Jeff Masters Weather Blog

Your guide to 2024’s best environmental films » Yale Climate Connections

In Nevada City, California, an environmental film festival kicked off to good news when the gold country community decisively rejected a proposed new gold mine. Between news that the board of supervisors had just unanimously denied the bid to reopen an old mine and the fact that 100+ inspiring films were set to screen around town this February weekend, the sense that community action can and does pay off was unusually clear at South Yuba River Citizens League’s 22nd Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City and Grass Valley, California.

After all, during the 2023 festival weekend, dozens of locals had taken to the main street with yellow signs and “hey hey, ho hos” rallying in opposition to the mine. What a difference a year (and the hard work of committed people) makes.

“Today we stopped the mine!” said South Yuba River Citizens League Executive Director Aaron Zettler-Mann to whoops and cheers at this year’s opening reception — held with standing-room-only in a historic stonewalled room that’s rumored to be haunted, as specialty and nonalcoholic brews alike flowed freely from festival sponsor Sierra Nevada. After other welcoming remarks by Shelly Covert, the spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe; and comments on the state’s experiences of climate change from Wade Crowfoot, California’s Natural Resources Secretary; Nevada City Mayor Daniela Fernández rounded out the program by expressing a feeling shared by many in the room: “Hope sometimes feels more fleeting than ever, but here I’m reminded what resiliency and hope look like.” 

From that point on through the rest of the February weekend, an action-packed agenda kept attendees like me booking it between film screenings and related events — from fireside chats, coffee talks, hikes, and even a special rock-climbing session with filmmakers, to workshops on watershed restoration, sustainable investing, and youth activism. And in keeping with the festival motto “where activism is inspired,” volunteers collected more than 500 signatures for a petition to protect California salmon. 

Five highlights from this year’s Wild and Scenic Film Festival

Ready to experience some of the inspiration for yourself? Read on for five big takeaways from this year’s selection, and learn how to screen some of them in the comfort of your own home by checking out the virtual festival, which continues through Feb. 25, 2024.

1. “Hey hey, ho ho, [XYZ] has got to go!” Festival HQ aka Nevada County was by no means the only community organizing against the odds to protect planet and people. The feature-length documentary “Patrol” (1:23) zooms in on an Indigenous community defending Nicaraguan rainforests from deforestation in the form of cattle farms. Reportedly illegal to screen in Nicaragua, the film highlights animal agriculture as one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss and a major driver of climate change — while painting a stirring portrait of a people fighting to defend their homelands. (Watch the trailer or unlock the film session here through Feb. 25, 2024.)

Shorter standouts of activism in other parts of the world include “Burning Injustice,” an 18-minute short featuring Latino farmworkers in central California rallying against one of the state’s last waste incinerators, and “Keepers of the Land,” a 28-minute look at the Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation’s quest to reclaim its rightful power over the land on Canada’s West Coast.

2. Ripple effects are inevitable, even if at first they’re not clear. More people are waking up to the truth that what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic — a tenet that rings true for many climate-related issues and actions.

In “Deep Rising,” (trailer/host a screening) a feature executive produced and narrated by Jason Momoa (aka Aquaman), we get a behind-the-scenes look at the often hidden but accelerating race to mine minerals from the ocean floor, against a backdrop of beautiful cinematography of rarely seen and unfathomably fragile creatures of the deep. While a massive seabed extraction outfit promotes its efforts as essential to the energy transition, the 1:33-hour feature-length film casts dark light on that platform saying there’s not been nearly enough time for real scientific assessment on the impacts of deep-sea mining, arguing that “critical minerals are not the solution; they are the new oil.”

Instead of extracting more and devastating deep-sea ecosystems — and in turn, the human communities who live in coastal areas — the film argues we should put more effort toward harnessing energy from what we do have readily available, everywhere: oxygen and hydrogen. Crossing oceans to bring viewers to Papua, New Guinea, “Deep Rising” reveals a community’s deeply personal response to a major seabed mining operation that has been in the works and stands to threaten their way of life. Fortunately for the Papuans, they have already learned from cautionary tales of other island communities not to be fooled by smooth-talking outsiders.

In its U.S. premiere, the Canadian-filmed “Nuked” (1:30) [trailer] is an Oppenheimer-esque exploration of the long-term impacts of nuclear testing on the people of the Marshall Islands during the Cold War — who were told would be taken care of for their troubles. Spoiler: They were not. Focusing on the human victims of the nuclear arms race, the film traces the displaced community’s ongoing struggles even as climate change poses a new existential threat, ultimately serving as a painful reminder that those most impacted by climate change are also often least responsible for it.

