Rachel Caplan, founder and director of the San Francisco Green Film Festival, remembers clearly when she got the idea for a movie series devoted to exploring environmental issues.
Caplan was at a screening of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, a film that helped make the risks of global warming an international priority in 2006. “I could see that film could really have the power to move people to action," Caplan says.
Caplan and I were talking in her tiny San Francisco office. She seemed a bit frazzled that day, with the festival fast approaching, and 70 films and filmmakers to shepherd into eight venues in San Francisco and Berkeley for the seven-day festival, which opens Thursday, Apr. 14.
Complicating things is that Caplan books environmental groups to appear along with the filmmakers at every screening. It’s not enough, she says, to just show a film; she wants to connect audiences with a way to take action when they’re most open to the idea.
The "aha moment"
“There’s this moment when the lights come up and the credits roll.” Caplan says. “There’s this great ‘aha’ in the theater. People are feeling something very strong and emotional at that point, and it’s a powerful moment to then connect them to the next steps for action.”
With the illegal poaching of Cecil the lion, and the US adding the African lion to the endangered species list, the festival will show Born Free, a landmark film telling the story of a couple returning a lion cub to the wilds of Kenya. The movie is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. “Born Free was the first mainstream Hollywood film to have a conservation message," Caplan says. "And what an impact it had.”
The film inspired a wave of environmental action. Its star, Virginia McKenna, created the Born Free Foundation, an international wildlife protection non-profit. The film also inspired the creation of other groups working to preserve African wildlife and their habitat.
McKenna, now 84, will be at the Festival screening on Wednesday, Apr. 20 to talk about the film and her foundation. Other organizations present will include Amazon Watch and the Felidae Conservation Fund, both Bay Area based groups devoted to preserving wildlife habitats.
The Festival will also feature the premiere of Not Without Us, a documentary by San Francisco filmmaker Mark Decena tracing the personal and political journey of seven climate change activists attending the U.N. climate talks in Paris in December.
Inspiring people to change their behavior
Decena, looking tired as he raced to get his film ready in time for the world premiere at San Francisco’s Castro Theater April 20, says Not Without Us asks audience members to mobilize -- as he himself has. “There is the dramatic arc of the characters, becoming activated, but also the realization that global governments can only take it so far, so now it’s up to us," Decena says. "I didn’t consider myself an activist. But I am definitely changing. I shower less.”
Other highlights at the Green Film Festival include An American Ascent, about nine African Americans climbing Mt. Denali in Alaska, and Catching the Sun, a film about a solar jobs program in the East Bay city of Richmond.
The San Francisco Green Film Festival is one of the largest movie series devoted to environmental issues in the world. There are several other smaller environmental-themed film festivals in California. Nevada City hosts The Wild and Scenic Film Fest each January, the city of Venice near Los Angeles has the Green Earth Film Fest in August. Closer to the Bay Area, there's The San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival, which wrapped up its screenings in March.
Like the Green Film Festival, the Ocean Film Festival aims to galvanize action through showing potent content. “It’s not just about getting the facts out there,” says Ocean Film Festival executive director Ana Blanco. “Someone will walk away and say ‘maybe I should change my behavior, maybe I should change my habits, maybe I should encourage my friends to do the same thing.’”
Appealing to the emotions
Among the films Blanco showed this year, and which is getting a screening this weekend in Mendocino’s Pt. Arena, is Of The Sea. The film tackles the decline in California fisheries and the toll it’s taken on fishermen.
One of the Ocean Film Festival sponsors is the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, an area of almost 1300 square miles of ocean off the Golden Gate. Superintendent Maria Brown says there’s nothing odd about a federal agency providing resources to a film festival. “By showing the films we’re not advocating one view or another," Brown says. "What we want to do is stimulate that conversation.”
Brown sees the festival as a great way to connect audiences to the mission of the sanctuary because of the empathy the films generate for wildlife preservation. “Art has a way of evoking emotion," Brown says. "And in order for us to protect something, we have to feel some emotion towards it.”
All doom and gloom
In an age of global warming and species extinction, Green Film Festival director Rachel Caplan admits the films she shows can sometimes be a bit of a downer. “It can be a lot doom and gloom, and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket," Caplan says. "It’s hard to pick yourself up and keep going.”
But Caplan believes that's all the more reason for the festival to offer people ways to change that narrative, and fix what the filmmakers have shown us needs work.