By Brett Kessler and Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

San Francisco’s Green Film Festival kicks off this week, with 40 films from around the world and dozens of directors and speakers slated to appear at showings from March 1-7.

Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed

Several of the screenings will be US or world premieres, such as the opening night’s preview of The Island President by Bay Area filmmaker Jon Shenk.

The Island President, which opens in theaters March 28, tells the story of Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldives, a South Pacific nation that could vanish as climate change forces the oceans to rise. Climate activists will be familiar with Nasheed, who has spoken firmly and eloquently about the moral imperative to curb global warming. Those unfamiliar with the predicament of the Maldives, the lowest lying nation in the world, will get a glimpse of what’s ahead for the country, and subsequent coastal cities everywhere, if world leaders fail to curb carbon pollution.

Shenk, who has a master’s in documentary filmmaking from Stanford University and has twice been nominated for Emmys, spent a year with Nasheed. Shenk, producers Richard Berge and Bonni Cohen, and Steve Hipskind, Chief of the Earth Science Division, NASA Ames Research Center will speak at the opening screening March 1 at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema at 1748 Post St.. You can buy tickets for the screening and after party here.

The second annual festival also will feature US premieres of foreign films, such as Waking the Green Tiger, a chronicle of China’s rising eco-awareness, and  Just Do It: A Tale of Modern Day Outlaws, which follows activists in Great Britain on a whirlwind of zany actions to stop polluters. See snapshots of these two films, and two other fascinating works, Urban Roots and Blood in the Mobile, below. (Find the entire film line-up at the SF Green Film Festival  website.)


Waking the Green Tiger opens in Yunnan Province, a mountainous region of China that serves as a bucolic refuge from the pollution and congestion of major

Waking the Green Tiger chronicles China's growing interest in preserving nature.

cities. We see visitors snapping pictures of the lush vegetation and clear skies, admiring the Tiger Leaping Gorge, an awe-inspiring canyon on the Upper Yangtze River. This scenic escape is home to more than half of China’s plant and animal species – but also a quarter of the nation’s untapped hydropower.

In 2004, the Chinese government proposed the construction of 21 hydroelectric dams along the Upper Yangtze, igniting controversy throughout the region. Director Gary Marcuse does a wonderful job locating this conflict against a historical backdrop unfamiliar to most Westerners, using a wealth of archival footage to show how China’s myopic focus on industry and development under Chairman Mao set precedents for some of today’s most ill-advised environmental policy. As part of the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese government promoted the maxim “man must conquer nature,” pushing for rapid industrialization at the expense of environmental consciousness.
The result of this approach, as the film illustrates, is usually disastrous. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, impoverished farmers displaced by the Manwan dam project shuffle through garbage in search of valuables they can exchange for money.

For the most part, though, the film is uplifting, following a group of passionate activists – including artists, journalists, and locals – as they mobilize support against the Tiger Leaping Gorge dam project. Again, Marcuse situates this movement within China’s larger political context, connecting the transition to democracy to the rise of grassroots campaigns. The film is most inspiring when it captures the real-world impact of activism. A journalist-turned-filmmaker travels to poor communities showing her documentary about the negative impact of dam projects, stirring indignation in the hearts of rural farmers and craftsmen. A journalist puts his job on the line by writing candid articles that challenge the government’s greenwashing rhetoric. In the end, the villagers of Yunnan Province are driven to take hostage government officials who flout the new progressive environmental policies, truly embracing the spirit of democracy.

Waking the Green Tiger manages the perfect balance between information and entertainment, condensing several decades of history into a rousing portrait of China’s emerging green movement. It’s a portrait of people, from the humblest of farmers to some of China’s biggest government players, coming together to shape a new socially-and eco-conscious paradigm.  — Brett Kessler


Urban Roots documents a food revival in Detroit.

In a bygone American era, Detroit shone proudly as a center of industry, home to the Model T and other symbols of American progress. The decline of the car industry in recent decades, though, has cut the city’s population in half and left poor neighborhoods in even more derelict condition. Detroit is now home to thousands of acres of vacant land, most of it unmaintained, left to collect weeds and waste. The result? Many of the city’s residents live in what is termed a
“food desert.” In many cases, people must travel twice as far to reach a grocery store as they would to get to a gas station or convenience
store. The lack of access to healthy food has widespread ramifications, including a host of diet-related health problems that only reinforce the residents’ low socioeconomic condition.

Urban Roots is a mosaic portrait of determined green activists reclaiming abandoned lots and turning them into urban gardens, bringing fresh produce to people who would otherwise subsist on fast food and packaged snacks. Director Mark MacInnis of Tree Media (creators of The 11th Hour) captures the transformative power of these efforts, which reunite fractured communities around a new cooperative, healthy way of living.

“Food is very, very essential,” says Cornelius Williams, a longtime Detroit resident turned urban farmer. “It’s the one thing that you can’t buy used. You know, you can buy used cars, clothes, and shoes, but when it comes to food it’s got to be new.”

Through snapshots of organizations such as D-Town, which has expanded into a seven-acre operation, to Brother Nature Produce, a farm situated in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood which began as a backyard gardening experiment, Urban Roots reveals a burgeoning movement in support of local, sustainable farming that may transform the city. The film’s patchwork approach, instead of exhausting the viewer, effectively traces the growth of the movement from its humble roots, allowing the vignettes to unfold organically.

