Nature | Stage & Screen

Green Thumbs and Concrete Steps

One Earth Film Festival hosts environmental films, dialogues across Chicago

WYCC PBS Chicago + Juneteenth Productions / Vimeo

One Earth Film Festival, Chicago’s premier environmental movie festival, put on its sixth run earlier this month, from March 3 to March 12. Aiming to raise awareness and facilitate dialogue about environmental issues and protections, One Earth screens films and hosts post-screening discussions for free. This year, they put on forty-seven showings of thirty films in thirty-nine locations throughout the Chicagoland area. The Weekly sent writers to three of these: Can You Dig This?, NaturePlay, and Chicago’s True Nature.

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Can You Dig This?

In the warm emerald world of Garfield Park Conservatory, the One Earth Film Festival was beginning its 2017 run. Small foldable chairs were lined up in rows; a projector and laptop supplied the screening. Although the room was nearly bare and a bit low-tech, it didn’t matter; it was the people, not the place, which gave the film agency and impact. The winner of the LA Muse Award at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival and produced by John Legend, Can You Dig This? weaves together the stories of four urban gardens in South Los Angeles. Director Delila Vallot begins the documentary by exposing her own prejudice against the city, explaining how she had grown to view it as a concrete metropolis of gangs, drugs, and violence. Yet the lives she explores quickly change not only her perspective, but the perspective of the audience as well.

The subjects of the documentary vary in age, gender, and background. The most recognizable is Ron Finley, a renegade gardener who fought the city to allow him to keep the lush “food forest” he planted in front of his home. Finley stands in contrast with the giggly, comical Quimonie Lewis, an eight-year-old living in the projects, growing and selling food to feed and support her family. Jumping ahead drastically in age, there is Hosea Smith, who, after spending thirty years in prison, is finally getting the chance to build a garden with the members of his halfway house. Last is the duo of Mychael “Spicey” Evans and Kenya Johnson, members of the Compton Community Garden who form a bond over difficult pasts and hopeful futures.

When the director, Vallot, asks Spicey about his dreams, he doesn’t answer. All he does is scoff and look out the car window. But for Spicey and others in the film, gardening is filled with opportunity. Each seed has the chance to grow if it finds the right conditions. It may falter but Finley puts it perfectly: “Nothing ever dies. Ever.” These five gardeners may have faltered in the past, but that is just a part of rebirth. “It destroys itself,” says Finley, holding the remains of a dead plant in his hands and smiling. “Then, you get life.” (Thea Michele Smith)

NaturePlay and Chicago’s True Nature

Last Sunday, the final screening of the One Earth Film Festival took place at 29th and Wabash, in the basement of St. James Catholic Church. (You may remember it as the congregation which had its church building torn down by the Archdiocese a few years back.) St. James is a fitting place to screen a pair of eco-friendly documentaries: the atmosphere surrounding a gathering of environmentalists often possesses the same serious spirituality as a Catholic Mass.

This particular showing kicked off with NaturePlay, a documentary about Scandinavian pedagogy; the film’s argument is that educating children in nature is essential to their personal development, both inside and outside the classroom. The point is important, even if the movie levies it a bit unsubtly: at one point, there is a shot of a Danish playground bustling with happy kids, situated alongside a take of a predictably empty American schoolyard. The film’s reverential approach—title cards featuring quotes from the likes of John Muir, Mr. Rogers, and Ralph Waldo Emerson; long, slow-motion scenes of beautiful blonde children bathed in a golden forest light—was met with ripples of affirmation by the Chicago congregation.

Because of scheduling constraints, the screening of NaturePlay ended after about half an hour (and, to my chagrin, before the promised Matt Damon feature). While its idyllic images are certainly enchanting, one wonders if the documentary, with its grousing about things like high-pressure testing environments, hasn’t missed something about the plight of many American schools. In a city like Chicago, budgetary shortfalls and programming cuts, particularly in systemically underserved areas on the South and West Side, present immediate and urgent problems. Compared to the loss of after-school anti-violence programs that have been shown to decrease shootings, the solutions offered up by NaturePlay seem a little facile.

Chicago’s True Nature, the second documentary shown, was a straightforward exploration of the Cook County Forest Preserve District. After briefly chronicling the history of the forest preserves in and around the Chicagoland area, it gave an overview of the activities, educational and recreational, that are available to children and adults: museum trips, canoeing, hiking, and cultural festivals, among others. After the movie finished, a festival organizer led a discussion with audience members. Many of them expressed an interest in visiting the forest preserves more. A child suggested that one obstacle might be the number of people who sit inside looking at pictures of nature on their computer instead of going out into nature itself.

At the end, Douglas Stotz, an ornithologist at the Field Museum, spoke about his experience with bird-watching in Chicago. After he was finished, an audience member asked what she should do if she wanted to attract less common sparrows to her birdfeeder. Stotz suggested she try putting out niger seeds, since sparrows mostly prefer millet and sunflower. (Another benefit of niger: squirrels don’t like them.) At that, another woman raised her hand, and added that planting red mulberry and crabapple trees would also work. A similar spirit of sharing was in evidence throughout the audience. As one man said, when asked to think of concrete steps he could take, “I’m just going to go out and tell as many people about the forest preserves as possible.” (Christian Belanger)

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Thoughts on “Green Thumbs and Concrete Steps”

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful coverage of this year’s One Earth Film Festival, for attending our screenings and sharing themes from the films and the reflections of audience members.

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