What do indigenous communities in the Amazon and a rather prosperous coastal town in North Carolina have in common? Not much you might think, and generally you would be right. There are certainly many differences, but it turns out that folks concerned about the environment and public health in Wilmington, North Carolina have much to learn from communities struggling for environmental justice in the Ecuadorian villages featured in the film Crude. A screening of Crude at the Cucalorus Film Festival in Working Films’ hometown of Wilmington, N.C. gave me the opportunity to make the connection between a powerful international David and Goliath story and local struggles to protect our health and environment.
Joel Bourne, and Andy Myers with me, Anna Lee
Crude is a real-life, high stakes legal drama that uncovers the infamous “Amazon Chernobyl” case in which indigenous communities are suing Texaco/ Chevron for the environmental, cultural, and medical devastation that the companies’ oil exploration have wreaked on their communities and land. We don’t have any oil exploration happening on the coast of North Carolina, but we do have a multi-national corporation called Titan America that has gotten 4.2 million dollars in tax incentives from our county commissioners to build the fourth largest cement plant in the country, right on the banks of the beautiful Cape Fear River.
For those of you that don’t know much about cement plants, they are coal fired kilns that spew particulate matter including mercury and other toxic chemicals into the air and water. In order to make the cement, companies have to quarry limestone, a process that has the potential to drastically deplete and pollute our local aquifer.
In the film What’s On Your Plate?, Sadie and Safiyah go on a mission to find out where their food comes from. The film follows them visiting local farms and farmer’s markets, talking to food experts and activists, cooking delicious meals, and being aware of the journey their food took to get on their plates.
This year we’ve worked with a number of films on environmental issues, including The Age of Stupidand No Impact Man, where a prevalent theme is the need for a binding and just international agreement to address climate change. With world leaders set to gather in Copenhagen in just under a month to negotiate a new international climate treaty, we need President Obama and the Senate to show leadership in enacting bold climate solutions. Leading organizations, such as 1Sky, are urging people to make a creative statement through “Make Art for Climate” gatherings across the country, where people will come together to decorate pieces of cloth with images reflecting the urgency of the climate challenge.
The art gatherings will then culminate in a series of nationwide public actions during the first week of December – just before Copenhagen – to reinforce the need for strong action. As part of this week of action 1Sky will deliver the murals to important members of the Obama administration and the Senate, creating a powerful visual reminder of the need for bold climate solutions. Are you interested in holding an art gathering or public event in your community? Sign up at 1Sky.org or contact Ada Aroneanu at ada [at] 1sky.org.
When watching news about famines and starving people in foreign countries, we often feel removed from the problem, even as we express pity and regret. Beadie Finzi’s The Hunger Season shatters our illusions of distance, however, revealing the complex interconnections between global economic systems, the hunger for new biofuel sources of energy, global climate change, political unrest, and resulting devastation of drought and famine for millions of people around the world. Tracing the journey of food aid from the fields of Wisconsin farmers to USAID and finally to Swaziland, where Justice, a village leader, struggles to feed his neighbors, Finzi brings home our role in the hunger crises and also our ability to help avert such problems.
A moving experience, The Hunger Season had its sneak peek world premiere at a Tales from Planet Earth event in October 2008 and came back for the 2009 festival by popular demand. The screening event held a year ago was co-hosted by First United Methodist Church of Madison, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the Center for Culture, History and Environment (CHE) and Working Films. This event built the impetus for the event on Sunday – which is becoming a new national engagement project built around the film called “Meal & a Movie in a Box.”
In addition to the Meal & a Movie, two students in the Community Engagement through Film class, Sarah Obernauer or Tia Nowack, made a tie between Swaziland to Madison with Share the Shares which brought CSA and local food production into the mix.
Watch the video above to hear more about this innovative program.
I am just back from the hills of Sheffield UK and their exuberant Doc Fest. Five days of high energy started as soon as I stepped off the train; most of the festival venues were right by the station and crowds were already milling.
The sold out opening night film was Moving to Mars, a film we supported this past summer through the Good Pitch and a strategy summit. Out of these efforts, the film developed a community engagement campaign that takes them on the road with refugee supporters and a new effort with City of Sanctuary.
I ran into Karen Katz, the film’s producer, the next morning and she said the opening was getting wide news coverage, including video posts to Australia.
On Thursday morning, Doc Fest moved me into the MeetMarket, pitching innovative project ideas from selected doc filmmakers. I met with over 20 makers and exchanged first ideas about exciting and vital stories, from a musical about the National Health Service in the UK to the Stonewall riots and private prisons in the US. These first chats were focused on the films’ potential campaigns.
On Thursday afternoon, I moved into The Chapel, to present “Working Your Film” with my colleagues Jess Search, filmmaker David Bond and web guru/creative director of Pixeco James Franklin. A packed house responded favorably to our stories of effective impact, and the successes we shared about creating new pathways to reach audiences and turning them into impassioned viewers – so when the lights come up they are ready to act.
Thursday night we all headed to the premiere of Erasing David, another film that collaborated with Working Films on their audience engagement campaign, for a brilliant reception by a sold out house. With humor and superspy intrigue, David brings an important message about protecting our privacy from the surveillance state.
