An Environmental Film Festival That Aims for a Big Tent

26th annual confab pitches itself as both mission-driven and entertaining

The 26th annual Environmental Film Festival in the nation’s capital is underway, and runs through March 25. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
The 26th annual Environmental Film Festival in the nation’s capital is underway, and runs through March 25. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Jason Dick
Posted March 16, 2018 at 5:03am

Maryanne G. Culpepper, executive director of the Environmental Film Festival in the nation’s capital, has a long-standing heads-up for filmmakers who arrive at screenings to talk about their movies. 

“People are going to challenge you with questions. Be sure that you really know your stuff, and don’t try to bluff your way through an answer, because they’ll call you on it,” she says. 

She considers this one of the defining characteristics of what she calls the “mission-driven” festival, which kicked off Thursday night and runs through March 25

“In Washington, D.C., everybody is an expert, and I don’t say that with sarcasm. Everybody ‘is’ an expert,” she said.

To fit the tastes of a city that attracts people to work on public policy and politics, the festival’s 100-plus films touch on a myriad of topics and formats.

Culpepper marvels at how slick commercial filmmaking techniques and technology have converged, producing higher-quality movies about the environment.

“I mean, who would have thought that an environmental film would win an Oscar? ‘The Cove’ did it. ‘March of the Penguins’ did it. Those are environmental films,” she said of two past best documentary Academy Award winners. “Documentary has begun to borrow storytelling, and not in a fictional way, but the basics of finding a character, setting up the challenge, overcoming the challenge, finding the resolution, those techniques that often before were simply ‘let me tell you all this information.’”

That desire to avoid the old voice-of-god narration and talking head after talking head spills over into how Culpepper and her organizers want the audience experience to be as well, particularly for the post-film discussions. 

“At the end of almost every film, we have the filmmaker, whenever possible, and we have one or two content experts. But we don’t do a panel,” she said. “Panels are perfectly good in some situations. But a panel is a performance. Everybody sits on seats and talks to each other. Our signature thing is audience Q&A, and that’s really important.” 

Speaking of “March of the Penguins,” the festival will feature the U.S. premiere of its sequel, “March of the Penguins 2: The Next Step.” Talk about a convergence of Hollywood and documentary. What’s more Hollywood than a sequel, after all? 

For those allergic to the cute, fear not. There are not just one, but two, movies about rats — “Rat Film,” about the lives of rats in Baltimore, and “Rodents of Unusual Size,” about the the march of the nutria, the 20-plus pound, orange-toothed, ravenous rodents in the South and the bounty hunters that target them in an attempt to save wetlands. 

For those interested in political standoffs, there are features like “No Man’s Land,” about the 2016 occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by conservative activists and their conflict with federal authorities, and “Shash Jaa’/Bears Ears,” a short about the Bears Ears area of Utah that became a focal point of land-use arguments. 

Hungry for more? There’s also “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste,” staring celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain, Dan Barber, Massimo Bottura and Danny Bowien. 

“We are really looking for ways to fill audience needs and taste across a variety of interest but also political persuasions,” Culpepper said. “We have Republicans and Democrats come to our screenings.” 

Republicans? At an environmental film festival?

“I won’t name names, but we regularly have Republican senators and their staffs show up at events that may not deal with a particular conservation issue … but things that they have a personal interest in. They’re there. That’s good. We want a big tent. We want everybody in the tent.”

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