At the end of the film, you’re left wondering why urban farming didn’t gain popularity sooner. Buying locally, after all, should be intuitive. As urban farmer Nefer Ra Barber says: “It doesn’t make sense to get garlic from China. How weird is that?” — Brett Kessler


When you think about the environmental movies you’ve seen, they’re often about a series of events, and while the motivations of the players involved are part of the story, they’re not often the entire story.

Just Do It focuses on the climate activists.

In Just Do It, filmmaker Emily James flips the focus, profiling several activists deeply involved in the climate action movement in Great Britain, following them to sit-ins, camp-outs and marches, including the historic street protests at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference. (A bonus: the Just Do It crew captured the unforgivable scene inside the holding cells where overzealous Danish police preemptively detained hundreds of youths.)

Just Do It is a chaotic and free-wheeling piece of cinema, alternately upbeat and dejected, mirroring the moods of the film’s subjects. These are free spirits who have decided that they’ll never wield sufficient power to effect change in traditional society, but they can use their voices, their bodies and their numbers to shake up the entrenched capitalists and politicians who refuse to address climate change.

We follow them as they try to thwart governments, banks and official climate delegates using ladders, bike locks, costumes and super glue. It’s almost a fun romp, if not for the serious planetary threat that drives these actions. At Copenhagen, the group dresses in suits with penciled-on mustaches in a satirizing those who propose carbon trading as the only answer. In London, they lock themselves to the doors of a Royal Bank of Scotland building and send a team inside. The interlopers gluing themselves together — so police cannot remove them easily — to draw attention to the bank’s financing of carbon-polluting coal companies.

The action is breathless, with breaks to meet the committed “outlaws” –Rowan, Paul, Lily, Sally, Tracy, John, Marina. They explain their protest actions and why they feel compelled participate. “It (the climate situation) is so drastic and affecting my future, I have to do everything I can about it,” says one young woman.

“Everything” leads to some wacky adventures. At a protest where employees of a closed Vestas wind turbine factory have barricaded themselves inside, Marina leads a band of protesters determined to keep the workers supplied with food. They stuff tiny portions of fish and chips into tennis balls, flinging them over the fence surrounding the plant. Later, they distract police, cut the fence and dart inside with backpacks of food and supplies. Their protest is an appeal to the British government to keep the wind factory by creating more demand for wind power. It goes on for four months in the cold and rain outside the plant. Marina, a veteran of such actions, heats tea with her trademark kettle while living in a tent on a roundabout. It all comes to an abupt ending when the police tear down the encampment and eject the protesters on orders from the municipal authorities.

That happened in Wight, England, before the Occupy movement. But it clearly presaged events at Zuccotti Park, Justin Herman Plaza and dozens of other Occupy sites in the US and around the world last fall.

Just as many of those encampments morphed into ongoing organic local movements, so too, did the Wight group reorganize, popping back up to help working class neighborhoods hold off a runway expansion by Heathrow Airport that would have destroyed their communities. That success, won by communities working hand-in-hand with these “outlaws”,  made headlines around the world, and holds out a blueprint for how to just do it. — Barbara Kessler

(Note: Emily James is expected at a wrap party for the San Francisco Green Film Festival on March 7, following a showing of Just Do It at 7:30 p.m. at the SF Film Society Cinema, 1748 Post St..)


By now nearly everyone has heard about how the cell phone industry’s voracious appetite for certain precious metals has contributed to thousands of murders,

Blood in the Mobile, a story of modern-day exploitation

rapes and ongoing worker exploitation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where those metals are found.

But despite the ubiquitous use of cell phones and the phenomenal growth of cell and mobile phone makers around globe, the intractable violence in the Congo has continued unchecked for the past decade. No major phone company, industry group or concerned developed nation has been able, or tried hard enough, to stem the violence, stop the graft and protect the people from the mayhem around the mining for coltan, bauxite and cassiterite — minerals the industry must have to make cell phones.

Danish filmmaker Frank Piesecki Poulson simply wants to know, why? Why can’t anyone stop the violence? Why can’t the phone companies secure conflict-free minerals? Why can they even publish their mineral sources to help flush out the rogue operators?

In the spirit of Roger and Me and other great Michael Moore documentaries, Poulson takes his question to the powers in charge, the corporate giant that makes his mobile phone, Finland’s Nokia. The answers he gets are as indicting as the harrowing video he secures on a trip to the heart of the Congo, where men and boys dig makeshift mines to chop the minerals from the earth, before carrying it out of the jungle pack mule style to waiting cargo planes.

Nokia’s supply chain, sustainability and public affairs officials meet with Poulson, but they do themselves few favors, sounding in short order like the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon: Blah, blah, blah. The industry is still assessing the problem; there are “sensitivities” (i.e., competitive issues) involved; it’s hard to trace where the minerals come from….

These may be real issues, but we’re left with the impression that phone makers are satisfied with protracted discussion, which has produced only a vague game plan and little substantial action to help the people of the eastern Congo, many of whom work as virtual slaves in the mineral mines. Blood in the Mobile exposes Nokia’s imperious attitude, but its crowning achievement is to take us to the mines, where we see the heartbreaking reality of the eastern Congo, a region strafed by civil war and stripped of the means to recover by massive graft and corruption — largely fueled by the lucrative mineral industry.

How dangerous is this journey to a mining area near Walikale controlled by a rogue army unit? One official tells Poulson, “It depends on how drunk they are and how much money they want.”

Tragically, the citizens who deserve to benefit from their nation’s commodities trade are more likely to be killed for it. — Barbara Kessler

Copyright © 2012 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network