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Vol. LXIII, No. 2
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
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Green Screen: Environmental Films Inform and Entertain at Public Library’s Festival

Dilshanie Perera

The Princeton Public Library’s third annual Environmental Film Festival was a 10-day celebration of all things green, with films, talks and panel discussions dealing with topics ranging from plastics and retrofitting to organic farms and garbage. Organized by librarians Susan Conlon and Martha Perry, the festival opened on January 2.

The library’s Community Room was packed on Thursday evening for a screening of Trashed, a film about the garbage business, a rapidly growing industry. Filmmaker Bill Kirkos spoke about making the movie, saying “I poured my heart into this for a solid year of production.” His cinematic journey took him to landfills and recycling facilities across the U.S. and Canada.

The movie revealed some unsettling statistics, like the fact that New York City produces 50,000 tons of trash every day, and that experts agree that all landfills leak over time. Opening a landfill can also draw upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars over the dump’s lifetime, making it difficult for the garbage industry’s environmental damages to be curtailed.

Elizabeth Royte’s talk following Mr. Kirkos’s film also dealt with trash. Her book, Garbageland, describes what happened when the author followed her garbage to the various places it went after leaving her home in Brooklyn.

Both the lighthearted and weightier aspects of refuse were covered as Ms. Royte joked about a new meaning to the phrase “trash talking” and recounted her adventures sneaking around landfills, but her tone was ultimately tempered by “the enormity and terribleness of our wastefulness” that became evident in her research.

New York City has permits to dump in seven states, Ms. Royte revealed, adding that her travels included a landfill in Pennsylvania, an incinerator in Newark, and a scrap yard in Jersey City, where she learned that many recycled plastics are shipped to China, among other destinations.

Advocating a “real paradigm shift” in the way we get rid of waste in the US, Ms. Royte suggested that producers need to manufacture products that minimize waste, that local governments could pass “zero waste” resolutions, and that individuals could consider the consequences of waste before purchasing products.

“By the time I was done with garbage, I was obsessed with disposability,” Ms. Royte said of the next book she wrote, Bottlemania, which deals with the consumption of bottled water. Both texts can be found at the library.

Saturday’s screening of King Corn also asked where does what we consume come from and where does it go after we are done with it? In a piece both informative and imaginative, filmmakers Aaron Woolf, Curt Ellis, and Ian Cheney told the story of how corn finds its way into most processed foods, in the form of high fructose corn syrup, or via corn-fed animals, while also explaining the effects and consequences of government corn subsidies, which have spurred the exponential production of corn.

To understand their subject, best friends Mr. Ellis and Mr. Cheney, who are also the film’s protagonists, moved to Greene, Iowa to grow exactly one acre of corn.

Acknowledging that “urban folks from the East Coast have a lot to learn from people who have been growing food the way it was meant to be grown,” Mr. Cheney spoke of their experience following the screening.

The duo’s other collaboration, The Greening of Southie, which takes place in South Boston and documents the construction of a green building in the city, was featured later that evening. “So many films about buildings are about the structures themselves or the architects, but we wanted to capture the voices of the builders,” Mr. Cheney said.

The films, along with others screened during the festival, are available for checkout at the public library. According to Ms. Conlon, many of them were purchased with the performance rights, so individuals may check them out and arrange for a public screening in other venues as well.

Characterizing the Environmental Film Festival as “successful on a lot of levels,” Ms. Conlon was delighted to have a multigenerational audience present at the events. Attendees included Princeton locals, alongside people from other states throughout the region, she said, adding that the event also garnered much support on environmental blogs.

The best parts of the festival, Ms. Conlon said, are “the great energy” spurred by “bringing the community together” and being able to “support the work that these filmmakers do, and the way they bring these messages through film.”

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