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Environmental Film and a Paradigm Shift

Environmental Film and a Paradigm Shift

Environmental Film and a Paradigm Shift
Santo Domingo, September 26, 2013

F ounder and Director of the Dominican Republic Environmental Film Festival (DREFF), Ms. Natasha Despotovic, felt compelled to express her views about the critical situation the planet finds itself in at this moment in history. Her analysis and suggestions come at a time when fewer and fewer choices are left to slow the inexorable rush towards depleting or destroying the Earth’s vital resources. As GFDD Executive Director, Ms. Despotovic has rendered a thoughtful argument about how to move forward in the hope of achieving a lasting and logical solution to these issues- starting with a paradigm shift.

Humanity is going through a critical period, in all aspects; we are all affected in the form of economic, financial, social and environmental crises, to mention a few. The way we live, produce, consume, think and act is in question; the need for a paradigm shift is obvious. The growth of environmental film and emergence of environmental film festivals around the world are a response to this need. The Dominican Republic shares this concern and is joining this international movement with its Environmental Film Festival. We are all part of the solution.

Issues surrounding the environment are ubiquitous today not only at international conferences and within government or non-government programs; they are included, emphasized and debated with great passion and vehemence in schools, universities, blogs, Facebook and numerous other art forms.

An Inconvenient Truth
I think we all remember when the film An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006 and propelled the issue of global warming to all corners of the Earth and onto the center stage of world debate. Although Mr. Gore had already been struggling for many years to promote knowledge about this issue and pleading for coordinated action to deal with it, a good 100-minute documentary seems to have achieved more to raise awareness and encourage a more positive attitude than so many conferences, debates, dialogues, articles and reports.

In an interview, Al Gore himself once confessed that the film had, and continues to have, a multiplier effect and transformative impact, incomparable to anything he’d ever done before, including his thirty-plus years of working on the issue within the US government, on an international level and through the thousand or so presentations he’d given around the world. Following the release of the movie, the former Vice President’s popularity skyrocketed to levels never before achieved in his career. He was soon thereafter awarded the Noble Peace Prize and an Oscar.

In terms of its effect on global thought and attitudes, personal and collective, An Inconvenient Truth represents a decisive moment in how we think about not just global warming but our attitude toward the environment and our production and consumption patterns, which are at the heart of the debate and are driving the search for change, already underway.

Jess Search, Executive Director of Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation made the following comment on the film’s success: “An Inconvenient Truth, unlike many films, is not art for art’s sake or entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It uses an art form to try to have an internal effect on the viewer’s mentality, which will in itself have an external effect on the world due to the that person’s new actions and changed habitual behavior. It uses an art form, documentary, to affect behavioral change.”

Although there are surely people who have not seen or even heard of the documentary, we are certain that their lives, all of our lives, have been indirectly impacted by it. Sir Richard Branson, the British magnate whose business empire consists of 400 companies, said in an interview that seeing An Inconvenient Truth changed his life and the way he does business. His business conglomerate, the Virgin Group, has a goal of being up to 70% carbon neutral by 2020. “One day Al Gore came to see me and forced me to see the truth. This shook me up; I didn’t realize the problem was so serious. I have airplane and train companies, and to be able to sleep at night, I decided I should take some of my profits and invest them in the search for a clean energy source,” said Mr. Branson. Examples like this abound in all sectors: public, private and non-governmental. Changes in attitude, production and consumption are occurring on a personal as well as collective level, slowly but surely.

Environmental Film
An Inconvenient Truth is yet another example among many of the power of a good documentary. There are more and more such examples. In the area of environment and sustainable development, we can mention, among others: The 11th Hour, Food, Inc., Wasteland, Chasing Ice, Who Killed the Electric Car, Trashed, Flow, Bag It!, Dirt, The Cove, Vanishing of the Bees, Surviving Progress and The Polar Explorer.

The topics range from sustainable use of natural resources, conservation of biodiversity, waste management, development of renewable energy resources and sustainable agriculture to questioning social and economic paradigms, methods for managing and adapting to global warming and new attitudes towards individual and collective health issues.

