Belief: Tales from Planet Earth returns to explore faith, science and environment

October 26, 2015

Their choice of topics could hardly have been more prescient. In late 2014, the organizers of Tales from Planet Earth decided the 2015 film festival would explore how belief shapes environmental perceptions and action. Within months, Pope Francis announced a forthcoming encyclical on the environment. Published in May, the papal letter calls for swift, unified global action for the good of all and “our common home.”

Soon after, as fighting increased in Syria’s civil war, heartbreaking images of refugees riddled the news. With millions displaced and left fleeing to neighboring and distant countries, issues of migration and belonging were brought even more sharply into focus.

Amidst this backdrop of global contemplation and crisis, Tales will springboard discussions of religion, experience, spirituality, identity and science. The biennial festival – this year occurring November 6-8 – hosted by the Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History and Environment (CHE), includes 40 films and conversations with a range of filmmakers, activists and scholars, all free and open to the public.

Festival founder Gregg Mitman, professor of history of science, medical history and environmental studies, and festival programming director and CHE alumnus Peter Boger recently spoke about what attendees can expect.

How did you arrive at the theme of belief for this year’s festival? Why explore these topics now?

Mitman: We intentionally linked this year’s festival theme to the subject of last spring’s CHE place-based workshop: sacred place, space and time. But the theme also came out of a sense that many environmental challenges we're facing – climate change, mass species extinctions, or toxic exposures, to name a few – have by and large been framed and addressed through economic, scientific and technological means. But such perspectives alone are not enough to transform people’s actions. 

Across different faith communities, a call for greater reverence for the Earth and compassion for other human beings is being heard. And it brings us face-to-face with questions of the moral and value systems that guide people’s lives. That’s what has been missing. We need to come to understand what moves people in both their hearts and minds.

The films are organized across five strands: resilience, sacrifice, retreat, belonging and knowing. How do these topics complement the larger festival theme of belief? 

Boger: The strands arose organically. With every festival, we start with an overarching theme to guide us in searching for potential films. But we ultimately select films based on whether they tell a good story, not because they are about a particular issue or place. Over time, we find connections between stories and ways juxtaposing them can illuminate new points of view. From there, we refine these into strands of programming that explore and contextualize the main theme. This year, these five sub-themes felt like they captured different aspects of belief, while also providing revealing frames for our films:


How do people endure in the face of environmental and social injustice? What beliefs and institutions allow them to persevere?

For example, In the Light of Reverence focuses on sacred sites of Native Americans that have also become places for retreat for other people, and the ways in which conflicting values and beliefs come to clash. What happens when your sacred site isn't a church but is out in nature and you can't block it off? We are extremely fortunate to have Professor Patty Loew and Chairman Mike Wiggins, both members of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, moderating a discussion around the film.


What motivates someone to sacrifice their life on behalf of the causes about which they care passionately? 

Two films in this strand – I Am Chut Wutty and Toxic: Amazon – are about environmental activists who become martyrs – killed in the process of defending their fundamental values. Where does that fortitude come from? We’ll ask the filmmakers, Fran Lambrick and Felipe Milanez, respectively, who are both attending the festival.


"Across different faith
communities, a call for
greater reverence for the
Earth and compassion for
other human beings is
being heard. … We need to
come to understand what
moves people in both
their hearts and minds."

Nature has long served as a place of spiritual retreat for different cultures and traditions. What is the purpose of retreat? What do people think they’re retreating from and to when they go “into” nature?

And, of course, sometimes it is not the place, but the journey itself that becomes a form of retreat. Pilgrimage practices reach across Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, and many other faith traditions. And pilgrimage is the subject of two of our films, Walking the Camino and Pad Yatra, inviting audiences to consider how inner contemplation and revelation can bring about a compassion for others and the earth.  


In this strand we ask, how do we create a sense of home? Where do we seek solace and identity and how can we create community in modern, pluralistic societies? Such questions are particularly pressing, given we are in the midst of one of the largest global exoduses ever – with an estimated 60 million refugees – in search of a new home and a better life. In that process of displacement and movement, how are new communities defined?

