If every mushroom cloud has a silver lining, it’s that filmmakers flirt with disaster for our edification and enlightenment. Following their lead, the seventh San Francisco Green Film Festival, running April 20 through 26, “embraces” the nuclear age with a revival of local doc makers Judy Irving, Christopher Beaver and Ruth Landy’s 1982 Emmy Award-winning nuclear-weapons exposé Dark Circle, as well as the San Francisco premiere of U.K. visionary Mark Cousins’ found-footage excavation Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise.
The festival takes on a slew of other environmental issues, to be sure, but we’re talking about apocalypse now, not tomorrow. So the programmers had the brainstorm of lightening up the lineup with the brilliant absurdity of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Alas, who could have imagined that a new president would threaten North Korea in his first 100 days? (Unrelated question: What happens after reality mocks satire?)
Now you understand why Green Film Festival founder and chief executive Rachel Caplan frequently breaks into laughter in the course of an interview. A sense of humor is essential to staying sane in the face of fresh catastrophe. That, and movies that prescribe solutions rather than merely expose problems.
A Plastic Ocean (sea pollution), Last of the Longnecks (giraffes and conservation) and RiverBlue (about a Southeast Asian river so polluted by tanneries and dyeing houses that its color reveals what shade is in fashion that season) are among the stronger advocacy films in this year’s festival. Caplan and the screening committee prefer works like these that inspire audiences with steps they can make rather than depicting doom and gloom.
“I think audiences are very quick to catch on to ideas in the films,” Caplan says. “There’s only so much within a film that you can do to make people feel disheartened, and then you have to offer them solutions. A lot of people who come to the festival know we’re in serious trouble, and of course you want to bring them the latest updates from the front lines, but you want to tell them about great work and how we can all make a difference. I think those films resonate with audiences.”
A decade on from Al Gore’s breakthrough PowerPoint lecture, An Inconvenient Truth, and with the sequel coming out this summer, it’s worth pondering how environmental docs -- as well as audiences -- have evolved. Caplan, however, focuses on what always has and always will work.
“We see trends in any kind of films, but it comes down to storytelling at the end of the day,” she asserts. “And characters. People connect with other people. Spending an hour or two hours with someone on the other side of the planet, you can follow the challenges they or their community are faced with. Particularly those David and Goliath stories we see a lot in the environmental realm. We can share in their victory, or their heartbreak or loss.”
While moviegoers may connect with a particular issue, or place, the S.F. Green Film Festival encompasses a wide range of issues. Aligning with a variety of social-change nonprofits over the years is consistent with Caplan’s broader vision for the festival.
“The environment, and environmental causes, and the environmental movement is completely intertwined with other social movements, whether it’s gender equality or Black Lives Matter,” she says. “Very often the environmental movement is presented as about carbon particles in the atmosphere and graphs and charts, but it’s about people. So I think all these social issues are connected, and gender is a large part of it.”
You may recall there isn’t a single woman in the War Room in Dr. Strangelove. Coincidence, or commentary on the ability of men in power to create problems without bringing the same single-minded obsession to solving them?
“You can’t talk about environmental justice without talking about women’s equality,” Caplan says. “There are direct examples when we educate women and girls and they have opportunities. First of all, the birthrate goes down, and we clearly have an overpopulation crisis. Also, women have more opportunity to be involved in their community, to form community groups, to be leaders, to make a difference.”
The festival’s contribution includes an ongoing commitment to increase the visibility of women onscreen and behind the camera. Since its inception, championing female directors has been a central objective.
“I think in film, as in all arts, inclusion brings the richest stories to the forefront,” Caplan says. “In an industry where the number of female filmmakers is minuscule, it's vital that we as a film festival support their work.”
Especially if we are to have any chance of fending off the apocalypse, in the short or the long term.
The seventh San Francisco Green Film Festival runs April 20-26, 2017 at the Castro and Roxie Theaters and other venues throughout the city. For tickets and more information, click here.