Mickey Smith's 'Dark Side of the Lens' plays the first ever San Francisco Green Film Festival.

Hope Springs Eternal at Green Film Festival

Michael Fox March 3, 2011

The San Francisco Green Film Festival, the new kid on the chock-a-block Bay Area festival calendar, is primed to compost a few decaying myths. Pick your fave: Saving the planet is deadly serious business. Only tree-huggers, freaks and unemployed bicyclists have the time to deal with the environment. Documentaries are boring educational films. You can’t reason with corporations, any more than you can beat The Man. It’s hopeless, and we’re all doomed.

Founder and executive director Rachel Caplan spent a good bit of our recent phone chat chuckling at the misperceptions engendered by the word “green.” We got the unmistakable impression that the four-day fest, which debuts tonight at 7:00 pm at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas with the Bay Area premiere of Suzan Beraza’s Bag It, will be the furthest thing from a guilt-inducing downer.

“We are definitely keeping away from films that are too preachy or earnest or biased, and that present doom-and-gloom scenarios,” Caplan said. “We want people to be uplifted and inspired to rethink the way that they live.”

Jeremy Seifert’s Dive!, a first-person journal of supermarket dumpster diving in Los Angeles, is a prime example. The featurette-length piece begins in a punkish, light-hearted and self-congratulatory vein, enrolling us in the filmmaker’s nocturnal pursuit of fresh tomatoes and blueberries (his small son’s favorite), chicken and beef. It’s fun larking along with Seifert and his pals, but thankfully the film gradually deepens into a more responsible and effective work.

Irked by all the perfectly good food that’s thrown out because it’s approaching its expiration date, Seifert challenges the various big chains, and is firmly rebuffed. Undeterred, he ultimately proves that one person can make a difference in getting food to people who need it. (The end titles claim that Dive!, screening Saturday at 6:00 pm with Michael Kuehnert’s Save the Farm, cost $200 to make, which should at least inspire any would-be filmmakers in the crowd.)

The premiere edition of the San Francisco Green Film Festival ranges far and near, from the West Coast premiere of Werner Herzog’s latest ode to outsiders coexisting with nature, Happy People: A Year In the Taiga (Sunday at 4:30 pm), to Ann Dunsky’s take on the ongoing dance between developers and conservationists on San Bruno Mountain, Butterflies & Bulldozers (Friday at 12:30 pm).

“Something people often ask is, ‘Well, what is a green film?’ This is something we ourselves have been grappling with and acknowledge we will continue to grapple with year on year,” Caplan says. “Whatever our definition of green is in our inaugural festival will not be the same in 2012 or 2015. And our role is to define areas for discussion each year as led by the films. It has to come from the films. We definitely want to move beyond composting and CFLs into a global definition of sustainability and what’s on the green agenda.”

That’s some pretty forward thinking for a first-time festival to embrace the notion of an evolving mission. Sure, it’s an idea that’s organic to numerous local and astutely programmed ethnic identity festivals, but it wasn’t when they began. Then again, Caplan has had the benefit of watching and learning. The Edinburgh, Scotland native departed the London Film Festival in 2003 for what she thought would be a seasonal position with the San Francisco Film Society. She accepted a staff job as assistant to Executive Director Roxanne Messina Captor, first, and then current ED Graham Leggat. After a stint in freelance events production, Caplan served as festival director of the Ocean Film Festival for two years before departing to launch the Green fest.

Caplan praises the Ocean’s niche identity, loyal audience and overall work in highlighting conservation, but admits to feeling constrained as a programmer.

“The oceans are two-thirds of the planet but the other third is where the humans are,” she notes wryly, “and I find the human stories more compelling. And humans, for better for worse, are really impacting the environment.”

Human nature is the fundamental variable in Michael Madsen’s refined, cerebral Into Eternity. The Danish filmmaker employs a controlled Euro elegance—no shakycam, or other human variable—to examine the logic, assumptions and reliability of the enormous underground facility under construction in Finland to house its nuclear waste.

The stuff is toxic for 100,000 years, which raises all sorts of fascinating questions about how to communicate with and warn off anyone who might discover the site a few millennia hence. Beautiful, absurd and sobering in equal measure, Into Eternity (Friday at 8:30 pm) is simultaneously a tribute to human intelligence and a eulogy-in-advance for our species’ fatal flaws. If you can’t make this screening, mark your calendar for the local theatrical run at the Roxie in May. (Unless, of course, you are really fatalistic about humanity’s prospects.)

Caplan, for one, takes the long view. Not content with a once-a-year, one-weekend blowout, she’s all but hashed out the details for a monthly evening series in the Main Library’s 300-seat Koret Auditorium that could start as early as this spring. The festival will present a shorts program at San Francisco Earth Day in Civic Center Plaza on April 23, and Caplan’s talking about launching a touring program.

Now, who was it who sang “it’s not easy being green?”

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Nov 1, 2011

    Essential SF: Joshua Grannell

    Since its first event in 1998, Midnight Mass has become an SF institution, and Peaches Christ, well, she's its peerless warden and cult leader.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.