Sunday, April 27, 2014

Role of audience in documentary filmmaking

Glines Canyon Dam, Elwha River, Washington. Photo: Mikal Jakubal

There is a low-stakes battle being waged inside this head of mine. The head versus the heart. The personal versus the professional. The pragmatic versus the radical. When stepping back and really thinking through what I take away from a documentary (and what others will take from that experience), which of those matter most and should come out on top?

Let me back up. A few weeks ago I attended a screening of DamNation at the D.C. Environmental Film Festival. The film explores the shift in attitude from a country built on dams (from the mill dam's role in the industrial revolution to the great dam-building era of the New Deal) to one in which the detrimental effect of many of these structures has given rise to an effort to remove certain dams and restore rivers. Filled with sweeping vistas and many charismatic rivers of the west, the film is gorgeous, visually spectacular. My inner aesthetician totally wants to fist-bump the cinematographer.

Back to the future? A century old I.W. Taber photograph shows the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley and Toulumne River before the dam and reservoir buried this national treasure in a scene from DAMNATION. Photo: Matt Stoecker

From the cultural and religious significance of salmon for many tribes of the Pacific Northwest to the evocative landforms now buried by Glen Canyon Dam, it makes a play for our heartstrings by blending the historic and spiritual. It also attempts to appeal to our inner wild thing with dam-scaling graffiti artists and a bit of a "fight the man" vibe running throughout the film's narration. The inner activist in me now wants in on the fist-bumping action.

However, as I sat in the theater, I looked around at all of the fleece and the shiny, white faces ready to take action and couldn't help wondering what my people would get out of this film. What would the ranchers in San Angelo, Texas make of this message? Would my grandfather--a helps with local elections, writes letters to the city council kind of dude--be moved to write a letter to editor next time an article appeared about a new dam being built? Texans appreciate the land and the water they have dominion over. In fact, more often than not, they'll work it like a bitch to extract every possible tiny bit of appreciation out of it that they can. And these aren't just Texas communities. They exist in every state. I work with them. I reckon (because that's how we do) this isn't their film.

Who was this film meant to appeal to? In my estimation, it's a documentary meant to appeal to and mobilize your base. Something to excite them to send their Congressional rep an email or drop a check in the mail to (hopefully) an effective environmental group. Maybe they'll be amped enough (until they realize it's not as sexy as the movies make it) to want to take on a dam removal in their neck of the woods. What it likely won't do is win that city council battle over removal of the municipally owned dam. The implicit bucking of authority and rules combined with gratuitous (even if artistic) female nudity would cause my grandfather and others like him to immediately discount the more salient arguments made for restoration.

I have DamNation to thank for my continuing mental thumb war--the pumped up girl who dashes off 'getting radical' posts versus the pragmatist who knows what it takes to make real change happen. What I do know is that documentaries can be powerful tools for change when wielded appropriately, and part of that power lies in identifying your audience--critical in developing your message, film and corresponding call to action.

Who do you strive to appeal to when you create?

Keep your eye on this space because I will be announcing a couple of exciting documentary-related projects inspired by all the questions of audience and social change brought about by this film. Sign up for my newsletter below to be the first to hear about it!


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Go do something. It's Earth Day!


I ordered a test run of postcards for work and fell in love with Artifact Uprising. The paper quality is sumptuous!

I hadn't planned on writing a post for today. Reading a few lines of text is the last thing we should all be doing on Earth Day. However, I took on a "green" theme for the month of April and couldn't let today pass without sharing at least a little.

I struggle to write about the environmental side of my life. While I'm incredibly passionate about it, I spend 45-50 hours a week swimming in it. It wakes me up in the middle of the night and sends me driving three hours on a Saturday morning to help a local group with an event. It's evenings speaking at a public meeting because that's when everyone else can participate. I love every minute of it, but burn out is a real thing. Self-preservation means I tend to choose to leave that part of me at work. Plus, I tend to have a lot of passions, and they need their air time, too. :-)

So, no discussion on what you should be reading or watching or listening to. Instead, I think it would be awesome if we all spent 30 minutes today thinking about how we can level up whatever we're doing for the earth. You recycle and bring those cute bags to the grocery store. Can you pick up one more good habit this year?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The River Why and more bookish rambling

The Yough

Confession time. I'm a river-slash-book lover who has never read Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. I've never even watched the movie. Drinking by the Rappahannock with one of the movie's leads (former board member...not Brad Pitt) is the closest I've come. Instead, it was the enchanted, river religiosity of David James Duncan that further exposed me to the transformative, motivational power of words.

My introduction to Duncan came years ago when I got my hands on a collection of his essays, My Story as Told by Water (do yourself a favor and look up the incredibly long subtitle). His essays painted salmon, trout and the spirituality of the fly fisherman in the way that makes the breath catch in your throat. And, while this is a pivotal work in my personal canon, it's his novel, The River Why, that I want to talk about today.

