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Since the dawn of time, mankind has had a complicated relationship with the natural world. This love-hate conflict has been expressed on film in everything from Werner Herzog’s cautionary tales to David DeCoteau’s talking animal movies. Neither director is on tap for the 26th annual Environmental Film Festival, but with 101 films from 28 countries, its wide-ranging slate issues dire warnings about the future of our planet and tugs at your heart-strings with adorable animals—sometimes in the same movie.
Notable premieres include the family-friendly sequel, March of the Penguins 2 (screening March 17 at the National Geographic Society), and for those concerned about the regional environment, High Tide in Dorchester (March 22 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts), which looks at the effects of climate change on the Chesapeake Bay community of Dorchester County, Md. The program features the return of last year’s acclaimed documentary Jane (March 19 at the National Geographic Society), about the chimpanzee research of Jane Goodall, and a repertory screening of The Sacrifice (March 18 at the National Gallery of Art), director Andrei Tarkovsky’s apocalyptic 1986 film about a father who makes a deal with God to stop a nuclear holocaust. City Paper sampled a handful of this year’s features, all of which provide a level of education and wonder in nature.
The Last AnimalsDirected by Kate Brooks
Photojournalist Kate Brooks has covered the war-torn Middle East and the fractured lives of Russian orphans, but with her first film as a director, she trains her lens on such endangered species as the Northern white rhino, of which, as the film begins, there are only five left on Earth. It’s probably not a spoiler to say that the movie doesn’t have a happy ending. Brooks follows conservationists, scientists, and activists in an exposé of poachers that kill rhino for the supposed medical properties of their horns, and elephants for the mere decorative value of their ivory tusks. The film’s mission overlaps considerably with the 2017 documentary Trophy, but with one huge difference; while the directors of that film about big-game hunting were willing to argue that the commercial value of such animals just might save their lives, Brooks refuses to see the creatures as mere commodities. While a bit unfocused, The Last Animals is full of heartbreak and drama.
Thursday, March 15, 7 p.m., National Geographic Society.
Ama-San Directed by Cláudia Varejão
For centuries, the ama (“women of the sea”) have made a livelihood out of free-diving into the ocean, without any breathing apparatus, and gathering sea urchins, abalone, and other seafood. With the patient character development and shot rhythms of a fiction feature, Portuguese director Cláudia Varejão documents a group of women from the fishing village of Wagu as they work together and play together, enjoying the lifelong bonds they’ve formed on their oceanic expeditions. The women take their harvest to market, spend time with their families, and sing old songs about their trade. Although we’re taken on several of the ama-san’s underwater explorations, the real immersion is in the lives of these women, some of them veteran divers well in their sixties—one of whom still rides a motorcycle to work. As the elders pass their knowledge on to a younger generation of women, Ama-San shows us the wonder of nature not just in its watery treasure (whose bounty, as one senior ama-san notes, has diminished over the years), but in the character and spirit of those who have dedicated their lives to the sea.
Friday, March 16, 6:30 p.m., Japan Information and Culture Center, Embassy of Japan.
Bird of Prey Directed by Eric Liner
Per square mile, the Philippines is the most biodiverse region on Earth. Its 7,107 islands are host to such rare and stunning creatures, like the predator formerly known as the monkey-eating eagle. This majestic cousin of our national bird was rechristened the Philippine Eagle by then-President Ferdinand Marcos, who oversaw the deforestation that devastated much of the bird’s natural habitat. Director Eric Liner follows cinematographer Neil Rettig, who took the first footage of the eagle in the wild in 1977, as he returns to the Philippines in search of another nest. Bird of Prey demonstrates that time moves on, and not just for the natural world; the movie’s first images are of an old 16mm projector, and Rettig, now 35 years older, doesn’t find it as easy to climb the tall trees that provide the best vantage point for his state-of-the-art digital camera. As camera technology has developed, so have the resources that might save these birds, fewer than 800 of which remain today. Despite moments of tragedy, the film’s resilient subjects—winged and otherwise—are inspiring.
Sunday, March 18, 7 p.m., National Geographic Society.
Donkeyote Directed by Chico Pereira
The festival slate is naturally packed with documentaries about the animal kingdom; but as often as not, these films tell stories of animals and their relationship to man—their saviors, enemies and sometimes, their friends. Director Chico Pereira’s film, which premiered at AFI Docs last year, is a character study that follows the adventures of his 73-year old uncle. Manolo walks the countryside in the south of Spain accompanied by his donkey Gorrión (“Sparrow”) and his faithful dog Zafrana. His quixotic dream is to take his four-legged friends on a trip to walk the Trail of Tears through the Native American Cherokee Nation. But his doctor, worried about Manolo’s history of heart attacks, is understandably concerned, and making cargo arrangements to transport a donkey across the ocean turns out to be an obstacle more formidable than windmills (which do appear in a few on-the-nose shots). Cinematographer Julian Schwanitz uses a wide-angle lens to take in the stunning landscape behind Manolo’s long walks, but the camera really loves to linger on Gorrión as he quietly observes Manolo, and, in one remarkable moment, tries to console his master, frustrated that his dream may never come true.
Sunday, March 25, 7 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre & Cultural Center.
