Growth of Environmental Film Festival was only natural

Hitting the road: Isabelle Huppert stars in
Hitting the road: Isabelle Huppert stars in "Home," one of the fiction films in the otherwise documentary-heavy festival that begins Tuesday night. (Courtesy Of Jer├┤me Prebois)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Usually when critics can't get DVDs of an upcoming movie, it's not a good sign. But in the case of "GasLand," the documentary that opens Washington's Environmental Film Festival on Tuesday, it's an indication of how in-demand the festival's offerings have become in the event's 18th year.

Josh Fox's personal documentary chronicling and critiquing his encounters with the burgeoning natural gas industry won a special jury prize after making its debut at Sundance in January. The film, which begins with Fox getting a letter with an offer to sell his property for natural gas drilling, is getting closer to being picked up by a distributor. Obeying the custom of such transactions, "GasLand's" producers preferred to save reviews for when the movie opens in theaters.

On the want-to-see scale, "GasLand" tops the list, along with two other upcoming documentaries in the festival, "Sweetgrass," about a group of Montana shepherds, and "Fresh," about new trends in farming.

And happily, there are plenty of poetic, enlightening and provocative films playing throughout the 13-day event to make this one of the strongest EFF lineups in recent memory. More than 150 features, documentaries and short films will be shown in theaters and cultural institutions throughout the city, many of them focusing on food production, actually. One of the strongest features in that program is "Colony," a documentary by Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell about the ongoing mystery known as colony collapse disorder, wherein millions of bees have died or disappeared from their hives in recent years. In this sensitive, exquisitely crafted group portrait, the filmmakers focus on the hardy people who raise bees and cart them from California to Florida to the East Coast, where the little buzzers pollinate almond, orange and cranberry crops. Ultimately, "Colony" focuses on one family in California whose steady work ethic, deep sense of communal spirit and fiercely protective mother mirrors the queen-dominated hives they lovingly tend. Filmed with the elegant attention to composition worthy of Terrence Malick, "Colony" deserves to join "GasLand" in the distribution swarm.

Family bonds form a similar riveting central focus of three of the festival's best offerings: In "To the Sea," a 5-year-old boy name Natan, who lives with his mother in Rome, joins his father, Jorge, for a visit at the latter's home near a coastal reef in Mexico. As if in a dream wrought by Mark Twain and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Natan plunges into a world of natural beauty and adventure, with Jorge serving as a lithe, charismatic guide as the two snorkel, spear lobsters, befriend a wild bird and bond against the stunning backdrop of Jorge's wild, watery world.

"Araya," a 1959 film being shown in a sparkling new print, serves as a perfect if unlikely bookend to the quiet rhythms of "To the Sea." Margot Benacerraf's groundbreaking documentary about three families living on the coast of Venezuela recalls the beguiling mix of anthropology and poetics of the 1964 revolutionary film "I Am Cuba." Here, the families harvest the salt, fish and clay in lives that combine grueling labor and a symbiotic connection to the land and water around them. Unfolding without narration as a series of stark, arresting images and indigenous music, "Araya" transcends categories of fiction and nonfiction, as it simultaneously celebrates and mourns a disappearing way of life. (Benacerraf had to cancel her scheduled appearance with "Araya" due to illness.)

A sense of loss also animates the fiction film "Home," although in director Ursula Meier's hands, the drama slowly gives way to psychological terror. Isabelle Huppert stars as Marthe, the matriarch of a family living next to an abandoned highway somewhere in Switzerland. When construction begins on the road, the family's life is upended, leading to increasingly desperate and unsettling acts. Meier does a superb job of depicting a happy, edge-dwelling life on society's margins, as well as its darker shadows. (And Huppert, who has made such a fascinating study of women driven to extremes, delivers yet another uncompromising, fearless performance.)

For the ultimate in edge-dwelling, though, filmmakers can't do better than the legendary Manhattan-based red-tailed hawk Pale Male, who famously took up residence above a posh Fifth Avenue window back in 1991. In "The Legend of Pale Male," Belgian Frederic Lilien tells the bird's extraordinary story -- involving Woody Allen, Mary Tyler Moore, several mates, gaggles of chicks, an eviction and a real estate victory -- while interweaving the saga with his own personal growth. If Lilien's voice-over intrudes with unwelcome notes of solipsism, his film still manages to pay homage to New York at its quirkiest and most spirited, and abrim with natural wonder.

Directors Fox, Gunn and Lilien will be present at their films' screenings; other personal appearances include Pete Docter, who will answer questions after a presentation of his recent Oscar-winning film, "Up," and the literary giant Peter Matthiessen, who Tuesday night will deliver a lecture at the National Geographic Society about the impact of climate change on arctic indigenous cultures. (The documentary "Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries" will be shown on March 20 at the National Portrait Gallery.)

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