With Earth Month just around the bend, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Cassandra West, One Earth Film Fest Founding Member and Public Relations Lead, about the 9th Annual One Earth Film Festival, which takes place from March 6th through the 15th at various locations throughout the Chicagoland area. As you may be able to gather from its name, the event is one that focuses on climate change and sustainability, as well as what we can do each and every day of the year in order to protect this one planet that we all call home. Read on to see what she had to say about the festival, its history, some of the venues that will be hosting screenings and more.
Andrew DeCanniere: To begin at the beginning, how did the festival get its start?
Cassandra West: Well, the festival started in 2012. It was at a meeting that took place at the home of an environmental activist, Melanie Weiss. Green Community Connections is a grassroots sustainability organization that started in Oak Park. It had these green living and learning tours, and a few weeks after the tour, some of the people who were on the tour — or who helped organize it — got together to talk about it. Anna Garcia-Doyle, who is the director of the festival, stood up at the meeting and said that one way to get more people aware of environmental issues is through film. Nobody had experience putting a film festival together, but somehow we figured it out. That was in January, and then seven weeks later the festival rolled out. We have a movie theater here — the Lake Theatre — and it hosted one of the screenings. Lo and behold, 500 people showed up, and that told us that the idea has some possibilities. Then we created some committees to put on the next festival. Each year it grew, and each year we expanded further beyond Oak Park. Originally, it was just Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. Subsequently, we went to west side communities adjacent to Oak Park — the Austin neighborhood. We had some team members who were connected to the faith community and they thought about contacting churches on the south side. So, we eventually made connections with Trinity. It is this large African-American congregation. We’ve had screenings there and at other churches in Hyde Park. We’ve had screenings at the University of Chicago, at the Museum of Science and Industry, and at Park District centers.
About two years in, there was an idea to start a student film contest. That’s the Young Filmmakers Contest. The idea was to get young people to think about sustainability and climate change-related issues. They were invited to submit three to eight minute short films, but the films had to be solution-based. Last year, the Young Filmmakers Contest attracted about 150 entries. This year, 195 entries came in. If you go to the festival website, you can see stories about the winners and where they come from. There are teachers all over the country who are aware of the contest and who have supported it, and they’ve encouraged their students to enter. The winning films are premiered on the second day of the festival. This year, they will premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, March 7th, and we have students who live in other parts of the country who will be coming in for the event. The highest award is $1,000. Students who win get either a $500 or $1,000 award, and they also get a matching amount that they can donate to charity or non-profit of their choice. So, it sort of doubles the impact.
We also try to provide some funds to defray the costs of filmmakers who are in other parts of the country, so they can actually come to the festival. This year, we have about 19 filmmakers who will either be in-person or who will Skype in to have a discussion with the audience.
The festival has a facilitated discussion model, meaning we don’t want people to come to the festival and then just hop up and leave. We provide opportunities for discussion and they are led by facilitators who’ve been trained in a model that comes from the Institute for Cultural Affairs (ICA), which is an international organization. One of our core team members, Dick Alton, has been involved with ICA for a long time, and so he has worked with that facilitation model.
People stay after the film and we also work together with other organizations — like the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, and Friends of the Chicago River — to attend and have literature available, as well as to offer people the opportunity to get involved, and to volunteer and take action. We want people to be inspired by the films and don’t want to lose that initial enthusiasm. Our model is also a little bit different from other film festivals, where filmmakers will submit entries. We work with different lists that our team members put together. There are a lot of films and we have volunteers who spend hours viewing them. They then fill out a scorecard to rate the films. Usually, we try to stick to around 25 films, and whichever ones end up getting the highest ratings are usually the ones we end up screening during the festival. Then, once the films are decided upon, we have venue partners who look at the list and say ‘Well, this is the kind of audience that we can attract. We want this film.’ So, that’s how films get placed with different venues. Once the schedule has come together, we have people who will work on the programming. Sometimes we have panel discussions. Especially when it comes to films for children, we may have a herpetology society come and bring reptiles to make it interactive, fun and engaging. We’ve had nature walks that happen in a forest preserve before screenings, so people can get out and see what is happening. Then, they can come back and watch a film that may deal with conservation or restoration or something like that. We try to offer engagement opportunities that match with the topic of the film.
DeCanniere: And it does seem like there are quite a lot of different venues throughout the area that will be showing films as a part of the festival. So, as you say, it seems like it should be pretty accessible for many people. Switching gears a bit, I think you also mentioned that each year’s festival has a theme?
West: So, this year the theme is ‘The Power of We.’ This is our third year having a theme. When we first started we had the film festival and a tagline, ‘Moving Planet, Moving People.’ The first year was ‘This Is The Moment.’ We were trying to get people to say climate change issues are very important, so this is the moment for all of us to take some action. Last year, it was ‘All In,’ which was a call for people to be ‘all in’ and really make a commitment to do something that was long-term and sustainable. This year, the theme is ‘The Power of We’ and we are saying that we now have a climate crisis. Climate change is happening and it is happening here in Chicago. There has been flooding. The beaches are eroding. Other things are happening as well. None of us can solve or combat climate change — or other environmental threats — on our own. Collectively, we can do more. We’re trying to get people to connect with others, and with organizations that are doing work in these areas, to really move the needle forward. It’s a call to action. It fits in with what we are trying to do. If we can help people become environmental activists in their own right — that’s what we want the festival to accomplish.
