Festival Wrap: Portland EcoFilm Festival 2016

An ecstatic crowd greeted 2016’s Portland EcoFilm Festival, which took place at Portland, Oregon’s historic Hollywood Theatre from October 20-23. The event focused heavily on the ways in which we understand our connection with the environment.

Though environmentally conscious films are often perceived as lacking intersectional understanding and creativity to tell their wide array of stories, EcoFilm laid that stigma to rest. During its four-day span, the festival showcased breathtaking stories that explore everything from the vitality of the monarch butterfly to the complexity of Peruvian indigenous resistance to oil drilling in the Amazon.

While chatting with festival-goers about their craft, selected moviemakers also spoke and exchanged ideas with conservation organizations and environmental arts non-profits, including festival partners Oregon Wild, 350PDX, The Center For Food Safety, The Skyline Tavern Project, Signal Fire and Friends of Portland Community Gardens.

EcoFilm’s opening night began with the sold-out Portland premiere screening of co-directors Jon Betz’s and Taggart Siegel’s acclaimed documentary SEED: The Untold Story, which earned the helmer duo this year’s EcoHero Award. Stunning corn and butterfly-centric artwork by 350PDX’s Arts Team adorned the stage on either side before Festival Director Dawn Smallman took the stage and officially kicked the night off. Beer flowed and glasses clinked at the festival’s opening night party at Portland’s own unique Velo Cult bicycle shop and bar, catered by festival founding sponsor Chipotle Mexican Grill with music provided by the eclectic Portland band, the Kung Pao Chickens.

(L-R) Filmmaker Mariah Wilson (“Kaziranga”), Kristin Leppert (Save Endangered Animals Oregon), Iris Ho (Humane Society International), filmmaker Roshan Patel (Red Wolf Revival). Photograph by Dawn Smallman

Friday night’s attention turned to the importance of conserving water in Dhinant Vyas’s seminal Every Drop Counts, an all-too-appropriate introduction to the festival’s Best Feature Film Award winner When Two Worlds Collide. Co-directors Heidi Brandenburg’s and Mathew Orzel’s effort to document indigenous Peruvians’ struggle against the extraction of their natural resources was inspired by the openness of indigenous leader Alberto Pizango’s stand against that exploitation. Accepting their award, Brandenburg and Orzel noted, “To be chosen from amongst a group of filmmakers focused on the world’s most important environmental issues is a true honor,” especially from a festival that has “gained a reputation for choosing impactful films.”

A 35mm showing of the 1972 environmental sci-fi classic Silent Running starring Bruce Dern closed out Friday night. Saturday first brought the short “Canyon Song,” an excellent ode to the importance of keeping Navajo culture alive through a connection with ancestral environments. “Canyon Song” was paired with Muerte Es Vida, a unique film that captures the essence of what the monarch butterfly means as a symbol of death and remembrance for those whose loved ones have passed on.

Saving Jamaica Bay was underscored by the fest as a critical look at environmental sustainability and the banding together of community members to achieve victory against all odds. A Q&A followed the film with Nicholas Caleb, staff attorney for Neighbors for Clean Air, and environmental advocate Roben White, centering around how individuals in Portland can come together to save the environment that is so precious to all.

A Saving Endangered Species Short Film Showcase was a Saturday highlight, bringing together short films “Kaziranga,” “Red Wolf Revival,” “Reverence: The Monarch Project,” “Their Land: The Last of The Caribou Herd” and “Ndzou Camp”—all of which highlighted the importance of endangered species conservation work and what it means for ecosystems as a whole. A portion of the tickets sold went to benefit the Yes on 100/Save Endangered Animals campaign, a grassroots organization working to save twelve highly-trafficked animal species. Iris Ho, Wildlife Campaign Manager at the Humane Society International took the stage to offer insights on protecting illegally-trafficked species. Ho shared the stage with filmmakers Roshan Patel (“Red Wolf Revival”) and Mariah Wilson (“Kaziranga”), who discussed their shorts and the necessity of protecting wildlife from ill-guided hunting practices and poaching. Contromano (a.k.a. Bike Repair Shop)—a film which employs an observational style to highlight the importance of cycling as a tool that can transform individuals, cities and the climate itself—closed out Saturday night.

EcoFilm’s closing day began with a quiet-but-mesmerizing “The Art of Flying,” a short film about the murmurations of the Common Starling that was paired with “Troublemakers,” a brilliant unearthing of the land art movement that had captivated the country in the 1960s and ’70s. Marine biology garnered two highlights in the short film “FINconceivable” and the feature The Grouper Mystery. Directed by Gil Kébaïli, Grouper is an incredible documentary study of a massive grouper spawning in an atoll under a full moon.

Award-winning author and moviemaker Arthur Bradford gives a tongue-in-furry-cheek presentation on saving giant sequoias. Photograph by Dawn Smallman

A Portland-based film festival would be aghast to go without a film showcase on the importance of trees, a portion of whose ticket sales went to benefit Save the Giants Park, which was created after community engagement saved three giant sequoias from being cut down for the sake of building a single, new home. The audience was treated to a comedic presentation about the protest that created the Park by Emmy-nominated filmmaker, O. Henry Award-winning author and MOTH GrandSlam winner Arthur Bradford, delivered while he wore a forest creature costume. The delectable short “In My Nature” studies the relationship between humanity and trees. “Small People. Big Trees” is an immersion into the Baka pygmy tribe in the Republic of South Africa, their relationship with the forest, and the challenges they face to their traditional way of life. The short film captures the struggle of the tribe with some of the most stunning cinematography the festival had to offer.

“Being Hear,” winner of the Best Short Film Award, centered around the story of the Emmy-winning sound designer Gordon Hempton and his search to conserve the all-too rapidly disappearing quiet spaces in wilderness. Co-Director Palmer Morse was thrilled to have made his World Premiere at the festival and even more so to garner the award, “considering the sheer quality of other films at the festival and the important issues that they promote awareness for.”

The evening and the festival closed out with an encore of SEED: The Untold Story to a packed house. “Red Wolf Revival” director Roshan Patel noted that he enjoyed “covering stories that are overlooked or underappreciated” and those are the stories this festival brought forth. “Kaziranga” director Mariah Wilson described the Portland EcoFilm Festival as a “great experience,” the range in film programming, Wilson added, truly “had something for everyone.”

The 2016 Portland EcoFilm Festival did have something for everyone, offering variety without losing sight of its mission and bringing together films of an incredible range. Harnessing the power of environmental cinema, the festival didn’t merely show the audience snapshots of environments around the world, or settle for only demonstrating its keen understanding of what sustaining the environment means. Rather, EcoFilm showed its audience how the environment truly touches each and every single one of us in ways we might not expect or otherwise imagine. MM

Akash Singh is a writer and student who resides in Portland, Oregon. His film and television critiques can be found at The Film Chronicles.

Featured image photograph by Dawn Smallman