October 7, 2020

Environmental Film Festival Goes Virtual This Year

CAPTURING A SHOT: “Picture of His Life,” a documentary about photographer Amost Nachoum’s efforts to swim underwater with a polar bear, is among the highlights of this year’s Princeton Environmental Film Festival.

By Anne Levin

The Princeton Public Library’s 2020 Princeton Environmental Film Festival (PEFF), set for this month, was a done deal when the pandemic forced the library to close its doors last March. By the time summer arrived, it was clear that a week of live screenings and discussions was not going to happen.

Now in its 14th year, the annual, free festival is a much-anticipated event. Instead of scrapping the series exploring urgent environmental issues, the library has transitioned to digital. The festival opens Monday, October 12 and continues through Sunday, October 18. Some 20 films, with presentations by some of the filmmakers, make up the virtual roster.

“We had pretty much finalized the whole event when the library closed in March,” said librarian Susan Conlon, who is head of youth services and plans the festival with library staffer Kim Dorman. “Everything was viewed, considered, and selected. We had made arrangements for filmmakers to come. So we had to put the brakes on. But we actually have gotten to show two of the films before now, and in the meantime picked up a couple of others. So here we are with 20 films.”

Going virtual means films are available on demand. “People can gather with friends and family and watch what they want, when they want, and that’s a kind of nice element,” said Conlon. “It’s a little bit of a different experience. And it’s all free.”

Among the highlights is Picture of His Life, a film about Amos Nachoum, the underwater still photographer whose lifelong dream is to swim underwater with a polar bear and capture it face-to-face on film. Nearing the end of his career, he is determined to give it one last shot. Dani Menkin, the filmmaker, will appear in a Q&A session about the film.

“He’s Israeli, and had done the film Dolphin Boy, which we liked, a few  years ago,” said Conlon. “Like that film, this one is beautiful to watch. It’s an interesting combination of a person looking back on their life and what they need to do to feel like they really accomplished something, with the plight of the polar bear. The film is really showing us the dire plight of our planet, through these two characters.”

Then there is Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man. The film focuses on Jack Sim, a quirky Singaporean and crusader in global sanitation. A former entrepreneur, he uses humor to campaign for a crisis that impacts over two billion people.

“This is a very funny story about a really interesting guy who takes on the problem of sanitation that most people don’t have to know about,” said Conlon. “There are people in our world who live in some deplorable conditions. He wants to turn attention to bring people together and come up with solutions that make these people’s lives better. It’s a really tough subject and there are some difficult moments to watch, but it is done with such humor. This is a journey. He is a force to be reckoned with.”

Mossville: When Great Trees Fall is an intimate look at Mossville, Louisiana, a once-thriving community founded by formerly enslaved and free people of color and an economically flourishing safe haven for generations of African American families. The town is now a breeding ground for petrochemical plants where many residents have been forced from their homes, and those who stayed suffer from prolonged exposure to contamination and pollution.

“This is one of the films that turn attention to environmental justice,” Conlon said. “Generations of families have lived in this place, and this one man is still holding out. It’s about heritage, family, principle, and sense of place — all of the reasons anybody would want to protect their home and way of life. It’s one man against a chemical company.”

The festival also includes Sacrifice Zone, a look at Newark’s Ironbound district, one of the most toxic neighborhoods in the country. The film follows Maria Lopez-Nunez, as she leads a group of environmental justice fighters determined to break the cycle of poor communities of color serving as dumping grounds. Emperors of the Deep is about the plight of sharks, and Invisible Hand is about the Rights of Nature Movement. A full list of films can be found at princetonlibrary.org/PEFF.

“It is really nice to be able to see this through,” said Conlon. “The festival is a key signature event for Princeton Public Library. Kim and I are so committed to this. It’s different this year, but we hope people will take part because there are some great films to see.”