The Princeton Environmental Film Festival is going into its eighth year of screening award-winning documentaries. Films such as these heighten awareness and motivate viewers to take action against the forces that damage our planet: climate change, fracking, clear-cutting, corporate greed, ruthless development, industrial ag, soil erosion, and the excesses of modern living. And yet the battle rages on, nearly half a century after the first Earth Day.
The theme for this year’s festival — at Princeton Public Library from Thursday, January 30, through Sunday, February 9 — is risk. “We are highlighting individual stories of people taking risks,” says Kim Dorman, the library and programming assistant who runs the festival with founding director Susan Conlon. “The filmmakers are also taking risks to tell their stories. There are risks to a society by actions taken, and there are risks of doing nothing.”
Both Dorman and Conlon point out that in environmental activism, there is no such thing as instant gratification. Making change takes time. “A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet,” to be screened Sunday, February 2, at 11 a.m. and narrated by Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende, and Meryl Streep, traces the history of environmental activism over 50 years, from conservation to climate change. From the Sierra Club’s battle to halt dams in the Grand Canyon; Love Canal residents’ struggle against 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals; Greenpeace’s campaigns to save whales and baby harp seals; the fight to save the Amazon rainforest; to the 25-year effort to address climate change — we may have come a long way, but there are miles to go before we sleep.
“There are battles that are lost before they’re won,” says Conlon. “These are people who were compelled to act, having found things that matter to them — these are people who make a difference. They may be complicated and flawed and not always do everything right, but what they do makes a difference.”
“They also can’t not do it,” says Dorman. “In their lifetime it may have been for naught. It takes a strong person to do something that won’t affect them.”
In “Bidder 70,” to screen Friday, January 31, at 7 p.m., University of Utah economics student Tim DeChristopher risks his own freedom to commit an act of civil disobedience to protect the pristine acres surrounding Utah’s national parks. When faced with the opportunity to disrupt the auction of Utah’s wild lands to oil and gas developers in 2008 by registering as “bidder #70,” DeChristopher outbid industry giants on land parcels and effectively safeguarded thousands of acres adjacent to national treasures like Arches and Canyonlands National Park.
“By making bids for land that was supposed to be protected for the interests of all Americans, I tried to resist the Bush administration’s attempt to defraud the American people,” DeChristopher tells us.
With the threat of prison looming, DeChristopher becomes a charismatic climate justice leader, co-founding Peaceful Uprising, a grass-roots group dedicated to defending a livable future through non-violent action using theater and art.
After numerous postponements of the trial, DeChristopher is indicted on two federal felonies and sentenced to two years in prison. We are reminded of the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who also served time for fighting for justice: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”
The film includes scenes of Darryl Hannah and Peter Yarrow showing support; DeChristopher feeding his backyard chickens; harvesting, then cooking, heirloom tomatoes from his garden; and scenes of the beautiful lands that could have been drilled if it weren’t for DeChristopher’s personal sacrifice.
“All these guys on Wall Street are sending the country into the tank, and no one is going to jail,” says Robert Redford, interviewed in the film. “This kid is doing something noble — it’s unconscionable to send him to prison.”
The screening will be followed by a discussion with filmmakers Beth and George Gage. “Once in a while someone comes along that totally wows you. That’s how we felt when we read about Tim DeChristopher,” say the filmmakers, who have been making feature documentaries since 1993. “Tim DeChristopher is a young man with a message that needs to be heard.”
DeChristopher was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in West Virginia. His mother encouraged his interest in exploring the outdoors. When as a teen he suffered from angst, she sent him to the wilderness, where he spent eight days alone, backpacking. Mom appears in the film, saying she believes in what he’s doing but is horrified that he has to go to prison.
DeChristopher looks at the consequences of global warming and sees it as the moral imperative for his generation. He says it’s less about saving the planet than about saving lives.
“I have been an environmentalist for most of my life,” writes DeChristopher on his blog. “I have marched, held signs, written letters, and spoken to my Congressman. I have built trails and removed invasive species in National Parks. I have educated friends on climate change and donated to a dozen different groups. Countless others have done all these same things for decades in defense of our wilderness and a livable future. It hasn’t worked.”
Upon his release from prison in April, 2013, DeChristopher was accepted to Harvard Divinity School, where he has taken his activism.
Another film in the festival, “Musicwood,” screening Thursday, February 6, at 7 p.m., is about a consortium formed by several guitar makers to help preserve the land in Alaska where the Sitka spruce used in instrument manufacturing grows.
Named for the eponymous region of Alaska, the Sitka spruce is a coniferous evergreen growing to 100 meters with a trunk diameter that can exceed five feet. It is the largest species of spruce and the fifth largest conifer in the world, not quite as big as a giant sequoia. The wood from the Sitka spruce is an excellent conductor of sound and is thus used for pianos, harps, violins, and guitars.
