Last year, the in-person Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, set to begin March 12, was one of the first events in the region canceled due to COVID-19 and a sign of what was to come. In the weeks that followed, organizers were able to scrape together a mini-festival of films available virtually—another sign of what was to come. A year later, though, the festival is back in a virtual format with a robust set of shorts and feature films that track the beauty and precariousness of the Earth at a crucial moment for humans and the environment. It also includes live screenings and a welcome message from Jane Fonda. There are a number of free screenings; paid programs cost $10, and an all-access pass is $45. Below, City Paper’s staff picked out some of the festival’s highlights.
The Falconer (2020)
US, directed by Annie Kaempfer
The Falconer follows Rodney Stotts, one of the few Black master falconers in the United States, as he works toward his goal of building a bird sanctuary. The documentary is an intimate look into the life of a loner who is devoted to caring for birds of prey and sharing his knowledge with kids who are struggling like he did. “This is not a job for me,” Stotts tells a group of young men and women in the National Guard’s Capital Guardian Youth ChalleNGe Academy. “This is my passion. This is what saved me because there’s no way I should still be here. When I was shot, I was told I wasn’t going to make it.” Stotts describes his trajectory from selling drugs in D.C. as a teenager, to watching his mother use—and eventually quit—crack cocaine, to working with the Earth Conservation Corps, to coping with the tragic, and sometimes violent, deaths of his friends and loved ones on his way to becoming a master falconer. The film weaves recent footage of Stotts’ life with clips from his days working in the first cohort of the Earth Conservation Corps, a group that helped bring back bald eagles to the nation’s capital. Stotts’ story is one of redemption: for his birds, for the barn he transforms into a raptor center, for the kids he seeks to help, and for himself. Available March 19 to 28. —Mitch Ryals
The Long Coast (2020)
US, directed by Ian Cheney
“I would really rather feel bad in Maine than feel good anywhere else,” essayist, author, and longtime Maine resident E.B. White wrote to a friend in a 1937 letter. Nearly a century later, the Mainers viewers meet in director Ian Cheney’s The Long Coast embody White’s ethos. Even as they describe horrific accidents at sea, warming waters, or depressed groundfish populations, each of them speaks of their devotion to making a living on the cool shores of the North Atlantic. The experiences of lobstermen and oystermen feature prominently—it’s a documentary about Maine, so how could they not—but what stands out in Cheney’s film are the people whose jobs intersect with the water in unexpected ways. The immigrants who work at lobster processing plants, the hairdresser pulling double duty as an eel farmer, the musician from Togo serving local seafood in his restaurant, and the hardy fishermen harvesting lobster bait share stories about their devotion to the rural, rocky coast of Maine that will surprise vacationers who don’t venture north of Ogunquit or Portland.
At the heart of The Long Coast is the change coming to the coast. As the climate warms and factories that once sustained communities close, the people in the film must figure out if and how they will change in response. Opinions on innovation, be it a salmon farm or oysters created entirely indoors, vary, but all of them refer back to a desire to preserve this special place. In an epilogue shot during the pandemic, that innovation is already on view. Available March 19 to 28. —Caroline Jones
Nuclear Forever (2020)
Germany and France, directed by Carsten Rau
Nuclear waste and radioactivity often inspire frantic (even hysterical) rhetoric in the U.S.—there’s a long legacy of Cold War fears and domestic accidents, like Three Mile Island, to grapple with. But Nuclear Forever is an understated film. It opens on the calm, orderly protocols that go along with decommissioning a nuclear plant—specifically KKW Greifswald in northeast Germany—and a scientist telling us about his job. Later, bucolic shots of the German countryside are punctuated by the water vapor rising from twin cooling towers in the background. And as we visit sites that are or were home to nuclear power plants, it’s not with a sense of dread or anger: Instead, locals express their sadness and disappointment at having their local plants decommissioned—“It felt like something was taken from us,” one woman says. Others decry the post-2011 fear of nuclear power prompted by the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown. The documentary also acknowledges the environmental and human damage of coal mining and burning and the pressing energy needs of industrialized societies. But it persuasively points out that there is currently no guaranteed safe, long-term storage solution for nuclear waste. A nuclear power plant, it says, can function for about four decades, maybe five; as we see, it can take longer than that for the waste produced to be safely removed from a decommissioned plant, and despite that, new plants are still being built. Nuclear Forever isn’t a dramatic alarm—just a quiet, persistent, hour-and-a-half long warning. Available March 19 to 28. —Emma Sarappo