For the first time in history, viewers can go to theaters, buy films on DVD and download documentaries onto their computers, cell phones and tablets. In a time when the preferred educational source and communication method among all audiences, regardless of age, nationality or geographic location, is the still and moving image, the power of documentary films to raise awareness, disseminate scientific studies, transmit a message, inspire and motivate is increasing everyday. The technical platforms are keeping up with this trend at a dizzying pace – the possibilities for viewing, creating and distributing a film product are overwhelming in their sheer diversity and number.

Examples that Inspire
Many famous film personalities are lending their names, time and personal resources to significantly boost environmental protection and sustainable use of resources. They themselves, in their lives and actions, are advocating for a society that coexists with respect and in harmony with all that our natural habitat represents: nature, animals, plants and other human beings. Among these people are Leonardo Di Caprio, Brad Pitt, Daryl Hannah, Robert Redford, Orlando Bloom, Emma Watson, Willie Nelson, Bono, Sting, Natalie Portman and Pierce Brosnan. Many set up their own foundations, which are aimed at promoting awareness and relevant environmental actions. Others offer their services to a foundation or international organization with these same goals.

Actress, Daryl Hannah said in an interview: “I used to think that the most important thing I could do was to simply live the most ethical life possible, behave according to my convictions. However, when I began to understand the magnitude of the crisis we now find ourselves in, I realized that it was completely essential for all of us to do everything within our power…if we don’t begin to live in a more ethical and conscientious way, using the solutions that are accessible to us, we have a huge problem.”

A brilliant example of someone in the art world who has dedicated his resources to creating awareness, education and promoting good practices is Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay, one of the leading philanthropists in the United States and founder and president of Participant Media. Mentioning just some of the films produced by Participant Media, such as Syriana, Waiting for Superman, The Visitor, Food, Inc., Good Night and Good Luck, Darfur Now, The Help, Contagion, Fast Food Nation and An Inconvenient Truth, gives us a clear idea about the type of movies Participant Media has created and supported since its founding in 2004.

In its mission statement, Participant Media says: “Participant believes that a good story well told can truly make a difference in how one sees the world. Whether it is a feature film, documentary, television or other form of media, Participant exists to tell compelling, entertaining stories that also create awareness of the real issues that shape our lives. The company seeks to entertain audiences first, then to invite them to participate in making a difference. To facilitate this, Participant creates specific social action campaigns for each film and documentary designed to give a voice to issues that resonate in the films.” To date, Participant has developed active, working relationships with 600 non-profits, which collectively have the potential of reaching over 75 million people.

In his own analysis of the benefits of every film production, Jeff Skoll uses a different parameter from the conventional film studios. “One metric of success that we use is whether more good comes from the film than just putting the money directly to work in a non-profit organization involved in the same issue. We’ve actually had cases where we looked at the risk profile of a film and said, the way this looks, chances are we’re going to lose a million, 2 million, even 5 million dollars. But maybe we’ll get 10 million or 20 million worth of social value from it. We will take risks on projects where we think we might lose money, because we hope that the good that comes from that outweighs the risk. It’s a different kind of philanthropy.” According to his evaluation, films produced by Participant create a social return on investment (SROI) of between $2 and $20 dollars for each $1 dollar invested.

To date, in its nine years, Participant Media has received 34 Oscar nominations and has influenced debates and practices in the areas of climate change, nuclear energy, immigration, international relations, financial sector reform, protection of species in danger of extinction, sustainable agriculture, health, nutrition, communication and education, among other issues. Our Dominican audiences have had the opportunity to see Food, Inc., Good Night and Good Luck, The Cove, Countdown to Zero, Climate of Change and An Inconvenient Truth at the Dominican Global Film Festival and the DR Environmental Film Festival. Would comprehension of our world, our awareness and our attitudes be the same without these films? I don’t think so.

Once again, we must stress that not all of us have seen these films, but our lives have been impacted by them because people with decision-making power in governments, international organizations, businesses and homes have been influenced. Because many have been motivated to create grassroots organizations or non-profits that have introduced the issue into spheres where decisions and actions are taken. Because many have changed how they perceive the world, other human beings and life in general. The multiplier effect is powerful, especially in this day and age of globalized interconnection.