The Guardians Directed by Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran
This feature from D.C.-area directors Ben Crosbie and Tessa Moran begins like many other conservation documentaries, immersing us in the world of fluttering creatures decked in elegant black and orange. Centered on the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Donaciano Ojeda, Mexico, the movie explains that the monarchs, which once numbered a billion, are now down to about 33 million, in large part due to deforestation. Soon the filmmakers pivot to the human side of endangered species—farmers whose livelihood depends on the forests they’re trying to save, and residents who aren’t allowed to fell trees without a permit and are fed up with smugglers who cart away freshly cut logs with impunity. The Guardians primarily refers to the armed men who keep watch over the forest, but the title also resonates with a group of young people learning folk dances, the girls wearing skirts that frill out not unlike the spread of a butterfly’s wings; by paying homage to the monarchs, they guard their spirit and heritage. The movie charts the farmer’s plight and the migration of the monarchs, at one point stopping in Maryland’s Cobb Island on their return South in autumn.
Sunday, March 18, 7 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.
Rat Film Directed by Theo Anthony
A robotic voice narrates footage of a drag race with a creation myth as spare violin music agitates the soundtrack. Inner-city Baltimore is transformed into a video game. Vermin struggle to escape a trash can as the narrator explains that the adult Norway rat can jump 32 inches, but that a Baltimore City trash can is 34 inches high. The first film from Baltimore director Theo Anthony resembles the essayistic work of Chris Marker (Sans Soleil) more than any other nature documentary, so the Hirshhorn is a perfect fit for a free screening of this art-house study. Anthony looks at the history of Baltimore through its rat population, which reveals discriminatory housing practices. As Baltimore City rat exterminator Edmund explains early in the movie, “Ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore—always been a people problem.” This fascinating, unconventional film skitters among human subjects that sometimes hunt, sometimes breed, and sometimes befriend the furry creatures.
Sunday, March 18, 2 p.m., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Rodents of Unusual Size Directed by Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer
It weighs 20 pounds, has orange teeth and webbed feet—and if you live in coastal Louisiana, it’s probably on your lawn. Ned McIlhenny, son of the Tabasco tycoon, brought nutria from South America intending to spark a fur trade during the Great Depression. When the invasive species, which had no natural predators, escaped into the swamp, the population was kept in check by a bounty on their pelts. But when fur fell out of favor, the buck-toothed varmints had nothing to stop them from taking over the land, and they chewed their way through the wetlands and left the coastline more vulnerable to hurricanes. Directors Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer use cheeky animation to tell the story of the persistent creatures, but more importantly, they talk to people like Thomas Gonzalez, a fisherman with a Bayou accent so enchanting you’d be happy to hear him read a phone book. Trapping isn’t the only way to deal with nutria; others attempt to revive the fur trade, and since this is Louisiana, chefs such as jazz musician Kermit Ruffins turn it into stew. You can even keep one as a pet, though keep those giant teeth away from the furniture.
Wednesday, March 21, 7 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.
Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet OudolfDirected by Thomas Piper
“Is he following you?” “I’m leading him.” This is how Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf explains the trailing camera crew to a grocery store clerk in this 2017 documentary. It’s an on-the-nose description of what may be Oudolf’s best-known project, New York’s High Line. Director Thomas Piper travels with the landscape designer to his signature creations—examples of what is called the New Perennials movement– and observes him as he plans his next project, choosing specimens as a painter selects colors. “Plants are characters I compose with and put on stage,” he says. But there’s an untold story that lies outside the scope of this 75-minute profile; the success of the High Line has drastically changed the commercial landscape underneath its finely-manicured trails, and many consider it a tourist trap that has driven out the mom-and-pop businesses that have long given Manhattan its character. If Oudolf‘s work has such an effect in New York, have his other projects led to similar repercussions?
Saturday, March 17, 4:30 p.m., National Gallery of Art.
Dusk ChorusDirected by Nika Saravanja
Numero Group, the record label best known for vinyl reissues of rare R&B and punk legends such as Hüsker Dü, recently published an app that collects Syntonic Research’s landmark environments series of recordings, originally released in the ’60s and ’70s, that captured the varied sounds of nature. How have such nature recordings evolved? In this hour-long documentary, director Nika Saravanja observes sound artist David Monacchi as he takes state-of-the-art equipment to record the biodiverse forests of Yasunì, Ecuador. The results of Monacchi’s expeditions are fascinating, and examination of these natural soundwaves reveals how each species has its own place on the organic bandwidth. If we were just provided with audio and overlaid titles explaining the work, this would be essential viewing. But the film gets bogged down whenever it follows Monacchi delivering a dry lecture or pondering his own work. While other films in the festival strike a perfect balance between humans and their relationship with the natural world, Dusk Chorus makes the fatal mistake of glorifying man over nature.
Sunday, March 18. 4 p.m. Landmark E Street Cinema.
Paris: A Wild StoryDirected by Frédéric Fougea
A family of five travels to the City of Light for a vacation with a glorious view; this is, after all, a family of geese. Director Frédéric Fougea interweaves the stories of Paris wildlife—the furry and feathered kind—as he takes us into the sky with such creatures as the Asian goose, the peregrine falcon, and the gypsy moth, and in hidden crevices where baby foxes play and scavenge for food. Dazzling birds-eye and underground footage brings us impossibly close to these urban creatures, each of which leads a highly-scripted, plainly manipulative, and finally irresistible adventure—and, since this is Paris, after all, romance. As suits a metropolis where one of the most notable greenspaces, the Bois du Boulogne, was man-made, the bustling city looks unusually spotless, save for the rusty tin cans that make playthings for the baby foxes. And you can thank computer animation for some of these incredible animal adventures (the film credits a bee-swarm simulator). But if you’re looking for the most adorable animals in this year’s Environmental Film Festival, your search ends here.
March 20. 7 p.m. Embassy of France.