The River Why is a bit of a modern-day Walden, following the young Gus Orviston, a fly fisherman from a fishing obsessed family, as he leaves his family and isolates himself in a remote cabin on one of Oregon's rivers. On a journey of self-discovery, Gus boils much of his days down to eating, sleeping and fishing as he tries to follow nature's biological rhythms. While I found Gus a bit too self-indulgent at times, Duncan's beautiful prose would lure me back in.

“And so I learned what solitude really was. It was raw material - awesome, malleable, older than men or worlds or water. And it was merciless - for it let a man become precisely what he alone made of himself.” 

When Duncan gets it so right (like he does below), the excitable, effusive girl inside of me wants to leap up, pumping my fist in the air and shouting "hell yeah!"

"Fisherman should be the easiest of men to convince to commence the search for the soul, because fishing is nothing but the pursuit of the elusive. Fish invisible to laymen like me are visible to anglers like you by a hundred subtle signs. how can you be so sagacious and patient in seeking fish, and so hasty and thick as to write off your soul because you can’t see it?"

If you've got a low tolerance for impassioned soap-box rhetoric, you may want to approach this novel with a bit of trepidation. Duncan is not particularly subtle and doesn't sugar-coat his views on how we treat the planet. Of course, that's only a tiny part of what I like about him.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Texas Traveling: Enchanted Rock

Enchanted Rock
Photo via im me

We traveled far and wide when I was growing up, but the only legitimate hike I can ever remember doing as a family was climbing up Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg, Texas. Honestly, I have no idea what possessed us to stop. Perhaps it was a desperate attempt to tire two annoying kids. Whatever the reason, that majestic rock embedded itself in my conscious and became a bit of a mile marker in my life. I found myself revisiting it later in life, first, with my friend Audrey and later with my brother. Standing atop that pink granite rock felt powerful.

Enchanted Rock rises 1,825 feet above sea level which, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is akin to a 30 to 40 story building. Not too shabby for Texas. Evidently, there are more than 40 different climbs you can do and a whole slew of information about what you can and cannot do when climbing. However, there is a fairly straightforward (though steep at times) trail up the front of the rock for those who aren't rock climbers (raises hand).

Enchanted Rock. Texas. Years Ago.
Look how young we were! I'm the one with the red hair in the photo near the top.

If you love a good story, the rock is shrouded in mystery and legend. Visitors talk of seeing spirit fires (flashes of light) at night and how groans and pops have been known to permeate the night. Don't worry, it's just the rock expanding and contracting with temperature changes. If you prefer something a bit more lively, just ask the park rangers about the legend of the young Native American maiden who is said to haunt the rock.

While Enchanted Rock pales in comparison to some of the west's more famous rock features, it's worth planning a day trip to Fredericksburg for those making the trek to Austin. Both Enchanted Rock and Fredericksburg are in an area of Texas that historically had a large German settlement. If you choose to spend some time in Fredericksburg proper (and you should), there are a ton of shops as you stroll downtown, wineries known for use of the famous Fredericksburg peach, and several German restaurants worth a try.

A word to the wise, consider a trip to the rock in the spring or fall to avoid the scorching Texas heat on this bald rock and arrive early to ensure you make it in (particularly important on weekends).

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Creatures of Habitat: Adventures in Mapmaking


Awesometastic maps by Herb Lester Associates.

I signed up for a fun new class a couple of weeks ago, Map Making: Learning to Communicate Places Beautifully. It's my first Skillshare class, and I'm thoroughly stoked! I'm a huge fan of maps and will admit to being one of those troglodytes who decried the spread of GPS and e-mapping. I don't like having a machine telling me each step to take. Have you ever had one of those things change its mind on you? Also, what if I want to see where I'm headed? Too complicated! Give me a paper map to plot my course on any day. Can you tell I have a frustrating experience with Google Maps on Friday? :-) The one nice benefit of having a map in my phone is that I suddenly look like less of a tourist when I'm trying to figure out where I'm going in a more urban environment (i.e., where I want to look cool and like I fit in).

This class isn't about turning you into a cartographer. It's more about exploring the beauty and creativity mapping can unleash.

How does this fit in with this month's Girl Goes Green theme?

As part of the class, each student creates a project to develop as they move through the lessons. I'm a huge fan of the way maps allow us a creative outlet for communicating concepts (beyond the traditional "this is how you get from Point A to Point B), so I decided to work on creating a map of the various creatures (both human and aquatic) that have relied on the Patapsco River throughout history. Here's a brief write-up I created to kick off my project...

