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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Long Distance Mom: Saving Birds
April 4, 2012 - 8:00pm

Since I have been traveling to film festivals and accompanying students on spring break trips, I have not seen my teenagers for almost three weeks — a situation that makes my eyes start to twitch after a while. I need to communicate to my kids (and to myself) a justification for this lengthy separation from them. 

Here goes--

  • Screening in film festivals is similar to publishing in journals for film professors.
  • My job expects me to gain “legitimate” audiences for my films.
  • My raises and promotions are connected to festival screenings.

These answers start to explain my absence from both the classroom (and my children), but they begin to sound like a lame justification for the importance of the humanities or perhaps just another angry retort to David Levy’s recent Washington Post piece about lazy, indulged academics.  Seriously… How important is it for a professor to attend a film festival?  Can films help to solve problems such as health care, animal extinction or global warming?

I do not mean to suggest that all film festivals should address global crises, but fortunately, a few make brave attempts to do so.  I spent last weekend at a truly engaged festival, the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF) run out of Ithaca College in upstate New York.  Unlike many for-profit run film festivals, the non-profit FLEFF includes in their mission the goals of increasing dialogue and “vigorous debate” about the environment.

FLEFF is co-directed by two talented professors, cinema studies scholar Patricia Zimmermann and political scientist Tom Shevory.  Zimmermann and Shevory facilitate the programming, curating and implementation of FLEFF which includes the management of no fewer than 57 interns and several one-credit hour “mini-courses” connected to the festival’s unusual theme of microtopias.  As their web site explains about this year’s topic, “Rather than a grand narrative and a large scale, microtopias propose temporary, dynamic, shared worlds, a field of forces shaped on a sustainable scale.“  FLEFF showcased films, particularly ones with an environmental or sustainable focus that investigate these compelling utopian spaces.

But these environmental spaces are just as often dystopic, as many young people at the festival learned.

My partner and I brought along two of our own interns to the festival.  Sophia and Stefanie met many international directors and participated in conversations ranging from toxic, trash dumps surrounding Beijing to sustainable sushi practices.  They found the films both inspiring and troubling.  After the screening of my own documentary, they witnessed a lively discussion about the relationship between science and art drawing from the story of Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands narrated by poet Martha Serpas.

Audience members spoke of how they were relieved to listen to Serpas’s poetry as a reflection on the Gulf’s environmental dilemmas rather than the “more predictable” scientific or expert opinions.  A scientist in the audience, retired Ithaca College ornithologist John Confer, spoke of spending years gathering research on the golden-winged warbler that “20 people may read” while his wife, KarenAllaben-Confer, paints birds in their natural habitats and impacts hundreds of people through her artwork.  I pointed out that many politicians reference academic data in order to support decision-making about the environment.   Someone else noted that politicians will not read academic research unless there is a public outcry.  Confer asked if we could make a film about saving birds next.  (In the meantime Confer is organizing volunteer road crews to help migrating salamanders cross the road without getting run over.)

Karen sent me an extensive, detailed email about the role of art and the importance of documentation in order to take action on birds in crisis due to human pollution; e.g. California condors dying from lead ammunition, roseate spoonbills lacking fresh water, and the list goes on.  The extent to which the general public is unaware of or simply ignores the crisis in the bird population is truly shocking.  “WingedMigration” was a good starting point for developing audience identification and emotion, but Karen makes it clear that we need to keep pushing on explaining the real threats to the general public.

Film, art and writing support the public outcry to save the environment.  The public dialogue that surrounds the humanities—both productive and contentious—propels political change.  When conservatives question the relative “value” of the humanities for a college education, perhaps only one response is truly appropriate.  

Listen to the warbler…


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