives and even the oil fields themselves. 

“The way [climate change] was talked about was as something you could either believe or not, but it wasn’t something you could prove,” Fortenberry said. “It was this ineffable spiritual thing that lay beyond science.”

For Fortenberry, “Extrapolations” serves as a way to counteract these past media efforts, instead serving to bring attention to the dangers of climate change.

The “Extrapolations” panel also featured Anna Jane Joyner, founder of Good Energy  — a nonprofit story climate change consultancy. 

Good Energy has created an open-source “Playbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate Change,” which offers an introductory guide for screenwriters stepping into the world of climate change within entertainment. The playbook aims to ease entry into the daunting topic. Joyner and Fortenberry agree that not enough producers are convinced climate is a nonnegotiable topic. Joyner explains the shared sentiment by stating, “If you’re not including climate [in your story], you’re making science fiction.”

This year’s festival also placed topical emphasis on climate change’s relation to social justice. “The Cost of Progress: Community Health in a Changing Climate” panel spotlighted the deep inequities that were both cause and consequence of ecological destruction. Documentaries such as “A Tomorrow for Tonawanda” followed the destructive health and economic legacies of a coal power plant on the western New York town, while “Children of Lead”  hauntingly exposed the reality of heavy metal pollution in Cerro de Pasco — a Peruvian town wracked by multinational lead and zinc mining operations.

 Hannah James SPH ’24, an attendee of the panel, noted that the films created resonant “synergies” with her coursework. She said that she was grateful the film festival highlighted issues of social and environmental justice, explaining that she believes climate solutions and social progress are “inextricably linked.”

 Some of the panel’s other works also focused on the pervasive nature of climate. Documentaries like “Allergy Alert: Paranoia in Our Immune System”  traced health phenomena as mundane as the increasing prevalence of allergies traced to failures in urban planning, an overreliance on harmful cleaning products and our growing alienation from the environment.

“As [an] MPH student [majoring] in environmental health science … these films really resonated with me,” Zhen Liu, an attendee at the panel, told the News.  “[It] reminds me about the unintended health impacts of manmade chemicals … which needs urgent regulation and awareness.”

 Liv Yoon, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and filmmaker behind “A Tomorrow for Tonawanda,” spoke to the disconnect between citizens and policymakers. Yoon explained that film’s coverage of climate injustice — despite often being perceived as reactionary — is a way to deliver popular opinion to policy makers. 

Work for the film festival usually begins months in advance, and entails a long process during which filmmakers submit their works to be curated for the festival from a pool of hundreds of films. Despite the difficulty of choosing out of so many “great films,” Feibel explained that the selected works are intended to invite the viewer to learn about climate change in an “engaging way.”

“That is one of the great things that narrative can do; is to help us show not just people taking action, but building the world we actually want to live in, not the dystopia we’re trying to avoid,” Leiserowitz said during his panel.

 The Yale Environmental Film Festival is supported by the Yale School of the Environment, Yale School of Public Health, Yale Environmental Humanities and Yale Office of Sustainability, among others.

Natasha Khazzam covers housing and homelessness for city desk. She previously covered climate and the environment. Originally from Great Neck, New York, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in history and English.