Film festival photo
Photo credit: Daisy Simmons

NEVADA CITY, CALIF. – Climate policy earned a clear nod from the hundreds of documentary filmmakers whose works were shown at this year’s Wild and Scenic Film Festival.

Featuring roughly 130 new films, many with a strong link to climate issues, the 16th annual event took place in mid-January in Nevada City, California. With record-breaking attendance of at least 7,500 people and an overall 20 percent uptick in ticket sales, it was clear that crowds were drawn to the festival not only to be entertained, but also to learn new ways to take action.

“The festival is always supposed to inspire activism, but there’s been more of a focus in the past on personal responsibility,” said Hilary Hodge, a writer, festival veteran, and local nonprofit executive campaigning to become a county supervisor. “This year, I felt like in every session there was an element where it was very clear that part of our environmental crisis is about policy and how laws are made.”

This year’s theme – Groundswell – seemed especially timely amid high concern over Trump administration efforts to deregulate existing environmental programs, and to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement.

“Many [of the films] spoke to the power of people coming together to demand change in their community,” said Melinda Booth, executive director of SYRCL, the nonprofit responsible for producing the festival. “I do personally believe that it is in part due to our current political climate.”

Five films tackle climate change, offer solutions

The long weekend was packed with films that directly or indirectly addressed climate change. Following are five of the most memorable feature-length films, each bringing a particular dimension to the climate conversation.

Burned: Are Trees the New Coal?
Alan Dater and Lisa Merton (74 min.)

Is it fair to call something renewable if you’re removing it faster than it can be replenished? This sobering film argues no, pointing to carbon impacts of a recent surge in wood-pellet production and burning that’s feeding the burgeoning biomass industry.

Examining what some experts call “a loophole in carbon-accounting rules,” the film draws hard lines between the European Union’s demand for biomass, the destructive logging happening now in the southeastern U.S., and the fact that neither the U.S. nor the E.U. is properly measuring carbon lost in these transactions. That’s a double whammy for climate change because forests, which are natural carbon stores, are being wiped out faster than they can be restored, the film argues. It scoffs at the frequent portrayal of the biomass industry, heavily subsidized, as a source of clean, renewable energy.

The rift between the scientific community, policy-makers, and industry leaders isn’t just a far-off problem – it’s already having profound effects on some people’s everyday lives. For example, the film brings viewers into the town of L’Anse, Michigan, where locals are fighting against a so-called biomass plant that has been incinerating all manner of toxic waste, including creosote railroad ties and old tires. Soot is everywhere, and tensions are high. “Individuals can’t burn tires, or railroad ties – but somehow corporations are able to,” says one frustrated resident.

Featuring an array of ecologists and policy experts from across the U.S. and Europe, Burned argues for considering the broader climate impacts of subsidizing a practice that, left unchecked, could ravage more forests than can afford to be lost.

Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees
Jeff McKay and Merit Jensen Carr (52 min.)

Botanist and author Diana Beresford-Kroeger traverses the world’s great forests, from Ireland to Canada to Japan, to proclaim, in loving detail, why reforestation is a cost-effective defense against climate change. Throughout the film, her soft, melodic voice leads viewers through what is at first a poetic, soulful meandering of forests (think forest-bathing in Japan), to a parade of equally passionate scientists and conservationists working to replant and protect native trees, leading finally to an urgent call for viewers to recognize the irreplaceable role forests play.

Part love letter and part petition for action, the film closes with a message of hope – people are working together to protect what she calls the world’s last great working forest: Canada’s boreal forest. The job won’t be easy, considering threats like tar sand exploration and hydroelectric projects, but Call of the Forest urges action to protect these globally significant carbon storage resources.

Derek Hallquist, Eugene Jarecki, Aaron Woolf and Anoosh Tertzakian (92 min.)

Change is hard – whether it’s related to energy policy, or gender politics … or in this case, both. When filmmaker Derek Hallquist set out to learn more about ways to bring all-renewable energy to the grid, he didn’t realize the depth of the lessons he’d learn from his parent, David Hallquist, CEO of a small Vermont utility company.

Their story aligns a highly personal transition – coming out as transgender to one’s own children – alongside a truly global one, with a first-hand, insider account of the challenges of transitioning to a clean energy future. From the Trump administration’s dismissal of climate science, to the elder Hallquist’s life-long personal struggle, denial is presented as more than a trifling disruption – and indeed as a force strong enough to derail action that’s vital to survival.

From the Ashes
Michael Bonfiglio and Sidney Beaumont (79 min.)

