When Eric Desatnik founded the Environmental Film Festival at Yale (EFFY) ten years ago, environmental documentary filmmakers still had to lay the groundwork for why the general public should care about broad issues like climate change and food sustainability.
One decade later, the genre has matured enough that filmmakers can dig into specific concerns like nuclear waste storage and GMOs, and craft stories that both engage general audiences and inspire practical solutions to the most pressing environmental problems of our time.
That’s the trajectory that Desatnik and current EFFY Executive Director Emma Crow-Willard see for environmental filmmaking as a whole as they embark on the 10th annual EFFY, a student-managed film festival that runs from Thursday to Sunday at various locations throughout Yale’s campus downtown.
This year’s festival includes five feature films, 10 short films, 11 student films, and a new episode from a National Geographic television series that cover topics ranging from the Standing Rock pipeline protests to the rapid disappearance of coral reefs to the question of how to communicate with future generations about the dangers of nuclear waste.
All of the screenings are free and open to the public.
Desatnik said that, when he helped found EFFY as a graduate student at Yale’s forestry school 10 years ago, he focused on screening movies like Food, Inc. that introduced audiences more broadly to the mysterious and dangerous practices of industrial agriculture.
He said that, before Al Gore’s landmark climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006, climate change was just not a topic that the general public knew or cared much about.
“You start by having to establish a baseline interest in a general topic,” he said about these early environmental documentaries. “Once that has been established, then you have to get more specific and focus. We know you care about food, so now let’s talk about GMOs. You’re now seeing films that pop up in these more niche spaces with more niche calls to action.”
Crow-Willard, a second-year environmental management student at Yale’s forestry school, said that this year’s line up includes a spate of films that focus on specific, relatable environmental concerns. She said that — unlike An Inconvenient Truth, which unduly politicized climate change without successfully engaging audiences as to the topic’s relevance and urgency in their day-to-day lives — these movies focus on story as much as on fact.
“You can’t just spew facts at people,” she said. “That’s not going to motivate them to take action or feel like it’s a part of their life. You have to make it actually relevant to them and directly show and engage in aspects of their life that are directly affected by it.”
The festival kicks off on Wednesday night with a screening of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, Al Gore’s follow up to An Inconvenient Truth, which focuses on an international cadre of “climate champions” who worked to establish the 2015 Paris Climate Accords and are working to protect that agreement from the onslaught by President Trump’s administration. The screening will be followed by a talk-back with director Jon Shenk.
Thursday night’s feature film is Containment, which explores just what to do with the 100 million gallons of radioactive sludge and tracts of radioactive lands left over from the Cold War. The movie looks into how best to communicate with future generations about the dangers of radioactive waste that can last for over 10,000 years, and that cannot simply be shot into space or buried deep underground.
“Nuclear is the cleanest renewable energy that we have,” Crow-Willard said, “but then, at the same time, if there’s a problem, then we’re all in trouble.” She said that she loves the philosophical issues posed by the movie about what to do in the present, and how to communicate with the future, about nuclear waste.
Friday night’s feature is Beyond Standing Rock, a documentary that puts the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in the context of a centuries-old conflict between indigenous peoples and the United States government about resource management and land ownership.
The festival concludes on Saturday with the feature films Chasing Coral, about the dangers faced by rapidly disappearing coral reefs, and Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, which looks through the eyes of celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali at the relationship between discarded food and climate change.
“For the most part, these documentaries are of regular people tackling seemingly intractable problems,” Desatnik said about what draws him to environmental films more broadly, and to EFFY in particular. “And while there’s sometimes direct calls to action and specific activism that can take place around that particular topic, there’s also a more abstract thing going on. These are engaging stories that will inspire you to tackle whatever problems you might want to tackle.”
Click on the below audio player to listen to an interview with Crow-Willard on a recent episode of WNHH’s “LoveBabz LoveTalk.”