It started simply enough for me, Julia Butterfly was attending the 2006 Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival in Nevada City, California and I wanted to interview her. In that moment, my role shifted from attendee to participant. I knew it would be worth doing, but didn’t account for how incredible the stories of each film could be. These stories were the driving passion for filmmakers, often filling several years of their lives. There was so much that was brave, beautiful and hopeful going on out in the world — Wild & Scenic films bear witness to a type of engaged activism that is truly inspiring. Reviewing these underexposed films became a special project for me — a way to contribute.
The Wild & Scenic celebrated its 10th Anniversary January 13-15, 2012, on the heels of a very sobering 2011. The mood was different than in past years — the notion of recognizing accomplishments was dwarfed by the need for ongoing work, connecting with community and moving important initiatives forward. Over 4,000 people attended films, workshops, music and street performances around this historic Gold-Rush town. It struck me that people were not so much getting together to party as to plan, connecting with kindred activists. Since the Wild & Scenic’s beginning with founding organization South Yuba River Citizen’s League (SYRCL), it has been a festival ‘by activists, for activists’. This seemed truer than ever in 2012.
Not just the film venues were buzzing with 100+ films, there was standing room only for many of the workshops, including a local community effort to keep the South Yuba River State Parks open. The parks are among 70 State Parks slated to close in July 2012, as part of California’s attempt to align spending with a greatly diminished budget.
I sounded out a couple members of the Wild & Scenic Film Festival jury for their take on the films and the tenor of the 2012 Wild & Scenic. Aaron Leventman is the producer of the Bioneers Moving Image Festival, part of the Bioneers Conference, and has also worked with the Sundance Film Festival and Santa Fe Film Center. Catherine Stifter is a two-time Peabody award-winning independent editor and producer for community media projects around the US. Both Aaron and Catherine watched some 50 films pre-festival in preparation for the award selection and review process.
While attendance was down slightly, Stifter noticed many more films dealing with social justice issues. “I was impressed by the number of films with social, not just environmental, content.” Leventman sees film festivals playing a new role. “People see the need and value for festivals where like-minded audiences can come together to share ideas, make contacts, and strengthen partnerships. These films demonstrate the most important issues of our time.”
I asked Catherine, who has attended in years past, if she felt more of a drive for change as part of the Wild & Scenic. She agreed, noting there is an urgent need for connection, for new ideas, for understanding how similar ideas are playing out in different parts of the country, even different countries — a perspective that is unique to the festival setting. “I think that filmmakers are feeling the urgency of connecting with many more viewers and activists. We were talking to ourselves a while back. We can’t afford to do that now. We need to widen the circle of concern and activism.”
John de Graaf and Laura Muskanski led a workshop to begin a ‘Happiness Initiative’ in Nevada County as part of their ongoing work at www.happycounts.org. de Graaf is a veteran Wild & Scenic filmmaker, who has an annual award named for him. We spent a few minutes talking over changes that are afoot and the things that seem constant over the last decade. “What you hear consistently from filmmakers is ‘I made a film because I wanted to make a difference.’ The Wild & Scenic is not a vanity festival — it has stuck to its roots of inspiring activism. Films overall strike me as extremely practical this year, with a focus on community and policy changes.” de Graaf mentioned especially enjoying the People’s Choice Award film ‘Rock the Boat’ by Thea Mercouffer and George Wolfe. It’s a simple film about a courageous act, which just happened to result in re-writing the EPA policy for 51 miles of the Los Angeles River. As a film it is an entertaining, sometimes satirical look at the world, but about real activism with solid results. “It strikes me that the films this year are a lot less heavy handed, with a bit more fun, or sense of humor. As in other years, the Wild & Scenic is a constant cast of new faces, not the same folks year after year.”
I left the 2012 Wild & Scenic thinking about John Trudell’s remarks on the opening night — what stays with me are not the words — but the energy of his potent commitment to change, and the way this looks after three decades, not a few days.
I am older than America. — John Trudell
Wild & Scenic 2012 Award Winners
Best of Festival
Spirit of Activism
The Naked Option
Most Inspiring Adventure Film
You’ve Been Trumped
We Still Live Here
Best Short Short
The Story of Broke
Student Filmmaker Award
Roots & Hollers
John de Graaf Environmental Filmmaking Award
Mill Valley Film Group, The New Environmentalists
People’s Choice Award
Rock the Boat
Liter of Light
Best Children’s Film (Children’s Jury Selection)
Origins: Obe and Ashima
Honorable Mentions for Best Children’s Film
The Shark Riddle
The Wild & Scenic Film Festival On Tour is available throughout the United States, bringing select programs to local communities. Online calendar here: http://www.wildandscenicfilmfestival.org/on-tour/tour-calendar/