Environmental Film Festivals
In this world context, there is nothing more logical than the emergence of environmental film festivals and exhibitions whose function is not limited to providing filmmakers with an opportunity to show their movies about the environment and sustainable development. Festivals are indeed the ideal place to meet, exchange ideas, form networks with filmmakers as well as viewers, potential distributors, sponsors and promoters. The simple existence of these events provides the impetus to create a larger number of environmental film productions while encouraging high quality cinema. The educational value that comes from creating awareness among viewers and encouraging positive change is invaluable.

Apart from being cultural events, environmental film festivals are natural science, social and even economic events. Numerous debates, conferences and workshops accompany the screenings and often serve as a platform for various plans of action. In addition, actors from the private, public and non-governmental sector often meet and undertake joint programs that acquire social and economic value.

Art, entertainment, science, education, awareness, best practices and synergy of effort are intrinsic elements of an environmental film festival. The positive and creative energy of filmmakers, researchers and the general public flow together as one river that gives us hope for solutions, willingness and the possibility of achieving something. If we all work together, it cannot be that difficult.

One of the oldest and largest environmental film festivals in the world is in Washington DC. The Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, as it is called, just held its 21st edition this year with a screening of 190 films from 50 countries to an audience of 31,000 people. “With 115 organizational partners and 75 venues, including museums, embassies, universities, libraries and local theaters in all four quadrants, the Festival is one of the leading collaborative events in the Washington D. C. metropolitan area,” according to its webpage. In fact, the Global Foundation for Democracy and Development, the sister organization of FUNGLODE in Santo Domingo, joined this year’s metropolitan festival with Dominican environmental films and provided support for other Latin American films shown at the Gala Hispanic Theater of Washington D.C.

Another important and renowned environmental film festival is in Barcelona, which this year it will hold its twentieth. Torino, Italy held the 16th edition of its Cinemambiente last May. Portugal has CineEco; Toronto, Canada, Planet in Focus; Festival International du Film d’Environnment takes place annually in Paris, France and Wildscreen Film Festival in Bristol, United Kingdom has a broad international reputation. In the United States, there are literally countless environmental film festivals – almost every state and every important city and tourist venue are organizing festivals. Even universities are having their own film festivals; some of the big ones are at Yale and Princeton. Some festivals, like the Blue Ocean Film Festival, directed by Debbie Kinder, one of the consultants of the DR Environmental Film Festival, travels throughout the United States and the world and has even been held in China.

Other cities to add to this list are in the Middle East and Asia, such as Abu Dhabi, where just last April they held their first – the Abu Dhabi International Environmental Film Festival. Then there is New Delhi and Tokyo, among others. In Latin America, this initiative has grown and expanded with such festivals as Cinema Planeta and the Traveling Festival in Mexico as well as CRiterio Ambiental of Costa Rica, to name a few.

And the Dominican Republic?
Inspired by a growing and enthusiastic international movement and support from well-known filmmakers and environmentalists during the first four years of the Dominican Global Film Festival, the DR Environmental Film Festival was born in 2011. Learning from the best, like Executive Director of the Blue Ocean Film Festival, Debbie Kinder; Charlotte Vick, Director of Google Ocean and Peter O’Brien, Executive Director of the DC Environmental Film Festival, the GFDD/FUNGLODE organizing team launched the dream, many ideas and even more projects.

Some of the ideas were clear from the beginning: show good films about relevant issues, free of charge, to a large cross-section of the public, with a special emphasis on children and young people; offer panels and roundtable discussions with each film; create lots of opportunities for interaction between the public and filmmakers, environmentalists, scientists and others relevant participants; create opportunities for exchange among local and international actors in the field; encourage the creation of projects and programs that benefit the environment and sustainable development and, above all, raise awareness, educate, inspire and change!


Like all projects that originate from ideas, the Festival soon began to take on a life of its own. Thanks to the collaboration of many people and institutions in the country, more and more ideas and projects are being born. The interest and enthusiasm that grew around every film, every guest and every conversation inspired us to create programs such as the Educational Expeditions to Pico Duarte in collaboration with Karim Mella and his Siempre Más Foundation; Ecohuertos, the community and school gardens program in collaboration with Washington D.C.’s Global Coalition for Peace and numerous schools and community centers such as the non-profit Perelló Center, Fundsazurza and Children International; the Recyclarte Program, underway in the entire country under the guidance of Dominican artist, Bertha Santana. Important partners like the Centro Cuesta Nacional, Punta Cana Resort and Club, Tourism Cluster of Puerto Plata, Tourism Cluster of Santo Domingo, Inc., Banco de Reservas, Odebrecht, and the National Business Support Network for Environmental Protection all contribute ideas, support projects, mobilize their members and partners and design their own initiatives based on ideas shared within the framework of the Festival.

