How Green Is My Screen?

Posted March 10, 2009 at 4:06pm

A year ago, restaurateur Nora Pouillon was the gracious hostess of a luncheon for the folks involved in the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, which starts this week. Now she’s the star of one of the films.

Pouillon — an Austrian immigrant whose organic eatery, Restaurant Nora, was the first of its kind in D.C. when it opened in 1999 — is considered by filmmakers Joan Murray and Sandy Cannon-Brown to be a pioneer in the organic and holistic living movement.

As a D.C. resident and participant in the film festival,

Cannon-Brown had been a patron of Restaurant Nora, but said the more she learned about Pouillon, the more interested she was in making the film.

“Nora!— was Murray’s brainchild, but Cannon-Brown was happy to help tell Pouillon’s story.

“The primary thing is that she has been living an organic life, well, forever,— Cannon-Brown said. “From the day she got into the food business, she wanted to do things organically.—

The documentary is about Pouillon’s transition from Austria to the United States and her commitment to sustainable living, as well as other aspects of the organic movement.

“She’s someone you can admire because she lived what she believed and she shared it with everybody,— Cannon-Brown said.

“Nora!— makes its film festival debut and world premiere on March 22 at the Carnegie Institution. Cannon-Brown said unveiling the film at this venue is appropriate because Pouillon lives and works in Washington, and has a history with this particular festival.

The 12-day event begins today and closes March 22. The theme of this year’s festival is the oceans, although the 141 films that will be shown cover a wide spectrum.

“We have a broad definition of what constitutes an environmental film,— said Peter O’Brien, executive director of the festival. “We’re trying to reach out and show films that have a unique take on environmental issues.—

Water, Water Everywhere

Films are selected by festival staff, in conjunction with representatives from the venues where the movies are played. For example, works on green buildings and green neighborhoods will be shown at the National Building Museum.

The ocean theme was developed in this way, according to O’Brien. The Museum of Natural History, with its newly opened Sant Ocean Hall, is a major partner of the event, he said. The two interests worked together to incorporate ocean issues into the festival.

“Oceans really are becoming a necessary focus,— O’Brien said. He cited the film “A Sea Change,— which deals with ocean acidification. It will play at the Museum of Natural History on March 14. This subject is not widely understood, O’Brien said, including it among his festival recommendations.

Another aquatic-themed documentary is “RiverSmart,— a film by David Eckert that highlights ways the D.C. government and residents can battle pollution caused by sewage in Rock Creek and the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

A former resident of Falls Church, Va., Eckert has dedicated his filmmaking career in recent years to educating people on environmental issues.

“I don’t do investigative questions or go looking for problems, I’m just trying to figure out how we can solve them,— Eckert said.

He was approached in 2006 by the Low Impact Development Center, a nonprofit focusing on sustainable design, to make a DVD for a larger informational package on the sewage problem in the District. Although he had moved to Oregon by then, Eckert agreed to do it.

“RiverSmart— covers not only the issue of sewage in waterways such as Rock Creek and the Anacostia, but also potential solutions, including infiltration devices that would reverse the flow of rainwater from residential streets to backyards, where it can be stored and put to other use, such as watering lawns.

Backyard Bombs

Over in the Spring Valley neighborhood of northwest Washington, producer Ginny Durrin has been collecting footage on former properties owned by the Department of Defense there for her film, “Bombs in Our Backyard.—

Durrin heard a news report in 1993 about World War I munitions testing and high levels of arsenic in soil in the area, and followed her gut instinct to send a cameraman friend to check it out. More than 15 years later, Durrin has begun post-production on the film, and she is showing a trailer at the Environmental Film Festival.

A Spring Valley resident since 1974, Durrin described the situation as being “like an ongoing occupation of our neighborhood,— with residents unable to get definitive answers about the environmental impact of the testing.

Working on a film about it has become personal at times, said Durrin, who has followed the hearings and developments throughout the years.

“Sometimes it’s unfolding horror, sometimes it’s boring, sometimes you feel like you’re occupied by the Army, which we have been for 16 years,— she said.

American Landscape

For those festival-goers looking to get environmental perspective outside of the nation’s capital, there are films about the government of Bhutan, the quest to find El Dorado and blue whales off the southern coast of Australia.

One U.S.-centric feature that promises at least to be aesthetically pleasing is the sneak peek at “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,— a new PBS series by Ken Burns. It doesn’t debut until September, but the public can catch a glimpse on March 19 of what senior writer and producer Dayton Duncan calls “the best footage we’ve ever shot.—

“We view the national parks as the idea of the Declaration of Independence applied to the American landscape,— said Duncan, who has worked with Burns on “The Civil War,— “Baseball— and “Jazz— series.

Duncan described the creation of the national parks as a “double dose of democracy— in that they are there for everyone’s use, and because the preservation process typically began with ordinary citizens looking to protect what they saw as special places.

Some of the stories that will be told in the series include those of the Great Smoky Mountains, which he said touched on many elements of the American citizenry, including the poor, immigrants, “a writer on the skids— and the president of the United States.

The Environmental Film Festival is one stop on a publicity tour for the series, and Duncan pointed out that it’s an appropriate place to preview the film because before global warming was at the forefront of public consciousness, Americans were seeking to preserve natural places. He said he hopes the film will inspire pride and a sense of possessing the parks.

“There are some segments of America that haven’t felt their rightful ownership,— he said. He and Burns want such people to embrace the fact that they are the “co-owners of the most spectacular places on Earth.—

For a complete schedule and descriptions of the films, visit dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org.