EFFY itself seems like an extremely well-run operation. Its eleven organizers are comprised of one undergraduate and ten Forestry School grad students, many of whom have backgrounds in environmental film. The events are free and open to the public, the website is professional and usable, and the promotional materials are well-designed.
Over the course of a conversation with Executive Director Chandra Simon, Director of Public Affairs Catherine Fontana, and Director of Programming Paul Thomson, certain motifs emerged: The accessibility and potency of the films shown, the balance between affecting viewers and maintaining a sense of hope, pairing filmmakers with thinkers who can ask tough, specific questions that are still understandable for the broader community.
When choosing films for the festival, Simon said the organizers look for “topics that people need to hear more about but also a good film; first and foremost, the film has to be engaging.” She gave past examples of the ideal—The Cove, Gas Land, and Crude—and one example of a movie that dealt with an important topic but was not strong enough as a film (Climate Refugees).
At the end of each year’s series, a jury of eleven faculty and students from the University, views all of the films in competition and decides on awards for Best Feature and Best Short. The audience also votes for Best Feature by rating each movie after the screening. Last year, out of 3,000 attendees (the most of any student-run environmental film festival), half were not associated with Yale; this week, I would have guessed that 75 percent were not associated with Yale.
Journey of the Universe, a one-hour film about the meaning found in nature, led off the screenings at its own premiere last Friday. The brainchild of Professors Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, who teach at the Divinity and Forestry Schools, the movie is a distillation of the cosmological argument for environmentalism: that nature is deeply meaningful, that we are part of a progressive trend within nature, and that we ought to preserve nature. Evolutionary philosophy professor Brian Thomas Swimme serves as host and narrator, speaking from the island of Samos in the Mediterranean.
The central premise of the film⎯which attempts to cover everything from the Big Bang to the present⎯is that the universe is composed of very specific patterns, and that life is unique because it can learn to make new patterns for itself, especially in humans, who have achieved a higher level of patterning through symbolic consciousness (i.e. language). Life is a tendency toward order. And then the environmental message kicks in: Humanity is on the verge of devolving into chaos.
The most immediate problem with Journey of the Universe was perhaps best articulated by the person sitting next to me at the screening: It is cheesy and rehashed. The images⎯swimming schools of fish, galaxies colliding, and flowers opening⎯were pretty but predictable.
More abstractly, the reasoning behind the film⎯that life is a tendency toward order and therefore we should avoid destroying that complexity⎯was unconvincing. Given how frequently destruction occurs in nature⎯ants and gorillas making war on their own kind, red giants pouring gas onto neighboring stars until they explode, and the fact that entropy increases over time⎯the foundation for environmentalism laid by the film feels too unstable to rest a movement on.
Connected, the first full-length film by Tiffany Shlain, weaves the director’s personal story⎯her father’s deadly cancer and daughter’s birth⎯into a history of the universe and humanity that concentrates on the difference between left-brain and right-brain thinking, and its societal implications. This difference takes on gendered tones; the film asserts that men understand the world through language, and women through icons and patterns. The difference is also somehow connected to, well, connection itself⎯the growing interdependence of the planet.
If this theory isn’t coherent in print, that’s because it isn’t in film either. Connected uses other footage⎯archival and some home videos⎯and edits it very well, but uses, for instance, literally the exact same image of a collapsing ice shelf as Journey of the Universe (and many another environmental film).
This is not to say Connection is trite or uninteresting: With its remarkable personal story, occasionally insightful critique of modern culture, and consistent adherence to the value of patterning, Connected can be captivating. But because it refuses to focus more narrowly, its environmental significance is as limited as that of Journey of the Universe.
For a different, much more specific sort of film, try any of the others that EFFY has screened this week or will screen this coming weekend. Wasteland, for instance, tells the stories of the pickers of recyclable materials in Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest garbage dump, outside Rio de Janeiro, and of Vik Muniz, a famous Brazilian artist who helps them create art from the garbage and sell the art in London.
Muniz seems to be a talented artist, commendable for his charitable intentions, though not incredibly interesting, and even somewhat naïve. What makes Wasteland particularly fascinating are the pickers themselves, each of whom has a terrible past to relate, an extraordinary strength borne of extreme tribulation, and above all, a unique dignity toward his or her work.
The environmental message is also complicated by an engagement with the realities of the world⎯the poverty in which billions of people live⎯that is absent from the two broader films. The 3,000 pickers of Jardin Gramacho, who together with the sanitation department manage to recycle 50 percent of the garbage that enters the landfill, do far more to repair the planet than nearly anyone, and they know it. That pride⎯and their ability to withstand the pressures of their job⎯is alone worth the watch.
EFFY seems to have a remarkable ability to attract the attention of environmental filmmakers. This year, the organizers received and reviewed approximately 300 submissions. Simon characterized films from the past two years as focused on particular environmental issues, as compared to the broadness of this year’s. That’s not to say that there aren’t still films that zoom in⎯Wasteland, for instance, or Lights After Dark⎯but certainly, Journey of the Universe and Connected dominated the beginning of the week.
Part of the popularity of these two films, as well as Wasteland, stems from the emotional argument they make for environmentalism. This effect was not unintended. As Fontana said, “People are either motivated by emotion or economics. These films are attempts to inspire people through emotion.” At first, it may seem like an unnecessary appeal to attendees of EFFY, many of whom are already students of the Forestry School and involved with other environmental projects.
But like this year’s festival itself, the statement confronts a broader reality, and challenge, of environmentalism: That even with the looming prospect of massive famines, floods, and disease demanding pragmatic policy proposals, many people have yet to even realize the interdependence of humanity and nature.