The Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, in its 20th year, gives nearly as much attention to the built environment as the natural one. So it’s fitting that one of the opening-day offerings is a documentary that considers a controversial development project and a formerly pristine location, as well as a guy who keeps making noise about coming to Washington: Donald Trump.
“You’ve Been Trumped” (7 p.m. Tuesday at E Street Cinema) considers the ostentatious golf-course development Trump is building in Scotland, on a section of coastline known for an ecologically significant natural dune area. “We’ve saved the dunes,” Trump announces in the movie, shortly before his workers bulldoze them. The developer is just as ruthless with the neighbors who refused to sell their property to him, cutting off their water and power and threatening to seize their land by the British equivalent of eminent domain. This polemical film is clearly on the side of holdouts, but it’s hard to imagine how the story could have been spun to make Trump look good.
Perhaps the angriest of the films offered for preview — and the only one in which the director is arrested for his efforts — “You’ve Been Trumped” is among 180 entries in this year’s festival. More than half the movies are local debuts, and at least nine are world premieres. The films include features and shorts, documentaries and animation, children’s fare and grown-up material. There will be nearly 200 special guests, including 75 filmmakers.
The fest commences Tuesday at noon with “The Broken Moon,” screening at the National Geographic Society. Set in the imposing western Himalayas, the movie considers the plight of ethnic Tibetans whose nomadic life is under ecological stress. The moon may not be broken, but something is: The area has experienced the most dramatic temperature increases on the planet, and the dried-out grasslands no longer provide sufficient water or food to support traditional pastoral life. One of the young men is considering a move to the exhaust-choked city, and the movie shows a culture where people weave yak-hair fabric but have access to solar panels and satellite phones.
A different sort of culture clash is the crux of Mark Lewis’s 1988 “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History,” an eco-disaster classic that’s shown previously at the event. This year, fans of the South American critters that were catastrophically introduced to Australia can see the director’s 2011 sequel, “Cane Toads: The Conquest.” This light-hearted ode to the toads, who are incredibly prolific and apparently unstoppable, features both enemies and friends of the voracious (and poisonous) amphibians. The latter include some Aussie dogs, who’ve learned that licking a toxic toad produces the canine equivalent of an acid trip. Or at least that’s what this playful movie claims.
Unlike cane toads, India’s wild tigers are not proliferating. Some of the reasons for that are explained in “Broken Tail: A Tiger’s Last Journey,” in which a small film crew follows the likely path of a young male tiger who left the Ranthambhore wildlife reserve. It’s a sad story, but the astonishingly intimate footage of Broken Tail with his mother and brother as the boys grow from cubs to adults balances the melancholy.
As always, the Environmental Film Festival mixes artful works, such as “The Broken Moon” and “Broken Tail,” with ones that are notable more for content than style. These include “In Organic We Trust,” a jaunty first-person tour of this burgeoning sector of the food business. The movie explains what “organic” is and isn’t, dispelling the misunderstandings revealed in a few too many person-in-the-street interviews.
“Symphony of the Soil” ends up on much the same turf as “In Organic We Trust” but begins by exploring glaciers and volcanoes in the company of enthusiastic academics. Dirt is “the interface between geology and biology,” one says, and the film’s conclusion is that geology and biology aren’t interfacing so well these days. As the world’s population balloons, agricultural land is being lost to erosion and salinization.
An unabashed call to arms, “Shattered Sky” recalls the ozone-layer hole caused by CFCs and insists that the United States should attack global climate change with the same vigor applied to that much simpler problem. The more narrowly focused “Carbon for Water” extols a free-market approach to emissions: Companies can earn carbon credits by distributing water filters in Africa, thus reducing the cutting and burning of trees to boil water to purify it.
Three other films take a more explicitly political approach. “Cape Spin: An American Power Struggle” recounts the battle over an offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound, which brought self-identified environmentalists to both sides of the issue. “Deafening Silence” is an account of life under Burma’s military dictatorship that focuses, in part, on ecological costs. “A Fierce Green Fire” is nothing less than a history of eco-activism from the late-19th to the early-21st century. Veteran Environmental Film Festival attendees are likely to be familiar with much of what this movie covers, but it’s a cogent refresher course.
The architectural documentaries include “Biophiliac Design” and “How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?” The former draws on the ideas of such precursors as John Ruskin and Frank Lloyd Wright to laud a contemporary style of “green” architecture that seems heavily suburban. The latter is a reverential study of British architect Norman Foster, whose ecological instincts are somewhat offset by his taste for grand, intrusive structures.
Among the filmmakers scheduled to attend this year’s event are Ken Burns, offering a sneak preview of his “Dust Bowl,” and Lucy Walker, who will present a retrospective of her work and receive the festival’s Polly Krakora Award. Walker’s latest film is “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” which contemplates the devastation visited on Japan a year ago. In that country, the cherry blossom doesn’t simply denote spring; it symbolizes ephemerality, a quality shared by tigers and dunes — but not, it seems, cane toads.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
runs Tuesday through March 25 at more than 60 venues throughout the area. Most screenings are free. Call 202-342-2564 or go to dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org.