Our attendance has grown from 500. I think the second or third year we had maybe 3,000 or 4,000 people. We’ve been averaging about 6,000 in the last couple of years. And we’ve talked about reaching beyond the choir. We know that there are a lot of people who are aware and invested in trying to do something, but we also want to reach people who — for whatever reason — do not think about all the plastic that gets used or how many times they drive their car when they could be walking, biking or taking public transportation, and the other ways in which we individually harm the environment. For instance, how much water we waste in our homes or how much fossil fuels are used to power all of our devices. We’re trying to wake people up and have them look within their own homes, their own communities — within whatever circles they move in —- and to realize that they and their neighbors can all work together to do more.
Also, inherent in the name of the festival — One Earth Film Festival — is that we only have this one planet on which to live. We are all here together. It’s our individual and collective responsibility to protect the planet. Maybe it’s something like planting native plants — because we try and help people understand why native plants are important and what they do. Native plants have deeper roots, so they can absorb more rainwater than grass can. Grass has very shallow roots and just waste a lot of water. There’s a lot of information I’ve picked up from attending the festival that makes me more aware. So, the more aware you are, the better you can do by the planet.
DeCanniere: Absolutely. I know that I’m always trying to learn more myself. I think it’s wonderful that you’re really trying to engage the community and educate residents on all of the many meaningful ways in which they can have a positive impact.
West: We also have really thought about where we want to show these films. That’s why we have so many screenings, so there is probably a screening near where most people who live in the metropolitan area reside. There’s the northern portion of the city, the south, the suburbs. There’s probably a screening within three to five miles of almost anybody in any neighborhood in the city.
DeCanniere: And I think it’s great that there are some at libraries and universities, since libraries are often at the heart of communities. They play such a huge role in the communities that they serve.
West: Yeah. Since the festival began we have had a strong relationship with the Oak Park Library. so, we always have a screening there. Last year, we had a screening of film about biking, and then there was a bike group that arranged for a ride after the screening. After the film was over, people got on their bikes and biked around Oak Park for a bit. We also had another film about this guy who walked all around New York, and after the screening of his film, there was a walk in Hyde Park. We try and make it interactive. After you have been sitting for over an hour, and then maybe another half-hour or 45 minutes talking, people sometimes want to do something that’s more physical, and we try to build in those sorts of opportunities.
DeCanniere: And I think it is more likely to stay with you more if you have those talks after the films, or if you participate in those kinds of activities. You aren’t just going to a screening, watching whatever it is, and moving on with your day. It’s not just in one ear and out the other.
West: Every part of the festival is done with intention. So, we’re really trying to uplift people, because a lot of these topics are serious. So, how can you bring people back to a place where they feel hopeful and inspired to take action?
DeCanniere: Right. I certainly think that if it is not only presenting a problem, but presenting some concrete solutions, that can also go a long way. If you tell people we have the power to change the situation — because we really do have the power to act, and to change the situation for the better — I think that makes a big difference. And the good news is that it really does seem like more and more people are becoming aware of these issues and want to learn more about what they can do. It seems like they’re becoming more engaged as time goes on. So, I’m glad to see there are more people who want to be a part of the solution rather than just putting their head in the sand, pretending like the problem doesn’t exist, all while continuing to contribute to the problem.
West: We try to have some fun venues as well. For instance, our opening night is going to be at the Tesla showroom. We have a sort of partnership with them. We have a screening at Patagonia, which is a clothing store on Michigan Avenue.
DeCanniere: And it seems that Patagonia is definitely one of the more eco-conscious retailers as well.
West: Right. That’s why we partnered with organizations or businesses like that. We are also going to have an event at Cruz Blanca Brewery & Taqueria in Chicago. We call those ‘View & Brews.’ We have an event at Good Earth Greenhouse, which is a greenhouse in River Forest. I’ve been to those screenings and you’re sitting there, surrounded by plants — so that’s a cool place to have a screening. Then, there’s also a screening at Thatcher Woods Pavilion, which is a pavilion that’s in one of the forest preserves. It’s right in the middle of this big, open space, and you can look out on the preserve. Elmhurst College is another venue, as is Loyola University, along with the Peoples Gas Welcome Pavilion at Navy Pier, and the screenings tend to be pretty intimate. We have around 75 to 100 people, depending on the space.
For more information regarding the One Earth Film Festival, which takes place from March 6th through March 15th, including a listing of all films, screening dates, times and locations, please visit the festival’s website. You may also connect with the festival on social media. Find them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: Please note that on March 12, 2020, festival organizers made the decision not to host any additional in-person screenings in order to prevent the potential spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). However, there are three films that are available to view the weekend of March 14 – 15 only, as well as two recordings from March 12th. Learn more about about these virtual screenings here. The remaining film screenings have been postponed.