The number of cities hosting the Festival and screening venues is growing every year, as is the number of films being shown. The Globo Verde Dominicano Award has encouraged the production of environmental films and public service announcements made in the Dominican Republic.

Now we can safely and proudly say that the Dominican Republic is on the world environmental film map, in the forefront with the rest of Latin America. The general public, Dominican filmmakers, aspiring filmmakers, educators, researchers, media people, institutions and film enthusiasts around the country are all threads in this cultural quilt; they are all inevitable parts of this ecosystem that vibrates and emanates energy in ever expanding circles. This shared commitment and enthusiasm confers a sense of good health and sustainability upon the Festival.

Toward a New Paradigm
In the end, the big question arises: Why exactly an environmental film festival? From where does such fervor and concern about this issue arise?

Because our civilization is going through a major crisis wherein its very foundations and main source of support are threatened: our planet, the ecosystem as we know it today, which supports all life.

It is possible that not everyone, at the moment, is under the same pressure as a result of this serious situation although immigration, poverty and suffering from the results of environmental disasters and climate change are phenomena now widely accepted around the entire world. Nevertheless, we have all been affected by the recent economic, financial, social and security crises. These are all part of a combination, a paradigm of production and consumption of social interaction as well as interaction with the planet that is being shown to be inherently destructive and unsustainable.

Thinkers, scientists, politicians, activists, artists and regular people are rethinking the way we all live our lives; they are searching for and implementing solutions. Global interconnection, through countless media sources and forms of expression, enables us to share these evaluations, ideas and solutions. Environmental film festivals are important and fertile ground for this global cross-pollination.

We have reached the point where 75% of all our forests have disappeared and 90% of life in the ocean has been killed off, to the point that the United Nations estimates that, unless there is a change in attitude, by 2048 there will be no more fish in the sea.

If we take into account the cost of environmental degradation, including social and health costs, it is clear that our system of production is inefficient and unsustainable. For example, according to researcher and writer, Michael Pollan, food production in the United States is so inefficient that to produce just one calorie of food, 10 calories of fuel are used.

The paradigm of conquering the natural world, of domination and exploitation is not working. We have reached the point that Ronald Wright, in his book A Short Story of Progress, calls “the progress trap.” Technology and attitudes that led us to progress, once amplified and followed on a major scale, are becoming our destruction. On a smaller scale, that which was once productive to a certain extent is now about to destroy everything unless we are capable of changing, transforming and reinventing.

“One of the absolutely clear lessons of history and archeology is that a healthy economy depends on a healthy environment. There is no economy without a sound environment beneath it, sustaining it. The problem is that with our rapid technological advance, we have found ways to get more and more out of the environment and make it seem as though human prosperity is detached from natural systems. Of course, the reverse is true. What we’ve been doing by these very sophisticated means of extracting things is actually taking out stuff that can never be replaced,” says Wright.

Many environmental films put forth ideas and examples on how to implement a transition toward “a paradigm of planetary wellbeing that understands that everything in life if profoundly interconnected” (from the synopsis of the film Money and Life). From exploitation to responsible and sustainable use, from competition to cooperation, from greed to simplicity and compassion, from dominating nature to learning about natural systems and their imitation in applied sciences.

There are many solutions and they are emerging at all levels. We are all responsible for the present situation and we are all part of the solution. Environmental film reveals the truth to us, puts us into contact with the most inspiring examples; it reveals a wide range of paths from which each of us can choose and find one’s own niche. What is yours?

Biography of the Author
Natasha Despotovic is the Executive Director of the Global Foundation for Democracy and Development with offices in Washington D.C. and New York. She is a graduate of philosophy, literature, Spanish, French and English. Natasha has had an extensive and diverse international career in which she has held-high level positions in the private, public, non-governmental and multilateral sectors in Europe, the Dominican Republic and the United States. Ms. Despotovic is the Director of the Dominican Environmental Film Festival.


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