Maintaining Hope in the Face of Apocalypse

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Don't slit your wrists, be inspired, says the Program Director of the Environmental Film Festival Australia. There are films for pure cinephiles too.
Maintaining Hope in the Face of Apocalypse

Image: A world about to disappear with global warming. Kiribati, in the Pacific islands, from Anote's Ark.

Imagine having to watch 300 environmental-themed films. At the end of it all, wouldn’t you be weeping tears of blood, or slitting your wrists with sadness at the plight of poor old Mother Earth?

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Actually, no, says Nathan Senn, Program Director of the Environmental Film Festival Australia, which is screening in Melbourne from 11-19 October at ACMI and Palace Westgarth. Senn heads up a team of eight programmers who sort through around 300 features and 300 shorts, selecting 40-odd films each year to screen at the festival. He reckons that ultimately, it’s an uplifting experience.

Talking to Screenhub on the phone, Senn admits there are some very sad stories and some very bleak facts. Nevertheless, 'it’s actually inspiring to watch people fighting against environmental destruction, whether that’s as subjects of the films, or as filmmakers and activists who are giving their time and resources to make things better.’

Face the Films

According to Senn, the programmers at EFFA are very mindful of not overwhelming audiences with negativity – despite this year’s festival being themed ‘Face the Films’ – an almost bossy incitement for viewers to face up to the facts around climate change and the future impacts of today’s decisions. ‘One thing you absolutely don’t want is people walking away feeling completely despondent and thinking it’s too late and there’s nothing that can be done. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Tonally, the program this year is full of films that are positive. I’d urge people to approach the films from that perspective and think about the people on the front lines who are doing amazing work, really positive work.’

He cites as an example the film Anote’s Ark, directed by Matthieu Rytz, which follows Anote Tong, former Kiribati president, as he campaigns about the plight of his country, a collection of tiny Pacific islands likely to disappear underwater in the next 60 years. ‘We are thrilled to be bringing Anote out for the festival and as a special guest,’ says Senn. ‘He will introduce the film and do a Q&A, talking about the plight of his people, who he’s trying to relocate. It will be really inspiring and hopefully will help people to connect some dots and make some difference. We’re an activist festival and we want people to feel energised by the films.’

Anote's Ark - Official Trailer - Sundance 2018 from EyeSteelFilm on Vimeo.

Another inspiring highlight, according to Senn, is opening night film Into the Okavango, directed by Neil Gelinas. It's the Australian premiere of a film about a passionate conservationist travelling down the Okavango River delta in Africa. Senn says one of the takeaways from it is that 'there are people and organisations, like the National Geographic who made it, who are playing a big part in helping to make changes.'


Into The Okavango — Trailer from Science Design on Vimeo

Heart on Sleeve

Begun in 2000 (as the Environmental Film Festival Melbourne), EFFA is a not for profit DGR (Deductible Gift Recipient) charity run entirely by volunteers. You may remember that DGR eligibility with the Australian Taxation Office has played an important part in allowing the Documentary Australia Foundation to assist filmmakers with social change agendas

According to its Mission Statement,  EFFA wants to be 'a catalyst for positive and sustainable change,' and to 'connect conscious consumers with ethical organisations, then direct them to act.'. This year’s EFFA is co-directed by Chris Gerbing and Brooke Daly, and the principal sponsor is Bank Australia, a cooperative bank based in Kew, Melbourne, that advertises its refusal to lend to the fossil fuel industry. The festival says it is committed to having 30 per cent of its films made by Australians.There's no denying then that this is a festival that wears its social conscience and its political ideals on its sleeve.

One imagines there are sneaky corporate propagandist films that would love to reach an audience through such an event. Senn says yes, such films are frequently submitted. 'It is quite common and you can't blame them for trying. I shouldn't name any names, but it's pretty easy for us to tell what is a legitimate film from what is just a schmick marketing exercise and not the real films - whether they're from individuals or organisations - that have real heart and integrity.'

The Life of a Festival Programmer

The life of a film festival programmer seems mysterious and glamorous – unless of course you’re someone who’s had to watch back-to-back films on dodgy screener links until your eyeballs are falling out. But Senn isn’t complaining. At 31 years of age, he’s a refugee from academia, admitting he’s ‘far more of a film person than an environmentalist person.’ He completed a PhD thesis in 2014 at La Trobe about ‘secularism in European art cinema, looking at the spiritualist films of the 60s and 70s, filmmakers like Bergman, Tarkovsky and Bresson.’ A real film tragic, in other words.

Image: Nathan Senn, EFFA Program Director and a real film tragic.

Afterwards, he was burnt out and disillusioned with academic life. He wondered how he could just sit in a dark room and watch films one after the other, the way he loved to do each year at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Then came the chance to work as a programmer for the Sydney Underground Film Festival (SUFF). He's still employed in a part-time role there for about nine months of the year. ‘I love working for SUFF,’ he says, ‘because it's a festival where we get to program a lot of things that are really weird and "out there" and fun. It’s a good balance to be working for that event as well as EFFA.’

So how as working for EFFA changed him personally? 'It's definitely been a massive eye opening. Watching that much environmental content you really get a sense of how dire things are and how much work needs to be done. But from a purely cinematic perspective, it's fascinating to see the interesting new things that are being done with documentary at the moment, and to see films that are about the environment, but aren't quite what you'd expect.'

Three personal picks from the program

It's no surprise to find that Senn's personal picks include some for the pure cinephile with no activist agenda at all. Here they are, along with his words about them:

Welcome to Sodom (Christian Krones, Florian Weigensamer): 'This is a really beautiful film set in Ghana in Africa at an electronic waste dump site, one of the most toxic sites on earth. But it's also the home of about 6000 people who live and work there. On the surface it sounds quite dark, but it shows these people living in these terrible circumstances, who have been able to carve out a life and make a living and find some happiness. E-waste is something that affects all of us who own phones and laptops and upgrade them regularly without thinking where the old ones go. Chances are they go here, so it's a film for anyone who has an electronic device.'

The Ancient Woods (Mindaugas Survila): 'This is a really unconventional wildlife documentary. No dialogue, no soundtrack, it’s completely silent. Set in the old growth forest of Lithuania it has beautiful shots of animals in this forest,. It's quite sensory because you’re not being told what to think or feel by a narrator. You can just engage in the imagery and see how these animals live. I haven’t seen a wildlife doc like this before.'

Sleep Has Her House (Scott Barley): 'I'm quite proud fo this one. It’s a really different film, a piece of slow cinema. Audiences need to be warned that there’s no narrative. It’s very darkly lit forestscapes and often the shots are quite long and quite slow and when you’re watching it’s very much about texture and light. It’s not necessarily environmental. We are interested in not just conventional definitions of what environmental is. Local musician Rose Riebl will be providing a live score to it. She’s a pianist and has a keyboard and does beautiful slow ambient music. We've programmed it on Saturday night as a kind of intimate chill out session at ACMI. It's quite experimental and cool.

 

Sleep Has Her House (Scott Barley) Trailer from Scott Barley on Vimeo.

The Environmental Film Festival Australia 2018 screens from 11 to 19 October at ACMI and Palace Westgarth Cinema. For program details and info, go to www.effa.org.au.

About the author

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She is now the the co-host of Australia's longest running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates'. She has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can follow her musings on Australian film and television on Twitter @Milan2Pinsk.