YouTube video

Is – or was? – there really a “war on coal,” and if so, who are its victims? Opening with grainy, black-and-white footage of an old coal furnace, this National Geographic documentary explores the history of a polluting industry reported often to have exploited its workforce and then leave communities of workers to fend for themselves. From an out-of-work miner’s wife in West Virginia, to a mom whose family is suffering from asthma in Texas, the film is packed with personal narratives that show the hardest hit in the so-called “war.”

But what happens as we leave behind the ashes? The potential for solar and wind may be promising – but so far, the film’s experts contend, the natural gas industry is stepping in to fill coal’s shoes more often than not. Still, the film ends with some signals that hope remains – such as conservative strongholds going renewable, as seen in Georgetown, Texas, for one, and job training programs aimed at helping unemployed miners find new work, like the Coalfield Development job training program in West Virginia.

WASTED! The Story of Food Waste
Anna Chai and Nari Kye (85 min.)

YouTube video

A crew of celebrity chefs takes aim at food waste and its impact on climate change. Decrying what the film reports as 1.3 billion pounds of food sent to U.S. landfills each year – and the potent methane released by that waste – foodie celebrities Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, and Mark Bittman explore a variety of creative solutions that the film calls an “upcycle waste pyramid.” These begin with using food to:

1) Feed people (like, for example, the French law that grocers must donate unsold food to charities, rather than disposing of it);

2) Feed livestock (as in Japan, where an entire industry now delivers leftovers to farm animals);

3) Feed energy (as seen in a major yogurt factory in Tennessee, where instead of being discarded, whey is pumped into a tank where methane can be captured and reused to create electricity for the packing and filling machinery); and finally

4) Feed soil (compost!).

The film points to policy and entrepreneurialism as keys to advancing these practices. For inspiration, U.S. leaders might look abroad to, say, South Korea, where residents have to pay by the pound to trash their food waste – a program purported to have cut waste by 30 percent.

In the end, WASTED does more than offer a rapid-fire list of clever “solutions.” It also offers a character-driven take on these tactics by mixing together person-on-the-street interviews, intriguing recipes that elicited a mix of “ooh” and “ew” from the audience, and snarky chef remarks. Viewers are urged to take action, and, as Bourdain says, get the “smug self satisfaction of doing the right thing.”

Climate shorts to watch now

For those who don’t have the time or inclination for a full feature film, there were also a variety of interesting shorts on hand. Here are a few climate-related shorts worthy of consideration:

Mammoth – An aging Russian scientist and his son are out to thwart climate change in a highly unorthodox way. They’re attempting to recreate Ice Age conditions so that large mammals – including genetically resurrected woolly mammoths – can help keep carbon currently stored in permafrost from melting. Crazy, perhaps, but food for thought nonetheless for those looking for out-of-the-box approaches to climate challenges.

Science in America – Clocking in at less than five minutes, this short film is a rally cry for climate science – and action. “The U.S. was built on science, but we put someone in power who doesn’t believe in science,” Neil deGrasse Tyson says. “This is not the country I grew up in.” He followed with an impassioned defense of science that had the California festival audience nodding heartily along.

Nobody Dies in Longyearbyen – The Arctic permafrost is like a massive freezer – and it’s not empty. This science-meets-sci-fi expedition to the northernmost city in the world turns up some frightening possibilities of what’s buried deep in the permafrost – and what could therefore emerge as it melts – from long-lost disease, to vast stores of methane.

Valve Turners – A group of activists – all in their 50s or older – are arrested for shutting down crude oil pipelines in four states in a coordinated effort to interrupt carbon emissions. “That is like the temperature of the Earth going down, as they close that valve!” one of the women exclaims. Of note, while several trials are still under way, a judge in Minnesota made the historically unprecedented move to allow defendants to use the “necessity” clause to argue that their action is an appropriate, practical response to addressing climate change.

And the ‘best of fest’ goes to … uniting around action

Climate-related films can be tough to witness – much like the topic they grapple with: They deal in a harsh reality that humans are responsible for creating, and are only beginning to explore the implications. Still, a sense of empowerment and unity was palpable throughout the 2018 festival’s sessions and spin-off events.

“It made me feel like, okay, I’m not alone in caring about these issues,” said Erin Thiem, a local small business owner.

For as much as denial and inaction still rage around climate change, there are still more people who think global warming is happening, than those who don’t.

And as the festival’s People’s Choice Award-winning Redefining Prosperity: The Gold Rushes of Nevada City film summed up, natural beauty can unite even the most divided of communities. Locals saw that evidenced with the move to protect the Yuba River that won overwhelming support from both sides of the political aisle.

Can that sense of unity be carried to the national arena? Perhaps, if more people can put aside some differences and step up to the plate – or in this case, to the ticket counter.

Daisy Simmons is a freelance writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience in research-driven storytelling. In addition to contributing to Yale Climate Connections since early 2016, she also...