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The D.C. Environmental Film Festival starts today

The Environmental Film Festival isn't ideally named. It sounds like a movie fest for tree-hugging eco-activists, when really the stellar line-up of 200 films -- most of them free -- tell urgent stories about shady politicians, cancer-causing chemicals and the impact of technology on our collective happiness.

DamNation producer and underwater photographer Matt Stoecker emerges from the waters below the former Elwha Dam in a scene from "DamNation." (Photo by Ben Knight)

One of the dominant themes of this year's festival, which starts today and runs through the 30th, is innovations that seemed like a good idea at the time but have ultimately done damage to people, animals and the earth. Here's a sampling:

"Toxic Hot Seat" (Screens at 7 p.m. March 26 at the Carnegie Institution for Science; free)

This fascinating HBO documentary unravels how flame retardants ended up in our couches, creating a major health risk to people, especially firefighters who inhaled the toxic fumes and have been getting cancer at an alarming rate. The movie will likely leave viewers enraged, especially when they realize who was behind the push for flame retardants -- the tobacco industry -- but also terrified, given that these chemicals are just a small portion of the unregulated, untested synthetics that surround us on a daily basis. Speaking of which...

"The Human Experiment" (Screens at noon Friday at the MLK Library; free)

Even the title of this movie sounds like a horror movie, and that's exactly what it is. After watching it, you might just find yourself poring over the ingredients in your household cleaners, cosmetics and anything you eat or drink out of. Sean Penn narrates this movie that follows activists who believe there are links between the tens of thousands of chemicals that surround us -- and have never been tested for safety -- and the skyrocketing incidence of cancer, autism and reproductive problems. But can individuals overcome the powerful chemical lobby? It isn't going to be easy.

"DamNation" (Screens at 7 p.m. March 30 at Carnegie Institution for Science; $20)

A movie about dams? Yawn, right? Only this documentary, by longtime friends Ben Knight and Travis Rummel, is both exquisitely shot and powerfully told. The filmmakers look at the history of dams in the U.S. and talk to some of the activists who seek to break down some of the barriers that aren't doing much to help the human population and are most certainly killing the fish population. The documentary even follows along on some awe-inspiring civil disobedience as a group of activists spraypaint scissors and a dotted line on the face of a 200-foot dam.

"Happiness" (Screens at 7 p.m. on March 27 at E Street Cinema; $10)

Thomas Balmes, the director behind the documentary "Babies," won a cinematography award at Sundance for this movie about yak herders and monks living in a remote village in Bhutan. The filmmaker follows along as a boy and man travel to a nearby city -- a first for the boy -- and buy something unheard of: a television.

"Magic of the Snowy Owl" (Screens at 1 p.m. Saturday at the National Wildlife Visitor Center; free)

Anyone who fell in love with D.C.'s snowy owl, which is currently recovering at the National Zoo after a run-in with a Metro bus, might be interested in this free screening. Sure, you could watch the whole thing -- an episode of PBS's "Nature" -- online, but then you wouldn't get to check out a live owl display. Steve Huy, of research group Project SNOWstorm, will answer questions from 10:30 a.m. to noon.

Washington-area native Stephanie Merry covers movies and pop culture for the Post.



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