In 1970, Americans marked the first Earth Day with coast-to-coast rallies, which led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. But some argue change really got underway two years later when that famously stunning blue marble photo was taken from Apollo 17. For the first time, the world's inhabitants could see something special—the possibility of the planet and its people.
Perhaps that's why the Portland EcoFilm Festival is so powerful on the local level. When we witness vivid, moving images of nature and the environment, we're more motivated to become advocates.
This year, the Earth Day showcase contains its fair share of wheelhouse selections. The Woman Who Loves Giraffes (2018) documents the life of zoologist Anne Innis Dagg, who broke gender barriers with her field research. Landscape Film (2018) basks in the vaunted aesthetics and botanical inspirations of Brazilian landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx, who has more than 50 plants named in his honor. And Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) is a famously naturalist entry from the Japanese master who gave the world Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.
But some of the further-afield choices in the festival's seven-year run have come from thinking creatively about cinema and the environment. In 2017, for instance, the festival screened the iconic Jack Nicholson film Chinatown. And while it's best remembered as a noir to end all noirs and for some horrifying nasal violence, the detective story's undercurrent is the Los Angeles water wars of the 1930s.
"We've expanded the conversation as we've expanded our audience," says festival director Dawn Smallman, pointing to Nestlé's attempts to secure Columbia River Gorge water rights as a tie-in to the 1974 classic.
Out of all four featured movies in the upcoming lineup, To Kid or Not to Kid (2018) forges the most intriguing connections with the festival's central concerns. The personal and roving documentary explores the pressures women—including filmmaker Maxine Trump—face to have children. There are myriad reasons 1 in 5 women in the United States choose to be "child free," Trump says. Some are clearly ecological.
"The world being overpopulated was part of my [personal] decision-making process," Trump says. "According to science, having less children is the best thing you can do in regards to climate change, and few green organizations want to deal with this elephant in the room."
That's about the extent of what To Kid or Not to Kid explicitly raises regarding pronatalism, or cultural coercion to reproduce, as an environmental adversary. Trump frames her project as a search for a conversation—a similar style of adventuring into the unknown as her 2012 documentary Musicwood. That film, which previously screened at the EcoFilm Festival, sought an unlikely dialogue between oppressed Native American loggers and acoustic guitar companies.
Trump's new documentary suggests generational eco-footprints have deeper psychological effects than the frighteningly simple math of population and resources. Knotty issues arise around humanity's inability to impartially contemplate its own existence. "Do I want kids?" is a complicated enough question. "Is the future better without little versions of myself?" thrusts most into therapy territory or, more optimistically, in the headspace for a long post-film discussion.
"My real aim with the film is just giving people space to have words," Trump says. "That was my problem at the beginning. I didn't know how to talk about this."
As fraught and urgent as the discussions around environmental protection often are, there's a decided lack of doomsday sentiment to this weekend's selections. Festival director Smallman was conscious not to program four cinematic crises for a slate featuring historically significant nature lovers and the reveries of Kurosawa. Portland's Choro da Alegria will perform its cheerful take on Brazilian ragtime before Friday's screening of Landscape Film, and Smallman says she chose Dreams specifically as a bit of kaleidoscopic "eye candy" for 4/20.
"As younger generations are steeped with challenges, they will hear constant messaging about climate change and pollution and declining wildlife; those are all really important," Smallman says. "It's equally as important to understand that people advocate for what they love."
SEE IT: The Portland EcoFilm Festival Earth Day Weekend Film Showcase screens at Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., portlandecofilmfest.org, on Friday-Sunday, April 19-21. Showtimes vary. $7-$9 per film.