The Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital

At various venues to March 23 (see Showtimes for details)

Apollo Cinema Academy Award Nominated Shorts

At Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge

to March 27

The Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital doesn’t pack the glamour of Washington’s other large annual cinematic spreads. It shows mostly documentaries, so movie stars are in short supply (although some familiar voices are heard doing narrations). It also doesn’t showcase exclusively new films. This year, slightly more than half of the 130 entries are local premieres, but also included are perennials such as The Man Who Planted Trees, The Living Desert, and Grass, a 1930 documentary about Iranian nomads, as well as reprises such as The Johnstown Flood and A Place in the Land, both by late local filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. Yet the focus is wide—these films aren’t just about ecological outrages and cute animals—and the quality is high. I previewed only five of the fest’s 70 D.C. premieres (along with two ‘toons that can also be seen in Visions’ Academy Award Nominated Shorts program), but all of them can be recommended.

A personal documentary that boldly engages the larger world, Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfand’s Blue Vinyl (at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 18, at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center) began when Helfand’s parents had baby-blue PVC siding installed on their Long Island house. Helfand’s objections weren’t purely aesthetic. Having undergone a hysterectomy at 25 because of the effects of her mother’s having taken DES, she was concerned about synthetic chemical products. The film follows the tale of PVC to the “Cancer Alley” region of Louisiana and then to Venice, Italy, where PVC manufacturing executives are on trial for manslaughter. While jousting with unctuous industry spokespeople—one tries to argue that chlorine is essentially the same thing as sodium chloride, aka table salt—Helfand also keeps looking for a substitute for her parents’ siding. Neatly balancing rueful humor and astonished indignation, the film arrives at a solution to one of its problems.

The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced (at 7 p.m. Friday, March 14, at the National Museum of Natural History) follows a 2001 excursion along the Alaska coast that emulated one undertaken in 1899. Director Lawrence Hott manages to tell three stories at once: There’s the original expedition, which included such luminaries as Sierra Club founder John Muir and photographer Edward S. Curtis; the contemporary venture, which visits the same (but often much-changed) locations; and the state of Alaska itself. In deftly integrated asides, the film offers minitutorials on the status of native Alaskans, global warming, salmon canneries, clear-cutting, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the return of totem poles pilfered for major museums, and pollock, a fish that sea lions like to devour raw but most Americans won’t eat until it’s been processed to be “odorless and tasteless.” To distract from how educational it is, the film also features spectacular scenery and some cute animals.

Red-tailed hawks aren’t exactly cute, but when one moved into Central Park, he quickly developed a fan club. And when the unusually light-colored bird found a mate and they produced three offspring, many Fifth Avenue residents were thrilled. At first, Frederic Lilien’s hourlong documentary, Pale Male (at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 15, at the National Museum of Natural History), is jarringly anthropomorphic, with narrator Joanne Woodward calling the bird “Top Gun,” a “serial killer,” and “a hawk with the right stuff.” As the story entertainingly develops, however, it becomes clear that Pale Male really has become part of Manhattan society, whether he knows it or not. As scores of hawk enthusiasts stake out the birds’ nest (on a ledge in Mary Tyler Moore’s co-op building) with hopes of seeing the fledglings take their first flights, one pigeon fan who disapproves of raptors in urban parks delivers the ultimate contemporary censure: “Inappropriate,” he says.

The occasion for Ariane Doublet’s Down to Earth (at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 14, at the Embassy of France) was the 1999 total eclipse of the sun over northern France, but the event itself is upstaged by the residents of Vattetot-sur-Mer, the town that’s perfectly situated for the celestial blackout. They’re peasants, one of them shrugs, and their lives are indeed remote from contemporary hi-tech culture. The documentary captures the rhythm of the farmers’ lives, which is slow, and the prospects for future generations, which are as dim as on most small family farms. As Vattetot-sur-Mer prepares for the influx of eclipse tourists, however, the town’s leaders reveal a distinctive Gallic character: These are probably the drollest peasants you’ll ever meet.

Sustainable architecture is one of the EFF’s continuing interests, so a documentary about Glen Small, who once proposed building something he called the Biomorphic Biosphere Megastructure, is a natural fit. But Lucia Small’s My Father the Genius (at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, March 23, at the National Building Museum) is mostly about the personal life of her dad, who doesn’t seem capable of sustaining anything. Small is cranky and narcissistic enough to pass for a genius, and he was apparently an inspirational teacher at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, where he was fired after publicly insulting such big-name colleagues as Frank Gehry. His designs, though, look just awful, bottoming out with the Green Machine, a sort of suspended trailer park he proposed for Venice, Calif. To judge from this film, the daughters Small more or less abandoned are a greater legacy than his designs, most of which remain unbuilt.

Recently, an increasing number of prestige films have been targeted for end-of-the-year release to get a commercial boost from possible Academy Award nominations and wins. But few of these movies will benefit from Oscar’s attention, and many of them will simply get lost in the crowd. One small step for overlooked Oscar nominees is the annual program of shorts circulated by Apollo Cinema. Now the small audience for small films can actually see these possible award winners.

This year’s program includes three previewable animated films, including Polish animator Tomek Baginski’s Cathedral, a macabre vignette that looks a bit like a Heavy Metal cover come to life. In Rocks, a well-made but thematically routine computer-animation piece by Germans Chris Stenner and Heidi Wittlinger, two stone creatures who are perched above a picturesque mountain valley observe the rise of urban civilization. Although more traditional in look, origin, and sound—it’s hand-drawn, based on a old Japanese story, and scored to shamisen music—Koji Yamamura’s Mt. Head is thematically similar to Rocks. When a cherry tree grows out of a man’s round head, his pate is overrun by cherry-blossom viewers whose behavior gives the lie to Japanese culture’s purported reverence for nature.

Three of the four live-action shorts turn on attempts to attain or retain love, but the two shorter ones exist simply to serve their twist endings. In Philippe Orreindy and Thomas Gaudin’s I’ll Wait for the Next One, a man boards a Lyon subway car and makes a pitch for true romance. (To appreciate this premise, it helps to know that French subway and commuter trains are full of people delivering such spiels, although they’re usually looking for cash rather than

love.) Much more amusing is Dirk Beliën and Anja Daelemans’ Fait d’Hiver, in which a Belgian man stuck in traffic uses his new mobile phone to call home, with absurdly drastic consequences.

The longest of the films, Martin Strange Hansen and Mie Andreasen’s 29-minute This Charming Man, has a sitcom setup: Unemployed Lars assumes another identity to get close to Ida, who doesn’t like him the way he is. This routine device is deepened, however, by the fact that Lars poses as an Arab immigrant—a ruse that gives him a tour of Danish racism. Steven Pasvolsky and Joe Weatherstone’s Inja, an Australian film set in apartheid-era South Africa, has a similar theme but no redeeming wit: A black boy cries when his white boss turns a puppy against him; years later, when the grown dog and grown-up boy face off, the white man’s cruelty catches up with him. Even so, this skillful but schematic parable is earnest enough to win one of those statuettes. CP