3. We are all invited — or at least we should be. A good number of films focused on themes of environmental justice and expanding access to environmental experiences. For example, in “Farming while Black,” (1:15) Afro-Indigenous farmers employ regenerative agricultural practices as a key solution to climate change. (Click here for an excerpt of the film discussing carbon reduction and the impacts of industrial agriculture.) An entire session was dedicated to The Sense of Belonging, with four films exploring different connections within nature, sport, and family history to reflect on tales of immigration and people’s sense of being part of a larger whole.

Inclusive sustainability also means helping expand access to nature for people from diverse backgrounds, as seen in films such as “Inward” (22 min), where an artist explores what it means to be a Black man in nature, “Apayauq” (16 min), where the first out transgender woman sets out to complete Alaska’s Iditarod dog sled race, and “In the Dirt” (40 min), where Navajo leaders work to expand access to biking in the Nation.

There are other talent- and interest-based ways we are all invited, too. Artists, for instance, can participate in climate change, as evidenced by, among others, “Bright Toh: Unsung Hero,” about a Cameroonian painter raising awareness for endangered species with art. Thrill-seekers can also join sustainability efforts while pursuing adventure sports. For example, in “The Engine Inside” (1:23), we meet six cycling activists from different parts of the world, all helping more people realize the climate, social, and physical benefits of biking. (This one you can catch streaming online anytime.)

4. More people are recognizing the connections between mental health and the environment. Time in nature can be a boon for mental health, according to several films including “Forward” (16 min), in which one plus-size woman of color rallies others to connect on the trail, “Daughter of the Sea” (18 min, S. Korea), where a woman finds healing from depression in the ocean, and “Light Beams for Helena” (8 min, Mexico), where a woman scuba dives to cope with depression.

5. A little inspiration can go a long way … whether it’s a reminder of the sheer beauty of nature or a piece of great news. A clear audience favorite in the former category this year was “Out There: A National Parks Journey” (1.5 hours), which earned a standing ovation for the attending filmmaker. Spanning a 10,000-mile road trip through the national parks, the film shares real stories of people’s love for the parks. Gorgeous cinematography is at heart conservation-oriented, with the director’s stated intent to inspire future preservation efforts.

And yes, despite the often discouraging headlines in the world, good news really is out there, too. Take “Blue Whales: Return of the Giant” (45 min) for one, an inspirational story of a species rebounding from the edge of extinction. (Now playing at science museums across the country.)

In the category of “hard work can pay off” come several heartening films, each heralding good news in its own way, whether restoring sloth habitats in Costa Rica or stopping industrial-scale salmon farming in Maine.

How to host your own mini film festival — THIS WEEKEND ONLY

Grab the popcorn: Wild and Scenic is offering a series of virtual film sessions for $20 a pop to screen at home through this Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. The following are a few selections we recommend:

  • Art+Nature (11 films): Come for the “Toxic Art,” where an art professor sets out to convert coal mining pollutants into paint; stay for the “Losing Blue,” which grapples with the loss of the otherworldly blues of ancient mountain lakes, now fading due to climate change and “Inward,” described above. 
  • Farming Stories (9 films): Regenerative agriculture dominates the lens in this session, which addresses everything from sustainable livestock farming in Colorado and coffee, birds, and biodiversity in Colombia to agave and bat populations in Mexico and ice harvesting in Maine.
  • Inspiring Journeys (2 films): Unlock this session to view “Out There” (featured above), and “Tracing History” about a Chinese American woman’s journey along American West railroads largely shaped by her ancestors.
  • Real Action (9 films): This session leads with “Won’t Give Up,” the Yo-Yo Ma musical collaboration previously featured on YCC, and also includes “Healy,” which traces an ice cap polar cruiser as it explores dwindling sea ice; “Burning Injustice” (detailed above); “Bright Toh” (see above); and dark comedy “Suzie and Jenny.” 

Got kids? Cue up Wild Child. Got plans that keep you from virtual festing this weekend but still want to see the films? Check Wild and Scenic’s On Tour schedule to see if the tour is making its way to your area. Upcoming stops include Madison, Wisconsin; Annapolis, Maryland; Flagstaff, Arizona; and many spots in between. 

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