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Environmental Film Festival boasts big lineup, diverse films

Mark Jenkins - The Washington Post

For 19 years, the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital has demonstrated the breadth of its worldview. Yet moviegoers who haven't been paying close attention may still think the fest is all cuddly cubs and ecological outrages.

In fact, this year's 150-film lineup, which begins Tuesday, encompasses dramas and comedies, studies of the built environment and at least a few documentaries with dispositions that are more sly than angry. These include three of the highlights: "Into Eternity,'' "Plastic Planet" and "Nostalgia for the Light.''

"Into Eternity'' considers the world's first permanent underground vault for nuclear waste, dubbed Onkalo ("hiding place'') by its Finnish builders. Director Michael Madsen (a Danish artist, not the Hollywood actor) looks at the practical problems of building such a large subterranean complex and the long-term dilemma of preventing clueless future earthlings from digging up the toxic trash. And that dilemma is seriously long-term: 100,000 years, far greater than all human civilization to date. The staggering time frame and the experts' theoretical discussions of Onkalo - which sometimes suggest a conceptual art project - inspire Madsen to turn philosophical. "Into Eternity'' doesn't condemn nuclear power. But it does quietly wonder at the wisdom of leaving an underground radioactive dump that's meant to last more than 20 times longer than Egypt's pyramids have.

If not as potentially lethal as radioactive waste, plastic is another human creation in which longevity has become an issue. Filmmaker Werner Boote doesn't hate the stuff; he has fond memories of his grandfather, who worked for a plastics firm. But "Plastic Planet'' justifies its title, locating synthetic polymers everywhere from the Moroccan desert to the director's own bloodstream. Along the way, Boote asks people to empty their homes of all the plastic items, an exercise that yields almost as big a pile of synthetics in the Third World as in the industrialized one. "Plastic Planet'' is ultimately a collection of anecdotes, all linked by a substance that's become nearly ubiquitous - not just on supermarket shelves, but throughout the biosphere.

Set in Chile's remote Atacama Desert, "Nostalgia for the Light'' begins by looking at the heavens. Because the region boasts near-pristine darkness, it's a center for observatories. But starlight isn't the region's only ancient attraction: Its dry, salty soil preserves the artifacts of prehistoric inhabitants. Much more recently, Pinochet's government built its largest concentration camp in the desert and buried many of its victims there. Kin of the "disappeared'' still dig for remnants of their loved ones. Director Patricio Guzman skillfully knits these three strands, linking the effects of Pinochet's rule to the search for knowledge.

One documentary that offers a full ration of indignation is "The Pipe.'' It recounts a battle between the residents of Rossport, a small fishing village in western Ireland, and a Shell Oil subsidiary that planned to route a natural-gas pipeline through productive fishing grounds and a local land reserve. Shell, which declined to participate in the movie, had the full support of the Irish government. Yet the project's most adamant opponents didn't stand down. Even now, the issue may not be settled, but this film could arouse enough passion to fuel Rossport's resistance for generations.

Of the fiction entries, perhaps the most notable is "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,'' which took the top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest movie is about a dying man who decides to spend his final days in the countryside. There he re-encounters lost loved ones, who have become ghosts or other supernatural creatures; he also recalls moments from former existences. Boonmee has regrets, which make him wonder about his fate, yet the movie's tone is more gentle than eerie. Although hardly conventional, this might be the director's most accessible feature, and its pantheistic outlook and jungle setting certainly befit an environmental film showcase.

Basically an existential thriller, "How I Ended This Summer'' turns on the violent estrangement of two men who work at a meteorological station in the Russian Arctic. They're of different generations and would probably never have become friends. But at the remote outpost where they live, they try to coexist - until the older one gets some very bad news. Set on an island where the closest neighbors are polar bears, the film emphasizes the puniness of human endeavors in the misty blue-gray landscape. This is a place where acceptance is required, even when what must be accepted is unendurable.

"White Lion'' is also fiction, although it does a reasonable impersonation of a nature documentary. Shot in South Africa with trained animals, the movie follows the life of an outcast ivory cub who learns to fend for himself, with occasional help from a local youth who believes white lions are messengers of the gods. The drama, which eventually introduces a not-so-great white hunter, is unsurprising. But it benefits from impressive footage of the landscape and diverse inhabitants. While the movie seems designed for children, there are too many animal deaths (even if they are simulated) for the very young.

Although loosely based on the real-life career of ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno, "Oka! Amerikee'' adopts a satirical tone. When their forest homeland is threatened by industrial loggers, the Bayaka Pygmies call to Larry, who had lived with them and recorded their music. He hears the alarm all the way in New York and rushes to the Central African Republic. There he vies with the grasping local "mayor for life'' - a Bantu, longtime enemies of the Bayaka - and a Chinese businessman who plans to pulp the Bayakas' home. Larry must also contend with his own incompetence as a Bayaka: He can't hunt, dance or find his way in the jungle. Raising serious issues amid the slapstick, this comedy is buoyed by the Bayakas' exuberant music and dance.


Jenkins is a freelance writer.

The Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital runs March 15 through 27 at 60 area venues. Most screenings are free. For more information, visit or call 202-342-2564.