Film forestry

Four up from the ground floor of The Study Hotel on Chapel Street, the elevator door slid open, and, beyond a wall of glass, New Haven unfolded before my eyes. The late- season snowstorm of that morning had melted away, and the afternoon light cast lengthening shadows on the roofs of the buildings below. In a room of dark paneled floors and white walls, two-dozen people stood around tall tables, sipping long- stemmed wine glasses and nibbling on cheese and olives. On one wall hung three clusters of photos—the only hint of the event’s purpose—one of an industrial warehouse filled with stacks of cow hides; another picturing a gull, which, against the backdrop of a dark, choppy sea, dug its beak into the pock-marked back of a surfacing whale. I heard music start behind me and, turning around, saw in the corner by the wall of windows a man in a dark suit and black dress shoes who had started playing the cello—one of Bach’s Six Suites.

In the opposite corner of the room, Taylor Rees, FES ’14, set down her glass of water. “Every once in a while, we’re like, ‘Wow, this is getting really serious. What if something were to happen? Who will be there to pick up the pieces? Is there a professor here somewhere?’” Rees said, glancing around the room, and gave me a tight-lipped smile. “No. It’s completely on us.”

Rees, along with a team of five other second-year students at FES, is directing the sixth Environmental Film Festival at Yale (EFFY), an annual film festival held at Yale that is free and open to the public. Over the course of the weeklong fes- tival that will culminate on Sun., April 6, audiences will view 10 feature-length films and 18 shorts, with either Q&As or panels after each viewing. There are several workshops sched- uled over the course of the week, as well as an exhibition of work by winners of EFFY’s second annual Young Filmmakers and Photographers Contest.

“Last time we checked, it was still the largest student-run environmental film festival in the world,” said Elizabeth Baba- lola, FES ’14, Co-Director of EFFY 2014. Babalola said that the process for planning this year’s festival began almost a year ago, when the new second-year graduate students took the helm. The team of six directors and nine student collabo- rators marks a significant increase from the two-person team of FES students—Eric Desatnik, FES ’10, and Mary Fischer, FES ’10—that established EFFY in 2008. Starting this past summer, Babalola and her classmates reached out to individual filmmakers and solicited submissions, primarily through the online platform Without a Box; ul- timately, they received around 400 submissions both from the U.S. and abroad.

“Every year that the festival grows, we get bigger and bigger films,” Rees said. “We are build- ing a reputation.” Across the room, EFFY 2014 Co-Director Lexi Tuddenham, FES ’14, nodded in agreement. “We’re drawing from Berlin, and drawing from D.C.; we’re drawing from Sundance,” Tuddenham said. “As much as we absolutely do want to support small filmmakers, we are pushing the people who are producing for festivals like us to reach a higher standard.”

Around one of the high tables, fiddling with name cards and laughing in the too-loud voices of people who have only just met, stood three of the six jurors who will determine awards at the week’s close. “I think we all know instinctively whether a film is good or not,” said Ila Tyagi, GRD ’19, and the other two nodded encouragingly. “But we’re going to do our best to be fair and smart with our judgments. There are a number of awards: ‘Best Feature Film’, ‘Best Cinematography.’ What was the last one?” A pause. The three women looked at each other quizzically. “Oh!” Tyagi’s head snapped up. “‘Best Environmental Storytelling.’

In fact, this theme of environmental storytelling will serve as the unifying thread for this year’s festival. As Tuddenham explained, one of the primary challenges of her field of inter- est is that, in spite of the groundbreaking scientific discover- ies researchers are making, much of this work will never reach the conscience of the general public. “How do we bridge that gap? How do we get the American public talking about it?” Tuddenham asked. “If you want to get people engaged, including policy makers, you have to have a strong story. There’s just no other way.”

Yiyuan Qin, FES ’15, one of the winners of the ‘Young Film- makers and Photographers Contest’, agreed that, if any me- dium could engage broad audiences, it would be film. “People are lazy,” Qin said. “Maybe they don’t read anymore, but they still watch movies. Images are moving. They are powerful.”

Still, Tuddenham admitted that the translation from in- formation to action is no easy feat. “The environmental field is filled with these fantastic people who are really grounded, who really want to change the world, but there is also this sense of despair, right? Even by just existing sometimes, we are inimical to our own purpose. How do you deal with that despair, and still be able to act, and get out of bed in the morning and do something?”

Here, Tuddenham laughed, a little bubbly noise, crackling with inevitability. Something seemed to unclench in her, and she glanced out at the city, and back at me. “Storytelling is this really joyful, human art that gives you some motivation, and gives you some hope, and brings to life some of the feel- ing of, ‘Okay, let’s go do this.’”

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