For hundreds of years guitars have been made the same way, but as the wood of the world is depleted, this will change. Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars, Chris Martin of Martin Guitar, and Dave Berryman of Gibson Guitar travel into the heart of one of the most primeval rainforests to negotiate with Native American loggers and change the way this forest is managed before it’s too late — there may be only six to ten years of big trees left.
The film looks at the risks taken by all sides: Native Americans have been given a raw deal from the U.S. government and are distrustful of the white environmental activists telling them what to do.
“Musicwood” begins with a meditation by a Native American about hearing music in the trees — that tree is now singing in a thousand different places in the many guitars made from it. Acoustic guitar masters Kaki King, Yo La Tengo, the Antlers, and Steve Earle provide the soundtrack, demonstrating the stirring sound from the man-made world competing with the natural world for resources.
A Martin guitar, it is said, is like an entire orchestra in a single instrument. If it were made from Brazilian rosewood, mahogany, ebony, and spruce — as guitars from the 1700s were — it could cost $165,000, but it would also be one of the finest sounding instruments.
Bob Taylor founded his company as a 19-year-old. “I’m unemployable — all I can do is make guitars here at Taylor,” he says. He uses rosewood from India since all those in Brazil were cut down.
The Sitka spruce has to grow for 500 years before it can become a soundboard. Almost all spruce comes from Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the largest contiguous coniferous rainforest in the world. This area of Southeast Alaska had traditionally depended on logging and mining, but the ancient forests developed for thousands of years. What’s left now are stumps as far as the eye can see.
Sealaska Corporation, the largest private land holder in Southeast Alaska, focuses most of its business on harvesting and marketing timber shipped to the Pacific Rim for pulp, veneer, and construction materials. When Greenpeace learned that a portion of Sitka spruce is used for guitar manufacture, they formed the Musicwood consortium of guitar manufacturers invested in assuring wood’s future availability to help broker a forest management plan with Sealaska.
One Native Sealaska trustee tells us the native people revere the land but have always used it for its resources. “How can we listen to people who don’t live here? We want to live here for tens of thousands of years.”
The screening will be followed by a Q&A with filmmakers Josh Granger and Maxine Trump.
Highlights of other films to be screened:
“Thin Ice: The Inside Story of Climate Science,” opening night, Thursday, January 30, 7 p.m. Scientists working in the Arctic, Antarctic, Southern Ocean, New Zealand, Europe, and the United States talk about their work, their hopes, and their fears, resulting in a portrait of the global community of researchers racing to understand the planet’s changing climate and provide a compelling case for rising CO2 as the main cause. “This film was made by scientists but presents the facts in an easily accessible way,” says Conlon.
“Parrot Confidential,” Friday, January 31, 4 p.m. From the wilds of Costa Rica to suburban America, a cast of parrots tell unforgettable tales about the world they share with humans. “People are really touched by animal films,” says Conlon. “They are the gateway to how we’re treating the ocean and other habitats.”
“To Be Forever Wild,” Saturday, February 1, 1 p.m. Created by a group of filmmakers, musicians, and artists in New York’s Catskill Mountains from a little red cabin perched above a waterfall, the film explores the landscapes considered to be “America’s first wilderness.” Also profiled are the artists, hikers, scientists, farmers, and young people who live in the region.
“Brooklyn Farmer,” Saturday, February 1, 3 p.m., explores the challenges facing Brooklyn Grange, a group of urban farmers who expand a rooftop farm from Long Island City, Queens, to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. More about urban gardening in “Growing Cities” to be screened on Thursday, February 6, 4 p.m.
“William and the Windmill,” Monday, February 3, 4 p.m. A 14-year-old from a family of subsistence farmers in Malawi was forced to drop out of school due to a devastating famine. Turning to self-education, William saw a picture of a windmill in a textbook and learned that windmills could pump water and generate electricity. Using scrap parts, William built a functioning windmill that not only rescued his family from poverty but attracted the attention of the larger world.
“Tiny: A Story About Living Small,” Friday, February 7, 4 p.m. After a decade of travel, filmmaker Christopher Smith approaches his 30th birthday and decides it is time to plant roots. He buys a five-acre plot of land in the mountains of Colorado and sets out to build a tiny house from scratch. “Tiny Housers” live in homes smaller than the average parking space, often built on wheels to bypass building codes and zoning laws. The film takes us inside six of these homes.
“Invisible Ocean: Plankton and Plastic,” Saturday, February 8, 11 a.m. (film premiere). In this nine-minute film, artist Mara Haseltine finds in samples of plankton that she collected an unsettling presence that inspires her to create a sculpture revealing an ongoing invisible battle beneath the water’s surface, showing that the microscopic ocean world affects all life on Earth.
For the full schedule of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, speakers, Saturday morning family programs, and other programs, visit community.princetonlibrary.org/peff/schedule/. All screenings are free thanks to sponsors Church & Dwight, Terra Momo Restaurant Group, and the Whole Earth Center.