On Friday, we headed to join our crew at the BRITDOC Bar, where Lucy Cooke was serving up luscious Mojitos.
Working Films is proud to be coordinating panel discussions after two films at the Cucalorus Films Festival in our hometown of Wilmington, NC. Named one of the “25 Coolest Film Festivals” by Movie Maker Magazine, Cucalorus runs November 11th-15th at venues across city.
Crude is a real-life high stakes legal drama that uncovers the infamous “Amazon Chernobyl” case against a backdrop of the environmental movement, global politics, celebrity activism, human rights advocacy, the media, multinational corporate power, and rapidly-disappearing indigenous cultures. Crude will screen at 10am Thursday November 12th.
In Off and Running, when adopted teen Avery’s curiosity about her African-American roots grows, she decides to contact her birth mother. This choice propels Avery into her own complicated exploration of race, identity, and family that threatens to distance her from the parents she’s always known. Off and Running will screen Sunday November 15th at 4pm.
For each film we aim to bring the issues home for the audience and make connections between the stories in the film and salient local issues.
As part of the community events of Tales from Planet Earth, Troy Gardens and MACSAC participated as community partners in the screening event of What’s On Your Plate? along with filmmakers Catherine Gund and Sadie Rain Hope-Gund. What’s On Your Plate? follows Sadie and Safiyah as they talk to each other, food activists, farmers, new friends, storekeepers, their families, and the viewer, with a mission to understand the story behind the food we eat.
This film traveled to Madison a year ago as part of the build up to this festival to host a special rough cut screening for youth at the Sherman Middle School in order for the filmmakers to gain strategic feedback on how to make the final cut of the film appeal to youth – an essential target audience.
At the beginning of 2009, we hosted a strategy summit with the filmmakers and non-profit organizations focused on increasing access to healthy and affordable food; reducing obesity; and connecting local farmers to schools and families; in order to develop the audience engagement campaign by hosting. For us, it was really awesome to be able to see all the strategy and plans come to fruition and play out in front of us. It has felt quite gratifying after having participated in the work behind the scenes to then experience the film event with the audience of young people and their families.
Check out the video above, featuring an ode to dirt by youth gardeners, to get a sense of how the adventures of What’s On Your Plate? were connected to the adventures here in Madison.
As part of the Community Engagement through Film class, students Jessica Halpern and Ryan Josephson worked with community partner Mario Garcia Sierra of Centro Hispano, matching the issues and stories of the organization’s community – such as immigration, labor, and education – to the issues and stories in several films by Alex Rivera.
Together they hosted a special pre-screening event for Tales from Planet Earth at Centro Hispano to show Alex Rivera’s Papapapá along with a series of shorts made by youth members of Centro Hispano. The event included good food, music, and conversation.
Alex’s films are quirky at times; though they explore issues in a very serious way. A thread throughout much of his work includes the juxtaposition of the free movement of products to the restricted movement of people –– deepening the immigration discussion layer by layer. As part of the discussion following the screening Alex explained, “We don’t want to just be workers. We want to have full participation.”
You can hear more from Alex, the student organizers, and Mario in the video above.
The Tales from Planet Earth film festival this weekend, Nov. 6-8, will screen some 50 environmental films from around the world that explore how stories told through film can influence our understanding of, and relationships to, nature.
But the festival, organized by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, is more than just hunkering down in a dark theater to watch spectacular films: Organizers hope the films will inspire audiences to action on behalf of environmental justice and the diversity of life.
And local action inspired by the festival is already under way, even though a single curtain has yet to be raised or light dimmed. UW-Madison students in the class Community Engagement Through Film have developed partnerships with area nonprofit organizations that work on issues raised in the festival’s films. The class is being taught by Gregg Mitman, festival director and interim director of the Nelson Institute; and Judith Helfand, filmmaker, activist, educator and artist in residence at UW-Madison this semester.
“There was so much enthusiasm from the last festival. I wanted to take that energy and turn it into activism,” says Mitman. “Environmental film festivals on college campuses are growing, and I wanted to create a model for others to follow. This class is a true expression of the Wisconsin Idea.”
The students’ class projects address, on a local level, issues such as hunger, homelessness, food sources, nutrition, emergency preparedness, animal rehabilitation and community-based conservation. The class has already established some exciting partnerships with impressive outcomes:
• Several local grocery stores have agreed to stock products made by Porchlight, a local organization that hires and trains homeless people to work in its kitchens. Increasing sales of Porchlight’s products, which are mostly bottled goods such as jams and pickled veggies, baked goods and salads, will spur more hiring and training. The Wisconsin Union is also now buying some of these items for its food service operations, as are some campus sororities and the local Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company. In addition, Marling Home Works, a building supply company, is helping to organize a fundraiser to help Porchlight buy a commercial-scale convection oven to increase its productivity.
• Madison’s Whole Foods Market has agreed to purchase food shares from the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition to donate to food pantries. Food pantries rarely have fresh vegetables to offer their clients, so this effort will ensure a steady supply on their shelves. Whole Foods will also donate fresh fruits through the winter months to help fill gaps. The Bradshaw-Knight Foundation has also purchased shares along with individual donors.