What Happened to the Bees? (2019)
Mexico, directed by Adriana Otero and Robin Canul
What Happened to the Bees?, a feature documentary focused on beekeeping Mayan communities in the Mexican states of Campeche and Yucatán, is an experience for the senses. Dramatic aerial shots pan to reveal clear-cut holes in the forest where trees were razed to grow soybeans; hands mix and manhandle masa and mud; images of daily life are punctuated by a persistent hum, either from the bees themselves or from birds and other insects. Most mesmerizing of all are the shots of honey. The substance drips, oozes, and flows effortlessly from a variety of containers and in an assortment of colors. Its sticky beauty is especially poignant because the bees aren’t making as much of it anymore. Instead, they’re getting lost far from home or dying off—one jaw-dropping shot shows a carpet of dead bees lying still on the ground. And ultimately, the documentary argues, while the cultivation of genetically modified soybeans in previously forested areas and the use of pesticides and herbicides are harming the bees, the issue is rooted in the violation of Indigenous land rights and agricultural practices. “For us, this is genocide,” one man explains. What’s happening to the bees can’t be fixed by the replacement of one crop or one chemical; an end to monoculture, Indigenous land sovereignty, and a holistic understanding of apiculture are required. Available March 19 to 28. —Emma Sarappo
Little Forest (2014)
Japan, directed by Mori Junichi
A four-hour film about living off the land, seasonal cooking, and unrelenting self-sufficiency in the Japanese countryside has a soothing effect. You won’t be on the edge of your seat—you’ll be curled under a blanket watching a young female protagonist weather all four seasons in Komori in the Tōhoku region. Marvel as Ichiko tends to a resplendent, sprawling family farm with confidence and attentiveness. She detests carelessness, especially if she detects it within her own actions. The cyclical nature of the agrarian lifes suits her. As she battles humidity, pests, and bad weather, Ichiko shows that she lives with nature, not in spite of it. She knows what to plant, when to harvest, and how to use her small kitchen to make elaborate meals out of the ingredients she’s grown or butchered.
Each season’s hour-long episode is divided up into five or more dishes like natto mochi, silver berry jam, walnut rice, and trout grilled over charcoal. Mostly, she eats alone. Ichiko’s mother left the house five years ago without a trace. Her father isn’t in the picture. Occasionally she’ll cook for her best friend, an unrequited love interest, or a gaggle of gossiping old women as she clings to the memories and recipes that her mother passed along before vanishing. They made Nutella and Worcestershire sauce from scratch, using only ingredients they could pluck with their own hands, and Ichiko wasn’t aware they were inspired by commercialized products until she made the occasional 30-minute bike ride to the closest convenience store. Ichiko, however, reaches a breaking point as winter inches toward spring. She’s slinging bags of rice around while lamenting her isolated life. “You have a family, you don’t know how hard this is for me,” she grumbles. Off to the city she goes. The movie, which is based on a manga series, concludes back in Komori after five years. Ichiko is there, but is she a resident of the village or merely a visitor in her old hometown? Part 1, Summer/Autumn, is available March 19 to 22. Part 2, Winter/Spring, will be available to stream in April. —Laura Hayes
Austria, Romania, and Germany, directed by Monica Lazurean-Gorgan, Michaela Kirst, and Ebba Sinzinger
If the words “environmental documentary” conjure either preachy issue primers or smooth, British-accented narration over beautiful cinematography, think again. Wood, a new documentary about illegal logging, makes frequent use of hidden cameras, false names, and disguises. The film follows Alexander von Bismarck from D.C.’s own Environmental Investigation Agency as he tries to expose illegal logging operations in Romania. The eco-spy mission makes for some tense moments and high stakes, but also some more pedestrian ones. The film’s title doesn’t lie: It’s a lot of wood. Wood is most interesting when it thinks about who is to blame for such a systemic and widespread problem, and who is responsible and capable of changing things. And it’s most effective when it shows the people directly affected by the illegal logging. All in all, Wood makes for an worthwhile watch: an important subject presented in a way that will keep viewers engaged. Available March 19 to 28. —Will Warren