Festival Wrap: Dallas Fest EARTHxFilm Counters Environmental Doomsday Narratives With A Message of Hope

Recently wrapping its seventh year, Earth Day Texas is the largest annual environmental forum in the world, with attendance upwards of 150,000 over its three-day span in Fair Park, Dallas every April.

Earth Day Texas co-founder Trammell S. Crow, a curious mix of “commercial real estate developer, Republican donor and environmental philanthropist at once” (as per The Huffington Post), recognizes that solutions to our environmental challenges must be as disparate and complex as his many interests are. Crow strives to bring businesses and environmental advocates together so that tangible progress can be made toward preserving our planet.

This year marks the natural addition of a documentary film festival, founded by Crow and partner Michael Cain, to that slate of initiatives: EARTHxFilm. Screening more than 60 films—spanning higher-profile releases like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood and Louis Psihoyos’ Racing Extinction, to smaller projects like the episodic title Ridge to Reef—EARTHxFilm’s first edition felt far-reaching yet unified in its overall mission. That mission was one of optimism, a recognition that pessimism about the current state of affairs only leads to apathy, and apathy does not solve any problems.

EARTHxFilm co-founder Michael Cain, Leilani Münter, Louie Psihoyos, Jeff Orlowski, Larissa Rhodes and Earth Day Texas CEO Ryan Brown on the green carpet (Photograph by John R. Strange/Selig Polyscope Company)

Opening night belonged to Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Coral, a Sundance hit which took home the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary at that festival, and was subsequently purchased by Netflix. Illustrating the empathetic power of film imagery, a small team sets out to document the widespread bleaching of coral reefs using time-lapse photography. Chasing Coral marries this visual evidence with stark, difficult-to-swallow facts: For example, we have lost 50 percent of the world’s corals in just the last 30 years. The ocean helps regulate the world’s temperature by absorbing large quantities of the carbon dioxide and other emissions that are deflected from the ozone, but it has been forced to do this at an unsustainable level in the past half century.

Coral bleaching in the documentary Chasing Coral

Orlowski’s team runs into logistical issues during production: The photos from the cameras they set up underwater are mostly out of focus and unusable; the temperatures in region they’re photographing are not going to be warm enough for bleaching to occur that season. Rather than throw in the towel and regroup for the next potential bleaching season, they instead pack it up and quickly move to another region in the Great Barrier Reef. They have little time to set up their underwater cameras again, and instead are forced to dive out into the water every day with all of their heavy equipment and manually shoot all the time-lapse photography. For this incredibly tedious work, the filmmakers used reference photos, lasers, and underwater videos from an iPad to ensure that their camera is in exactly the same position each day. The results of their labor is evident in the third act of the film: The audience witnesses a bright vibrant coral reef, teaming with marine life, wither away, until all that’s left is a white graveyard, now resembling a pile of bones.

Captain Paul Watson, known for his role in the Animal Planet television series Whale Wars, was a gala honoree this year. He also stars in the doc Why Just One?, produced by his conservation group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The film follows a group of young environmentalists who patrol the beaches of Costa Rica at night, preventing poachers from stealing sea turtles eggs. Sea turtle eggs are a delicacy in Costa Rica and, after you learn how slim the survival rate is for sea turtles (one in 10,000 turtles reach maturity in a world with no human interference), it’s difficult to watch a tourist cavalierly throw back a turtle egg like a shot of bourbon. Why Just One? goes beyond mere education and feels like a thriller at times (simiarly to Racing Extinction, which involves undercover sting operations in Asia). As the Sea Shepherds patrolled the beach at night, the threat of violence is palpable; you half-expect a group of poachers to jump out of the dark and harm the group. When violence does tragically strike, the righteous fury of injustice makes a call to action even more potent, and the viewer is left understanding the true stakes of protecting an endangered species when capitalist interests run counter to your mission.

Captain Paul Watson, a gala honoree at EARTHxFilm. Photograph by Lindsay Jones

Aside from film screenings, there were plenty of happy hours and gatherings for filmmakers, patrons and other attendees to kick back, enjoying a staple Texan activity: beer on a patio at dusk. A soirée at Crow’s secluded house in Uptown Dallas, went far into the early morning hours and amazed me with its never-ceasing networking. Everywhere I walked, I saw excited people engaged in conversation about the specific projects they were working on to save the environment. Cards were exchanged, friendships were forged, and collaboration was promised. It can be overwhelming to confront all of the creative ways humans harm the environment, but it is equally uplifting to see passionate people who choose to devote all of their time and resources to solving each of these problems.

With filmmaking workshops and even a Virtual Reality showcase, the brand-new EARTHxFilm is miles ahead of other, older festivals who have been slow to adapt to changing technologies. Which is not to say that the inaugural event didn’t contain a few hiccups: I witnessed occasional DCP issues with sound syncing. Nevertheless, EARTHxFilm felt much smaller and more intimate compared to its umbrella event Earth Day Texas, which hosts thousands of vendors and panels and workshops.

It seems evident that under Crow and Cain’s nurturing, this festival is bound to grow to be a major outlet for young filmmakers who are looking to change the world through the medium of film. MM

EARTHxFilm ran April 21-23, 2017 in Dallas, Texas. Featured image by Lindsay Jones.

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