The Princeton Environmental Film Festival, set for Monday through Sunday, April 8 to 14 at the Princeton Public Library, returns just in time to remind us of the importance of preserving our natural world and its resources — despite recent decisions on the federal level to rollback regulations and ignore scientific reports.
And the reason to protect such resources is not because the environment is pretty and nice, but because it is essential and by challenging it we are creating a less hospitable world — one being pelted by a one-two climate change punch affecting coastal seas and agricultural production.
As someone who worked on the writing team for a major climate change exhibition at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, I’ll attest that the writing regarding climate change has been on the wall for some time, and the message doesn’t seem to be getting through.
Nevertheless it is time to keep reporting the news.
So when a film festival or program on the environment arrives, my interests are piqued — and here are some personal reactions to themes and films regarding this year’s PEFF.
One interest involves the local environment: As the saying goes, “all politics is local,” so what better way than to bring the problem closer to home than to start at home?
And the festival film that does that best is “The Sourlands: A New Jersey Treasure,” screening at the Princeton Public Library on Sunday, April 14, at 11:30 a.m.
I asked the 34-minute film’s maker, Princeton resident Cliff Wilson, for some words regarding the film and received the following:
“The 90-square-mile Sourland region is home to the largest contiguous forest in Central New Jersey. The sparsely populated area includes parts of Somerset, Hunterdon, and Mercer counties, and encompasses a complex ecosystem of forest, wetlands, and grasslands. Its mosaic of habitats is home to an incredibly rich diversity of animal and plant species, many rare or endangered. The forest is especially important as a breeding area for migratory songbirds, particularly those who nest only in large wooded areas.
“The Sourlands’ breathtaking boulder fields are emblematic of the area’s unique geology; its mountain springs feed the headwaters of many streams and rivers. Still, water is a fleeting resource here, as the rocky land severely limits the recharge of groundwater, upon which many thousands of people depend for everyday use.
“My friend Michael Heffler and I, as co-producers of the film, wanted to express the importance of this natural space adjacent to one of the world’s most heavily developed corridors — critical for the well-being of wildlife and fauna, and also for people. Additionally, we detail the threats to the fragile ecosystem from encroaching development and from the overpopulation of white-tailed deer, which are decimating the forest.
“The film features interviews with 10 people with variety of backgrounds and expertise, who explain many of the fascinating features of this unique New Jersey resource. These interviews are woven together with narration and hundreds of photos and video clips to provide a gorgeous depiction of the Sourlands.”
Director Wilson will be on hand to talk about the film and answer questions.
Another interest is in the phenomenon of the natural world and its varied creatures.
A past literature student who focused on the writings of Henry David Thoreau, I cringe when people blithely bandy about his overused phrase “In wildness is the preservation of the world” and seem to forget that raw — or wild — nature is also a majestically dangerous force.
That idea comes home in Todd McGrain’s film 52-minute film “Elephant Path,” presented in partnership with the Princeton Environmental Institute in Princeton University’s Computer Science Building, Room 104, Wednesday, April 10, at 4:30 p.m.
In a published interview the New York-based McGrain says:
“Forest elephants are not at all habituated. We’ve come to think of elephants through the lens of domestication in a way. We see photographs of baby elephants being feed with bottles. We see Asian elephants being ridden and trained to entertain but forest elephants are completely wild. So when you are on that platform witnessing them you are really witnessing wild behavior that is quite rare to see.
“And I think this is the most remarkable thing about them is that you could be 10 feet away from a forest elephant, which puts you in real danger, and you could not know it’s there. They absolutely disappear into the forest.
“They are just remarkable animals in the way they move and their pace, their cadence. There is even some footage that looks as though it’s in slow motion. Even the water they walk in looks as though it’s been thickened and slowed by their presence.
“There couldn’t be a more unusual shaped animal and still they emit, for a lack of better word, a kind of humanity and the best of humanity.”
McGrain’s statements remind that wildness is also present in human beings and shares his experience in arriving in Central Africa:
“We arrived thinking that the rebels had left the region. We were greeted on the shore (in the dugout canoe that we had taken up the Sango River) by Seleka at gunpoint. It was completely unexpected. They weren’t particularly threatening because I think we were such a curiosity. Really everyone had left except for the local people, of course.
“I was uneasy. But there is something about using a camera that separates you. I know people talk about this a lot but there is something about the presence of a camera that gives you a psychological distance from the world around you. The other thing was that the Seleka honestly felt that they were the new commanders of the region and they wanted us to record that fact that they were in control.
“We shot this film in five trips and tried to time those trips to be there early enough to get some periods of peace and to be able to enjoy the elephants.”
The impacts of human population and food production are also an interest. That includes the reality that as international competition increases to gain market profits, so does the need to keep costs low – and what can be lower-cost than slave labor?
Examining that topic is the 89-minute documentary “Ghost Fleet,” screened at Princeton University’s Computer Science Building, Room 104, on Saturday, April 13, at 7 p.m.
During an interview for Women and Hollywood, California-based filmmaker, journalist, and “Ghost Fleet” co-director Shannon Service described the film and its making as follows:
“‘The Ghost Fleet’ follows an extraordinary abolitionist as she searches far-flung islands for men who’ve escaped from slave boats. The men have jumped off Thai fishing boats where they’ve been forced to work in mind-bending conditions for years at a time. Most can’t swim, but — as soon as they’re close enough to land — they risk their lives and jump.
“Those who survive wash up on fairly deserted islands or flee into the jungle and live hand-to-mouth because they’re afraid the fishing companies might catch them. So — even after being trafficked, enslaved, and risking their lives to escape — they don’t have passports or money and can’t get back home.
“Patima, our hero, assembles a crew and sets off to find these men so she can reunite them with their families.
“We spent six months investigating the story and it became quickly obvious that this was a rich and fascinating world that could certainly prop up a film. The danger, of course, is creating a ‘take your medicine’ film that basically browbeats the audience with the horrors of slavery at sea. I definitely didn’t want to do that.”
She also hits a subject that is also of obvious interest — telling a story and says:
“It’s a very human, character-driven tale of courage and heroism that illuminates the dark underbelly of modern fishing.
“The combination of a strong female hero who rescues men, a group of survivors who then organize and work to liberate others, and a real-world action adventure made the project pretty irresistible.”
“Ghost Fleet” producer Jon Bowermaster will be on hand for a post-screening question and answer session.
Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, and other locations. Monday through Sunday, April 8 through 14. Free. For a full schedule, venues, and more information: www.princetonlibrary.org/peff