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Film festival finds environmental stories in unexpected places

March 7, 2012

From Cold War bunkers in Albania to the night skies over Manhattan, Tales from Planet Earth will offer a broad — and often surprising — exploration of the environment.

The weeklong film festival opens in Madison on Sunday, March 25.

The festival theme is “environmental soundings,” with an emphasis on films that “sound out” environmental connections in unusual places — for example, in stories about labor and workplace conditions, struggling small-town economies, anti-terrorism prosecutions, and echoes of the civil rights movement.

Photo: Mushrooms of Concrete

Albanians ponder what to do with the more than 750,000 Cold War-era concrete bunkers in the film “Mushrooms of Concrete,” one of the offerings in Tales from Planet Earth.

“Our festival uses the storytelling power of films to see the environment in new, unexpected ways,” says festival founder and curator Gregg Mitman, interim director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “The environmental movement is made up of many diverse strands and has increasingly come to embrace issues of inequality, social justice, and the places where people live, work, and play.”

Green jobs advocate Van Jones, president and co-founder of the economic reform group Rebuild the Dream, will deliver the festival’s keynote lecture at the Barrymore Theater at 7:30 p.m., Monday, March 26.

Named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2009, Jones argues that clean energy can create high-quality jobs and address environmental and social challenges, including unemployment in disadvantaged communities.

More than 30 new and classic films will be shown during the week of March 25-31 in several campus and downtown venues. A special line-up of children’s programming is scheduled for Sunday, March 25, at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

Admission to all events is free on a first-come, first-served basis. View a complete schedule here.

Among festival highlights, six visiting filmmakers will discuss their work and participate in related events. Visiting filmmakers include:

  • Ian Cheney, whose critically acclaimed documentary “The City Dark” explores our loss of the night sky to light pollution. The film explores the cultural, educational, health and other impacts of our overlit environment.
  • Sasha Reuther, director of “Brothers on the Line,” a documentary about the Reuther brothers — pioneering labor organizers and civil rights champions who led the United Auto Workers (UAW) through decades of economic and social turbulence.
  • Shalini Kantayya, director of “Solarize This,” her work in progress about the promise and reality of green jobs training programs. Kantayya will participate in a panel discussion with Van Jones and others at noon on March 26 at Union South.
  • Rachel Libert, whose news-making documentary “Semper Fi: Always Faithful” examines a Marine Corps cover-up of one of the largest water contamination incidents in U.S. history.
  • Judith Helfand, director of “Cooked,” a work in progress about the deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave, which killed 739 people.
  • Alex Rivera, director of the award-winning science fiction film “Sleep Dealer,” who will host a program of films he has curated on the Latino immigrant experience.

Other notable films include Academy Award nominee “If a Tree Falls,” which chronicles the anti-terrorism prosecution of a young eco-saboteur; “Mushrooms of Concrete,” which examines the social and environmental impacts of Albania’s 750,000 Cold War bunkers; and “Life Size Memories,” in which photojournalists capture the individual life stories and personalities of captive elephants in South-East Asia.

Tales from Planet Earth is a free community event making its third appearance since 2007. The festival, organized and hosted by the Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History and Environment, has drawn nearly 8,000 filmgoers in its two previous runs in Madison.

This year’s festival leads into the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History, also hosted by the Nelson Institute. The national professional organization will convene at Monona Terrace March 28-31.

As it has in the past, the film festival has partnered with local community organizations involved in issues raised by many of the films, including the Urban League of Greater Madison and Centro Hispano.

Most events will take place at one of six venues: the Marquee Theater at Union South, 1308 W. Dayton St.; UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall; the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St.; Monona Terrace, 1 John Nolen Drive; the Barrymore Theatre, 2090 Atwood Ave.; and Centro Hispano, 810 West Badger Road.