In the last 12 months, we’ve seen “biblical-style” floods in Australia (a place which, just a few years ago, was suffering through a drought), fire and smoke engulfing a third of Russia, floods in Pakistan, snowstorm after snowstorm nationwide in the winter of 2010, a sweltering summer in this region, and just recently, a storm that brought the Big Apple and a large portion of New Jersey to its knees. Obviously, something is going on with the climate. Those who are aware and concerned want to stay on the cutting edge of what’s happening, and, furthermore, are curious about what solutions might be offered. This is just the demographic of the audience at the award-winning Princeton Environmental Film Festival, returning to the Princeton Public Library Thursday, January 13, through Sunday, January 23.

Celebrating its fifth anniversary, the festival presents a host of thought-provoking films and lectures, all free to the public. This annual gathering of filmmakers, environmentalists, and activists has not only quickly become a local tradition, it has also become a nationally acclaimed environmental film festival, addressing not just the issue of climate change, but topics such as the humane treatment of animals, rainforest rescue, alternative energy, innovations in recycling, and the pluses and minuses of energy extraction.

Susan Conlon, director of teen services at the library and founder of the film festival, says the festival has grown and changed, with new components every year. “But the bottom line is that we want to feature interesting and compelling films.”

“We are providing a full range of films and events that take us around the world and also connect us to what is happening right here in Princeton and around New Jersey,” Conlon says. “My goal is to put together a lineup of films that are dynamic, and both educational and entertaining, with an emphasis on the story the film tells, rather than simply giving us a lecture.

“The challenge is to create a schedule that provides a diversity of films and their stories and destinations, as well as issues, so that that there is a space for discovering something new as we move through the festival, and at the same time making connections between the films and issues such preserving our oceans, endangered species, energy consumption and alternatives, climate change and our own consumer habits and our relationship to the natural world,” she adds.

How cutting edge is the festival? Three films in this year’s lineup are on the short list for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary. “Waste Land,” directed by Lucy Walker, follows renowned artist Vik Muniz as he journeys from his home base in Brooklyn to his native Brazil and the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The Sunday, January 23 screening at 1:30 p.m., will be followed by a talk with Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle.

“This Way of Life,” directed by Tom Burstyn, also screens in Sunday, January 23, at 4:30 p.m. Set against the mountains and isolated beaches in a remote part of North Island, New Zealand, it’s an intimate portrait of a Maori family — Peter and Colleen Karina and their six children, ages 2 through 11.

“GasLand,” directed by Josh Fox, is the third Oscar contender. The film’s accolades already include a Special Jury Prize in the documentary category at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. “GasLand” screens Saturday, January 22, at 7 p.m., and a Q&A session with director Fox will follow the showing.

There’s buzz around “GasLand” and controversy too, since Fox is addressing the largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history, which has swept across the United States and is beginning to be practiced in Pennsylvania and other eastern states. The drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing, often called “fracking” (and developed by oilfield technology giant Halliburton) has unlocked what is described in the film as a “Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”

When Fox is asked to lease his land in Milanville, PA, for natural gas drilling, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey uncovering a trail of secrets, shady promises, and environmental contamination. He travels to a recently drilled nearby Pennsylvania town following a report that residents are able to light their drinking water on fire.

The trailer for “GasLand” includes a scene in which a landowner nearly scorches the hair off his arms lighting a mini-inferno next to the no-longer-potable water from his kitchen tap. We see people light their water on fire from Pennsylvania to Wyoming, and one polluted stream in Colorado fizzes and gurgles like soda pop.

Produced in a singular and artful style, with graceful cinematography and a wry, honest storytelling approach, “GasLand” is part investigative reporting, road pic/travelogue, character study, and David-and-Goliath tale. Fox tries to get energy company executives to speak with him and is brushed off time and time again. But he persists.

Oh yes, there’s banjo playing too. Fox was raised by music-loving hippies who, along with a group of like-minded friends, built the house in northeastern Pennsylvania in the early ’70s. A scene in the movie shows his mother, pregnant with Fox, smiling at the construction site. The filmmaker reflects that his first word was “hammer.”

He obviously loves the place he’s known for almost 40 years and has a special fondness for the stream that runs through the property, a body of water that could be contaminated if drilling is allowed on the land.

“The land is near the headwaters of the Delaware River, the watershed for New York City,” says Fox in a phone interview from his home in Manhattan. He is the founder and artistic director for International WOW Company, a film and theater company he founded in 1996, known for its focus on socially conscious themes and subjects. “Pollution (from drilling in this area) will end up downstream, and this is the water supply for Philadelphia and South Jersey.”

“The gas companies lease the land from the owners, and there is a signing bonus per acre,” he says. In the film we learn that he is offered more than $100,000 for drilling rights on his land, an offer that Fox turns down as he uncovers more disturbing information. “They don’t tell you about the problems, they play them down saying things like, ‘it will just look like a fire hydrant in the middle of a field,’ and then your land is contaminated and industrialized and you can’t resell it.

“It’s cheap, dirty, and unsustainable, and it smashes the sustainable potential for the land for uses such as tourism and agriculture,” Fox says.

Another noteworthy speaker is Fabien Cousteau, grandson of famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau, and an accomplished explorer and environmentalist in his own right. A diver since age four, Cousteau will speak on Friday, January 14, at 7 p.m. Other speakers include Chelsea Sexton, featured in “Who Killed the Electric Car” and consulting producer for the upcoming film “Revenge of the Electric Car,” which screens on Thursday, January 13, at 7 p.m. Robert C. Socolow, mechanical and aerospace engineer, Princeton University professor, and co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative will speak after the screening of the film “Carbon Nation,” Wednesday, January 19, 7 p.m.

Conlon says the planning of the festival begins in the spring when she starts scoping possible films and inviting filmmakers to send preview copies. “We considered about 80 films this year, including films we invited as well as unsolicited entries, feature length and shorts,” she says.

Also, the festival has expanded its Saturday programming of films and talks aimed at children and families (which are also open to a general audience). The Philadelphia Zoo and their “Zoo on Wheels” returns on Saturday, January 15, at 10 a.m., along with a screening of the films “A Simple Question: The Story of STRAW” at noon, and “Play Again” at 2 p.m. The two features screening on Sunday, January 16, “I Bought a Rainforest” and “Jane’s Journey,” can be enjoyed by viewers of all ages.

On Saturday, January 22, the young persons’ programming focuses on the oceans and their fascinating creatures with “Where the Whales Sing,” (10 a.m.), “Students Saving the Ocean” (noon), and “Oceans” (3 p.m.), produced by Disneynature, the studio that produced the acclaimed “Earth.” A screening of “Focus on Sharks” at 1:30 p.m. will be followed by a talk by pioneer underwater film producer and photographer Stan Waterman.

Conlon believes the festival is a valuable event, for one thing, because it brings people out of their homes to be together with other people, watching the films in person. “Then they engage in discussion with the filmmakers in attendance and our other speakers about environmental issues.”

Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Thursday, January 13, through Sunday, January 23, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Streeet. All events will be held at the Community Room on the first floor of the library. Free admission. 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org/peff.

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