The Patapsco River Valley was first settled by the Piscataway tribe and home to what are crazy historical fish like American shad, alewife and blueback herring. As Europeans moved in, the valley became a hotbed of industrialization with textile and flour mills littering its banks and small mill villages popping up. While traces of much of this history is gone, the modern day valley still provides habitat for thousands of park visitors each year who float the river, picnic along its banks and cast a line for those historic fish. I want my map to illustrate the rich life this river brings to the region and the human and ecological communities it serves.

Plus, as you guys can probably guess, I'm totally making a coffee map of Northern Virginia if this first project doesn't wind up looking like a hot mess.

P.S. You should totally take the class with me!

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

My story as told by water, part IX

summer sun

I have always despised the burning, choking sensation of chlorinated pool water rushing in through the nostrils. Sadly, it took me years to master not breathing through my nose. Imagine being the girl with the flesh-colored nose clip through those formative, awkward* years. Luckily, this skill developed** shortly before I joined a swim club held at one of the local high schools while I was in grade school and attempted to swim competitively.

Just as I was not particularly outdoorsy, I was not especially sporty either. However, I'm fairly certain the attempt to ensure some type of athleticism is a prerequisite for being an American youth. Out of all the athletic activities of my youth, swimming was the thing I seemed to fail the least at.

I was never the best. I don't recall actually winning any races. I do remember not sucking--brimming with a bit of confidence for receiving a ribbon for placing in breast stroke. A contradiction even at that age, I strove to collapse in upon myself walking around the pool to hide my thick middle and, yet, had an internal confidence (nee cockiness) for even being part of the club and competing. In the water, I was free, unencumbered by clumsiness or extra weight.

Recently, the orthopedic surgeon advised me to leave the treadmill behind and once again take up swimming to avoid further damage to my knee. While I've certainly swam laps here and there in recent years, this will be the first time in decades where I've actually attempted to train. Thankfully, I've got a handy new app to get me swimming a mile in six weeks and the confidence that I can still do that fancy underwater flip and keep on going.

*One could argue that I'm still in my awkward years.
**There is the slight chance that my brain has switched things up in order to protect the innocent and that it wasn't until much later I gave up my nose clip. Ah, the joys of the aging brain. I suppose we'll never know. The horror, though, of a swim meet with a nose clip!

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Exploration, Science and Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice stills

Chasing Ice starts off like a modern day disaster flick, splicing news clips of catastrophic flooding amidst footage of a spate of climate deniers. However, do not be fooled into mistaking this remarkable documentary for an environmentalist's attempt to incite panic and preach to his own congregation. The film chronicles award-winning nature photographer James Balog's (who also has an advanced degree in geomorphology) effort to collect evidence of the Earth's changing climate by documenting melting icebergs in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and other countries.

Chasing Ice stills

Pulling together a group of young scientists, Balog forms what he calls Extreme Ice Survey and, using time-lapse photography, documents conditions at 18 glaciers beginning in 2007. Chasing Ice uses tangible science, visual evidence and stunning glacial backdrops to highlight the fact that we are witnessing the disappearance of these gargantuan glaciers at a breathtaking rate.

Chasing Ice stills

The film also explores the challenges involved in mounting an effort this ambitious, including Balog's battle with his body's own fragility as he is forced to undergo yet another knee surgery during the project.

I'm sure the cynics among us will question how interesting watching ice melt could be, but to open your heart and mind to Chasing Ice is to have your life changed. As for its "interestingness", I fell asleep in the theater during Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Chasing Ice had me leaning forward, pretty much on the edge of my seat, and jotting down ideas once it was over for how to get this into the hands of everyone I know.

If you watch and/or are interested in learning more and taking action, the Chasing Ice site has some additional information, including what you can do about climate change. Also check out the Extreme Ice Survey site for a discussion of why glaciers matter and the different types of glaciers. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't direct you to American Rivers website for information on federal and state policy changes that can help our communities better adapt to a changing climate.

Chasing Ice is currently streaming on Netflix (among other places), so for many of you, watching it is just a couple of clicks away. Hell, I'll even stream it via a Google Hangout if there's enough interest ;-)

All photos above are screen captures I took from the film.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Girl goes green for Earth Month!


I'm pretty green most of the time, but I try not to go off on "lunatic fringe" rants (because, when you do what I do during the day, you do get lumped into that category) too often because the guardians of the Internet tell me that running a blog means I have to have a limited number of categories. ;-)

An.y.way, there will be no rants this month. Instead, I will share...
  • some awesome documentaries for the environmentally conscious;
  • a couple of books that I think will appeal to everyone from your treehuggers to someone who just loves the outdoors;
  • one of my favorite outdoor temples;
  • another My Story As Told By Water; and
  • what being "pretty green" means to me.

Let's figure out how you can embrace the planet in your own way this month!