Illustration by Justin Tran
“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” –Henry David Thoreau
In past years, films shown at the RVA Environmental Film Festival have spanned a wide range of topics: From the joys of swimming naked in cold mountain lakes, to a pair of activists who draw attention to corporate environmental corporate atrocities via staged pranks, and beyond. These documentaries might not seem to have much in common, but all start from the same place: love of the earth.
The RVA Environmental Film Festival will be held Feb. 6-12 and 18, 2017, at various locations throughout the city. Visit rvaeff.org and the festival’s Facebook page for the schedule as it becomes available.
For Scott Burger, a festival volunteer since its earliest iteration and now its director in practice if not name, the festival itself is quite literally a labor of love. “It’s all volunteers, it’s all nonprofit and it’s all free,” he says.
Burger credits the event’s sponsors — the Sierra Club’s Falls of the James Group; Enrichmond Foundation, Capital Region Land Conservancy; and Viridiant — for support that ensures the festival, begun in 2008, remains free to all. Proceeds from the Sierra Club’s Big Yard Sale, held annually at the end of the spring semester at the University of Richmond, are key. “It’s good to see that money [used] in a way that’s educational and good for the community,” he says.
Selecting the films every year is a balancing act, Burger says. The process begins in the summer, when a volunteer committee gathers and brainstorms a “wish list” of films. At that point, filmmakers and distributors are approached, with the goal of having a basic schedule by the holidays that covers a variety of themes and includes shorts and films appropriate for children. Tweaks continue into the weeks leading up to the festival, as organizers finalize speakers and screening times.
“We want to show the latest and greatest environmental films; we try to keep a good mix,” Burger says. “Some are going to be more didactic than others. We don’t want to shy away from difficult topics.”
In a few instances, films shown at the festival have been particularly relevant to Richmond. In 2014, the film “Lost Rivers” (2012) was shown, detailing how many waterways were buried underneath cities and towns as they expanded. At the time of its local screening, a new baseball stadium for Shockoe Bottom was under consideration. “We want people to think not just about development,” Burger says, “but of the importance Shockoe Creek has to the district.”
Last year, the documentary “Overburden” shared the story of two women’s fight against Massey Energy, a coal company formerly headquartered in Richmond and the owner of the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, site of a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. The film’s director, Chad Stevens, participated in a question-and-answer session after the screening, which attracted locals who had worked for Massey and brought an additional dimension to the screening, Burger says.
It’s those personal interactions that are especially appealing to filmmakers, says Melissa Lesh, 2014 and 2016 winner of the festival’s film contest. “It’s personally gratifying when you’re working with something, and you want your work to be seen and heard,” she says. The open attitude of RVA Environmental Film Festival’s organizers offers essential encouragement to young filmmakers. “It creates a tight-knit, supportive community, which is rare, and not often found with larger film festivals,” Lesh adds.
Lesh, who holds a bachelor’s degree in painting and printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University, now serves on the festival’s board, encouraging young filmmakers to enter the competition and encouraging more established filmmakers to bring their documentaries. “I get to talk with some of my idols,” she says.
Burger says the appeal of showing a film at the RVA EFF, as opposed to another, larger festival, is the attention it can receive. “There’s a chance to make a bigger splash, to stand out from the competition,” he says. “Filmmakers can connect with people here.” The festival, which spans a full week, takes advantage of multiple venues around the city: The Byrd Theatre, VCU’s Grace Street Theater, the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, the University of Richmond, the Science Museum of Virginia and public libraries.
Films already planned for screening at the 2017 festival include “The City of Trees” (2015), about a “green” job training program in Washington, D.C.; “How to Let Go of the World and Love all the Things that Climate Can’t Change” (2016), a study of climate change in 12 countries across six continents; and “Oceans” (2010), a Disney nature film that takes viewers on an underwater journey. “I’m all about short films, too, so I’ll probably be adding and subtracting until the new year,” Burger says.
Ultimately, Burger says, the goal of the festival is to make a point: “One of the ways that Richmond progresses is to see environmental thought [from] elsewhere. A lot of times it comes down to introducing new ways of thinking via film.”