Over the weekend, various theaters on the Madison campus played a part in the sixth annual “Tales from Planet Earth” film festival, aiming to bring concepts, concerns and discussion on the environment to movies — perhaps one of the most publicly accessible mediums of the modern age. The festival covers various topics each year, shifting between interdependent themes of hope, justice, belief, futures and environmental soundings. More often than not, these films are about humanity’s connectivity with nature as opposed to its inherent capacity to fulfill these ideas.
The program began in 2007 through the efforts of Gregg Mitman, an award-winning author and filmmaker. Mitman entrenches his work into the Madison community, currently holding the title of Professor of History of Science, Medical History and Environmental Studies. His most recent, personal film project, “The Land Beneath Our Feet,” depicts his collaboration with UW-Madison graduate, Sarita Siegel. Siegel’s Liberian roots are brought into the analysis as the duo travel to Liberia to intertwine 1926 archival footage of the Firestone tire company’s mass deforestation efforts and echoing socioeconomic impacts on the people. As Siegel aims to understand past events that lead Liberia into the modern age, this one-hour documentary yields harrowing remarks on overtones of imperialism, capitalism and moral destitution.
Perhaps the most popularly-recognized film of the festival was Neil Blomkamp’s 2009 feature, “District 9.” Conveyed solely through found footage formats, the near-future, sci-fi action film offers discourse on racial injustice when a passive population of alien life forms visit Earth and remain stranded on the planet’s surface. Subsequent government action rounds these “prawns’” into a decrepit shantytown, reducing the sentient beings to a life of poverty. When the bureaucratic Wikus van de Merwe helms the relocation of these aliens, plans go awry after he is sprayed by mysterious, black fluid contraband hidden by one of the prawns. Wikus begins to notice anatomical changes to his human form and develops characteristics of the alien beings; the film’s substance stems from Wikus and alien Christopher’s growing partnership and their efforts to revert Wikus back to his total, human form before they are captured, or worse. “District 9” received immense international acclaim at its release for shamelessly criticizing racial prejudice and governmental hyper-authority.
Even through removal of A-listed, high-production Hollywood budgets, the “Tales from Planet Earth” selection includes and encourages creatively unbound filmmaking. This year’s theme was “Land is Life,” including documented crises such as the Standing Rock protests (“Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock”) and political upset between governmental systems and environmental activists in Peru (“When Two Worlds Collide”). In another vein, the sobering dramatics of real, affectual environmental concern reach families across the globe, from America (“Arc of Justice,” “Dark Exodus”), to Colombia (“La Tierra Y La Sombra”), to the Australian territories (“Charlie’s Country”). There is no shortage of appeal to persons with even the most fundamental understanding of environmental consciousness. If anything, these films help establish and contribute to the more reflexive behavior of our impacts and mutualisms to the world around us.
Selections from the festival underscored an international connection between mankind and the inherent damage enacted on nature on humanity’s behalf. Comparatively, these tales were uplifting in illuminating the resistant voices which challenge harmful methods, ethics and ideologies toward the Earth.
Since 2007, an estimated 17,000 visitors have attended “Tales from Planet Earth” from all over to view award-winning films, director discussions and conversational roundtables. Perhaps you will contribute to this rising number in visiting the festival’s seventh iteration, and by then — hopefully — the world will be a little more aware through the pathos and power of film.