With 50 films on the schedule this weekend in Madison, Wisc., Tales From Planet Earth is the largest free environmental film festival in the country. The festival (Nov. 6-8) is hosted by The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in partnership with Working Films.
As he geared up for opening night, Nelson’s interim director, Gregg Mittman (author of Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film), talked to me about what makes this festival unique.
Part of what you’re doing with Tales From Planet Earth is expanding the definition of “environment.” How do you define it?
The environment is where people live, work and play. It’s not just about endangered species and climate change. It’s about urban environmental issues, transportation access, unequal burdens that people in society are exposed to. It’s a broad definition. We’re trying to expand people's horizons.
Two years ago when you held your first free film festival, you had lines around the block. Why have you kept it free?
I really want to make sure there’s access both in terms of economic diversity and ethnic diversity and that the environment is not a white, middle class issue but an issue for people from all walks of life.
I remember at the end of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth there was a list of things viewers could go home and do to help the environment, like change their light bulbs. How to you inspire people to take action?
We are creating these opportunities at the festival. I teach a community service learning class called Community Engagement through Film. The students have been working with filmmakers and community organizations, such as Porchlight, a non-profit that provides services like job training for the homeless. Porchlight Products turns local agricultural products into seasonal jams, sauces and salads—and helps employ Porchlight’s clients. Some sororities, the student union, grocery stores in town have all agreed to buy Porchlight Products. A member of Porchlight will participate in a panel discussion after one of the films, and then the audience will be able to go across the street and sample Porchlight Products. There will also be a postcard campaign where they can urge their local stores to carry the products and create a more local supply chain in Madison.
Have you seen all 50 films?
Yes. It’s not a submission festival. I’ve cherry picked them out of 250 films I’ve watched over the last two years. Some are works in progress.
Why is film such an effective medium for stimulating interest in the environment?
As we tell the students in the production class, issues don’t matter--stories do. Stories move people. Film is fundamentally a medium about storytelling. Why was “An Inconvenient Truth” so successful? It certainly wasn’t his PowerPoint lecture. I’d venture to say it’s because we learned more about Gore personally than we did in the presidential campaign. Ecology is all about the study of interrelationships, and film can bring together relationships in unexpected ways.