• Interstate Books4School has agreed to donate a large number of children’s books to the food pantries.
• Madison Gas & Electric Co. is donating $500 to several community groups to purchase green energy credits. These will help the groups pay their utility bills and also offset carbon emissions generated by the film festival.
• Marling Home Works is donating materials to build a children’s garden kitchen at Troy Community Gardens on Madison’s north side, where they will learn to prepare healthy meals from the vegetables they help grow.
Other partnerships and projects are still being developed. “Some of these students have lived in Madison for years but have never left the isthmus. They are seeing that the issues in the films are very real, and real right here,” says Mitman. “They are also learning new ways to think about community service — where they learn about doing things ‘with’ people, not ‘for’ them. That builds relationships, trust and follow-through.”
Robert West was working as a film programmer at Charlotte’s Mint Museum when he became increasingly interested in documentaries with a social context – films about race, health care, women’s and gay rights – because “they seemed to be the most powerful stories. I would watch 200 people in a room be collectively moved by a story.”
But West noticed something else. After the lights went up, and the q&a session with the filmmaker began, the first question often would be “What can I do?”
“And,” says West, “the filmmakers sometimes had a really good answer, and sometimes had no answer. And I felt this was missing an opportunity for this audience experience. I felt part of my responsibility was to enrich the audience experience, beyond just the passive viewing of the film.”
So West began to invite local activists to the screenings, people working on the issues the films were addressing. These were folks who could tell audience members what was being done, how they could volunteer, where to give money. Then West took that basic idea and ran with it – partnered with filmmaker/activist Judith Helfand, he founded Wilmington-based Working Films, a media organization that helps socially conscious filmmakers connect with their target audiences, the activists and other interested parties organizing around specific issues.
“There was this gap,” says West, “between the potential for social issue documentaries and the impact they could have.”
West says this in the apartment he lives in on the second floor of a converted 1912 fire house at Fifth and Castle, where Working Films has been headquartered since 2001. The space is filled with antique-y bric a brac and works painted by West, who has a degree in painting and printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth. The ground floor is the operations center of the organization, which has a yearly budget of $1.2 million, mostly from foundation sources, and features large posters of documentaries Working Films has helped promote, including the Emmy Award-winning Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.
West, 56, grew up in Philadelphia and Richmond. He worked at the Mint Museum for several years before starting Working Films, and moved to Wilmington when he was looking for office space, after a friend who was living here told him she was thinking of buying the fire house and asked if he’d be interested in signing on as a long-term tenant.
He’s never regretted the decision. West enjoys the laidback local lifestyle, and as a kayaker, loves the fact that he can run down the street and dip into the Cape Fear River. He also sees it as a smart location choice in a strategic sense.
“Mostly for funders, it’s intriguing and interesting,” he says, “ they’re always looking for a geographic spread.”
But West also spends a lot of time in New York – “We have to have a presence there, because that’s where it’s all happening,” he says – and London, where Working Films recently opened an office that aims to promote UK-based documentaries.
The organization operates in several ways, helping about 50 films and filmmakers a year. Filmmaker residencies, held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, involve seven or eight invited filmmakers.
Working Films researches the issues involved in their movies, finds out what non-profits are working on them, then helps the filmmaker find target audiences, the right setting for screenings, how the documentary can be tied into policy issues. Strategy summits take one film and for a whole day and pair the filmmaker with interested non-profits, then helps them strategize a two to three-year release campaign.
There is also what West calls non-traditional public relations.
“We are connecting films to the most interested audiences through the use of social media tools,” he said. “We are using Facebook, most of it is Internet based, and that cuts through the barriers of getting your message out through more traditional media.”
“It’s one thing to just make a film, it’s another to make a film and have it have some impact,” says Dan Habib, whose documentary, Including Samuel, about the mainstreaming of children with mental disabilities, was the subject of a strategy summit attended by 20 interested organizations, including the National Education Association and the Boys and Girl Scouts.
“I needed to create an outreach strategy, and that’s where Working Films came in,” said Habib. “I realized they could maximize the relationships I already had with organizations, and create new partnerships. So we could get all these people in one room for a day, and say how can we use this film as a catalyst for social change? And how can you use this film to support your work?”
This form of outreach can reach significant amounts of people. For Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, about the torture scandal in the Iraq prison, Working Films partnered with the ACLU, which was working on torture policy issues. The ACLU organized more than 900 screenings of the film over the course of four months, and other non-profits arranged 3,500 more.
As far as West is concerned, this is only the tip of the iceberg. He believes that with all the new delivery systems out there – visual media that can be downloaded onto cell phones, for example – “it’s never been a better time for documentaries. We’re seeing people accessing these stories through all kinds of new engines.”
And ultimately, it’s all about story. Which is why West got involved in the first place.
“What we are looking for are those films that will engage audiences,” says West. “The best film is going to be the best tool. The power of the story comes first. And that’s what these films do; they ignite a dialogue where it might have been stuck before.”