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Reimagined Green Film Festival Scales Mountains, Gets ‘Into the Weeds’

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a woman dressed warmly stands atop a mountain
Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepali woman to summit Mount Everest, is the subject of Marin filmmaker Nancy Svendsen's documentary 'Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest.' (Courtesy Green Film Festival of San Francisco)

Fall feels like it used to, before COVID, with film festivals lined up like planes on a runway. There’s literally something for everyone, including online programs for those who aren’t quite ready to join the crowd at a theater. Take a deep breath: Albany FilmFest (Oct. 4-23), Santa Cruz Film Festival (Oct. 6-9), Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 6-16), San Francisco Short Film Festival (Oct. 6-16), San Francisco Latino Film Festival (Oct. 7-22) and United Nations Association Film Festival (Oct. 20-30).

This week also brings the inaugural Green Film Festival of San Francisco (Oct. 6-16 at the Roxie and online), a successor of sorts to the beloved San Francisco Green Film Festival that Rachel Caplan founded and directed. For a decade, SFGFF showed the best environmental films (mostly documentaries) from around the globe, until the pandemic delivered a knockout blow in 2020.

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The new Green Film Festival of San Francisco adds another shade to the movie mix under Jeff Ross’s longstanding SF Indiefest umbrella (which includes the aforementioned SF Short Film Festival, also opening Thursday). At the same time, the Indiefest approach encourages a reappraisal of what we think of as a “green film.” One of the defining attributes of Ross and his cohorts, including documentary filmmaker and programmer Chris Metzler, is their ability to simultaneously define and expand a film niche. They refuse to be limited by the ostensible parameters of a genre.

Take Into the Weeds: DeWayne “Lee” Johnson vs. Monsanto Company, the rueful, seething new documentary by the award-winning Canadian husband-and-wife duo Jennifer Baichwal (producer-director) and Nicholas de Pencier (producer-cinematographer). The film centers on the 2018 civil suit filed in California by a Benicia Unified School District groundskeeper who developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after being soaked in the herbicide Roundup on the job.

a sign reads 'warning, pesticide use'
A sign warning passers-by of pesticide use is seen in a still from ‘Into the Weeds: Dewayne ‘Lee’ Johnson vs. Monsanto Company,’ which follows the story of a Benicia school district employee who took the giant agrochemical company to court for allegedly cancer-causing properties in the weed killer Roundup. (Courtesy Green Film Festival of San Francisco)

The title (along with the filmmakers’ resumes, which includes Manufactured Landscapes and Anthropocene: The Human Epoch) offers a hint that environmental damage is on the agenda. Sure enough, there’s a sequence recounting the effects of the glyphosate in Monsanto’s product on ecosystems. But Into the Weeds skillfully encompasses a range of issues, including the capture of regulatory agencies by corporations, the financial obstacles to individuals seeking recourse through the judicial system, systemic corporate malfeasance and the manipulation of science and scientists.

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If Into the Weeds is an angry-making movie, Luke Griswold-Tergis’ Pleistocene Park provokes an array of unexpected emotions. Veteran Russian geophysicist Sergey Zimov, assisted by his son Nikita, has embarked on a wildly ambitious crusade to populate northern Siberia with herds of herbivores (reindeer, yaks, bison). Their premise is that millions of animals converting tundra to grassland will keep the ground temperature low and prevent the permafrost from melting and releasing vast amounts of methane and greenhouse gases.

Griswold-Tergis, who adds a goofy presence in his curious film, seeks to offset the frankly horrifying prospect of accelerating global warming with Sergey’s stubborn iconoclasm (though his obsessiveness never quite approaches that of a prototypical Werner Herzog hero) and Nikita’s exhausting, Sisyphean truck expeditions over hundreds of rough miles with a mere dozen animals.

horses in a field
Horses in ‘Pleistocene Park.’ (Courtesy Green Film Festival of San Francisco)

Longtime East Bay editor Maureen Gosling has her hands full crafting a compelling narrative from the chaos of the Zimovs’ lives, acres of stunning drone shots and demoralizing mud-level footage. Ultimately, Pleistocene Park (in its California premiere) succeeds in distracting us from the apocalypse ahead, but oddly I didn’t come away inspired by the deeply dedicated Zimovs. Their superhuman efforts are certainly admirable, but seem infinitesimal next to the scale of the problem.

Marin filmmaker Nancy Svendsen’s Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest recounts a more straightforward kind of adventure story, albeit one with a political rather than environmental subtext. In the early 1990s, Nepali housewife Pasang Lhamu Sherpa took up climbing. Fearless, aggressive and ambitious, Pasang went toe-to-toe with star Western mountaineers, corporate sponsors and the prime minister. Ultimately she became the first Nepali woman to set foot on the summit of Mt. Everest, and paid a high price for it.

Svendsen had exceptional access to the family (one of Pasang’s brothers is her brother-in-law), yet the filmmaker goes above and beyond simple hagiography. Three decades after that fateful trip up the mountain, the immediate consequences of Pasang’s climb have been supplanted by her example and inspiration to generations of Nepali girls and women.

a Chinese scientist in a white lab coat and green gloves uses a syringe in a lab
A still from ‘Make People Better,’ a documentary by filmmaker Cody Sheehy that explores the ethics around gene editing. (Courtesy Green Film Festival of San Francisco)

Cody Sheehy’s Make People Better has a few Bay Area ties: producer (and bio-engineer) Samira Kiani is based in Tiburon, and the film makes references to UC Berkeley and Stanford. But in a broader sense, the documentary will be of interest to the region’s many bioengineering and biotech workers — despite the repetition, filler and credit sequences required to tease and stretch it into an 83-minute feature.

Its subject is the scientific and moral implications of the 2018 boundary-crossing actions of Chinese biophysicist Dr. He Jiankui (a.k.a. JK), who edited the genomes of twin fetuses with the goal of increasing their future resistance to HIV. That is, JK experimented on human beings, taking full responsibility, although he had an altruistic goal and the consent of the parents.

The ongoing debate over the application of science in human evolution, from science fiction to science journals, is undeniably important. Sheehy allots ample screen time to Arizona State University Prof. Ben Hurlbut and MIT Technology Review journalist Antonio Regalado to engage with the issue of (to put it simplistically and crassly) designer babies, and JK chimes in via interviews he gave— before the Chinese government whisked him off the public stage (which was almost literally the case).

Make People Better ramps up the paranoia and suspense aspects of JK’s disappearance, which will keep some viewers hooked through the recapitulation of previously provided information and opinions. Once you see through the smokescreen of ominous, over-edited cityscapes and computer screens, you’ll also notice the reenactments and moviemaking sleight-of-hand employed to create the illusion of scenes — that is, action — crafted to camouflage the cascade of conjecture, guesswork and scientific haze.

You’ll find the antidote in For the Bees, Chloe Fitzmaurice’s sun-kissed snapshot of Oakland beekeeper Khaled Almaghafi. A soft-spoken Yemeni émigré in his 50s who shares lessons he learned from his hives (humility, generosity, hard work), Almaghafi is the personification — like the Zimovs, although with a far more modest view of his place in the world — of “think global, act local.” If the new Green Film Festival of San Francisco inspires any mantras, that’s one.

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The Green Film Festival of San Francisco runs Oct. 6–16, with 13 in-person programs screening at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, and virtual options streaming online. Details here

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