I’m never quite sure with Americans. But when Peter O’Brien, executive director at the DC Environmental Film Festival suggested I might like to visit Washington and check out their festival, I didn’t much mind if he’d really meant it. Or if he was simply being polite. I’d booked my flights a few hours later.
Think David Attenborough sort of crossed with an oriental Rolf Harris and, if you’re British, you’ve probably got a reasonable facsimile of David Suzuki in terms of his television career and appearance respectively. If you’re Canadian, on the other hand, he’s been a household name most of your life and needs no introduction.
And so it was, only 20 minutes after I’d arrived at my hotel, I found myself sitting in the splendour of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum watching ‘Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie’. A thoughtful film built biographically around David’s life, it tells at once a very human tale of personal challenge, vision and drive and yet gently but powerfully interweaves that life story with wider truths around environmental crisis.
For the keen, or for those to whom it wasn’t (according to their body clocks) 3.30 in the morning, there was an opportunity to meet the man himself after the film. And, of course, buy the book.
For me, bed was irresistible.
It’s fair to say Maribel wasn’t quite what I expected. Having emailed pretty much daily as I scrambled to organise a meaningful trip in the few days I had to do it before my plane left Heathrow, I’d built up a picture in my mind of a well organised, no-nonsense and dare I say slightly portly, late-middle-aged lady – the de facto gatekeeper to Peter the CEO, protecting him and the rest of the festival team from distractions like me. Well, so much for email. But I was right about her being well organised.
And as I sat over lunch with both Maribel and Peter in a little French restaurant in the laid back and casually sophisticated Georgetown neighbourhood, I couldn’t help but be impressed at how keen they were to share their experiences and lend a hand to a film festival virgin. Despite being in the middle of the two weeks of the year that they spend 50 weeks preparing for, they were encouraging, enthusiastic, and wise. Nineteen years in to the DC festival, they and those before them, had picked a few things up along the way. And I was there to learn.
Werner Boote’s a funny chap. A man who loves the smell of plastic. Who inhales it deep into his lungs as if it were a crisp, fresh Spring morning. Albeit with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Make no mistake, there’s a touch of the Louis Theroux about him. Take him too lightly and, judging from some of the (in some cases probably personally innocent) characters in the film, and you’re going to find yourself confiding things to him on camera that are likely to be somewhat career limiting. At best. (I still wonder, even now, what became of the eager young girl in the Chinese plastic plant…)
This was ‘Plastic Planet’, a film by Werner Boote. And also my first visit to an international embassy, the Austrian Embassy in this case (which I have to say, on a road lined with embassies representing virtually every country in the world I could think of, this one looked like one of the more open to visitors.) Anyway, I won’t spoil the film. It’s quite brilliant, if frightening (you’ll think twice before buying plastic wrapped food again). And it’s showing at our festival in a few weeks’ time.
Body clock all over the place for a second night in a row, my recollections beyond the screening are not great. But I can confirm that the Gin Rickey is the official DC tipple.
There’s surely a time coming in the States, if the effort taken to fill a parking meter with quarters is anything to go by, when someone finally invents the whole one dollar coin – I will gladly accept royalties for coining (groan) the idea here first. But Maribel, armed with more festival bits and bobs than you could shake a stick at, needed to park somewhere. Somewhere near the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art for the late morning screening of ‘Burning in The Sun’. For those who think they’ll find films with an environmental bent depressing or preachy, this film is the antidote. Funny, uplifting and inspiring it tells the story of a young man in Mali who is going to change to world. One do-it-yourself, recycled solar panel at a time. One village at a time. And he will too.
‘Windfall’ caught me off guard. Screened at the only actual cinema I visited during my stay (the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, a few miles out of DC), I’d expected (I think reasonably) to see a film about the planet-changing, grid-decarbonising potential of tall, green, serene wind turbines. What I got was a film that challenged my views to the core. Laura Israel, the filmmaker and Lisa Linowes, the executive director (both of whom took questions at the end of the film) have made a film that doesn’t question whether wind might be an appropriate tool in the box to help tackle climate change – but they ask very serious questions about scale, siting, community engagement, and the power of the large corporates (a theme to be found in so many films dealing with climate change) who exert so much control over the lives of ordinary people. I couldn’t say I enjoyed this film (sadly it seems nothing is immune from the influence of the big corporates). But I learned a few things. Firstly, that not everyone who objects to wind turbines can be written off as a NIMBY. And secondly, that (here as in so many arena in life) the world simply isn’t as neatly black and white as we might find convenient to our own particular ways of thinking.
Jet lag cracked, Saturday night was a late one.
Did you know that two of the most famous landmarks in DC, the White House and the Capitol, were burned down in 1814? I didn’t either. But that interesting historical nugget was impressed on me by the tour guide leading an otherwise all American tour party around the various sights of DC on a bright and thankfully fresh Sunday morning – that and the other small point about the destruction being at the hands of the British army. That untimely revelation, it’s fair to say, was probably the second most embarrassing part of being on the Official DC Segway tour.
Later, safe within the peaceful grandeur of the National Building Museum, I reverted to type, and green architecture. Here was a short film double bill: ‘Rick Joy: Interludes’ followed by ‘Kieran Timberlake: Loblolly House’. Both interesting, but probably something to talk about with fellow property development types than wax about here.
All I can say about Sunday night, and the inevitable flight home, is that it came too soon. It had been a whirlwind, but it had been a real treat. I’d spent three days in a city I came quickly to love, with people who showed me immediate and genuine friendship.
And as for the films? What films they were. I’d seen films that made me think; films that made me angry; films that made me cry (quietly and discretely, of course, in a suitably British way); films that made me laugh; films that made me despair; and yet films that, despite everything, made me hopeful.
Now to bring it home and do it here.
John Long, festival director, UK Green Film Festival
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