Certainly, one’s faith is critical to one’s sense of belonging. Arctic Mosque is one of many festival films touching on this theme. Who knew there was a community of a hundred Muslims in the Arctic Circle, for whom the key in terms of identity and community was the building of a mosque they could worship in? Saira and Nilufer Rahman, the film’s directors, will be joining us for the festival.


Our final strand asks about the source or sources of knowledge. Sometimes knowledge comes through science. Sometimes it comes through our own bodily perceptions. And sometimes it arises through deeply held spiritual experiences. How is different knowledge mobilized into action? And what happens when such knowledge isn’t certain, or when doubt is manipulated for economic and political gain?

NoBody’s Perfect is a fascinating German film in this strand about “children of thalidomide” – all now adults – who were exposed to the chemical in the womb and born with physical deformities, including missing limbs. It's a loving portrait, pushing back against what we conceive of as beauty and the body. And the film led to the largest settlement claim in German history for thalidomide victims.

The festival’s opening roundtable will explore the power of belief to mobilize action. What different perspectives do the three speakers bring to this topic?

Mitman: Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist, but also identifies herself as an evangelical Christian. She has become an articulate spokesperson for the ways in which faith and scientific evidence of climate change can come together.

Katharine Hayhoe
Katharine Hayhoe

In bringing together science and belief, Hayhoe has, along with Nelson Institute emeritus faculty member Cal DeWitt, been a leader in the “creation care” movement, winning the hearts and minds of evangelical Christians in pushing forth climate change solutions. [Hayhoe will also deliver a festival keynote, Climate Change and Religious Stewardship, Nov. 7.]

Godfrey Reggio is a highly acclaimed filmmaker, whose Qatsi trilogy is a stunning experiment in the poetics of cinema. Working with the composer Philip Glass, Reggio invites us into the art of film as a meditative and reflective space. Koyaanisquatsi (a Hopi word for “life out of balance”), the first in the film trilogy, uses spectacular images of natural and manmade forms to explore ways of life in accelerated, technological societies, where Reggio proclaims, “we have produced a deafening silence of the spirit.” 

Godfrey Reggio
Godfrey Reggio

Before his turn to cinema, Reggio lived, at an early age, a monastic life in the Catholic order of the Christian Brothers. Taking up vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Reggio also worked with Chicano street gangs and devoted himself to serving the needs of the poor in the barrios of Santa Fe.

Mike Wiggins Jr., chairman of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Ojibwe, has, in recent years, become an eloquent spokesperson and leader in defending the rights of the Ojibwe, as they sought to protect their sacred and sovereign lands from a proposed taconite iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin. Drawing upon Anishinaabe stories and traditions, he invites us to reflect on what it means to make decisions for a community based not on just our children’s lives, but for seven generations to come.

Mike Wiggins Jr.
Mike Wiggins Jr.

In entering into a conversation with such inspirational people, I’m interested in how we might begin to think across these different faith traditions to common themes. What values embedded in these different perspectives speak to each other: to care for the Earth and to a need for mutual reciprocity and responsibility among all living things?

The pope speaks to this quite eloquently. We cannot separate issues of the environment from issues of social justice.  

Are there other elements of the festival you’re particularly looking forward to?

Boger: One of my goals with every Tales festival has been to challenge people’s definition of an environmental film. Too often the term is assumed to refer only to dry or hectoring documentaries, the Brussels sprouts of the film world people know they should watch but don’t want to. So I’m always looking for genres people wouldn’t normally assume are “environmental.”

This year I’m especially proud we’re bringing Unogumbe, a South African opera. It retells the story of Noah’s Ark, revealing this Biblical tale to be one of resilience in the face of climate change. Similarly, few people would immediately classify May Allah Bless France!, about a French-Congolese rap artist expressing his immigrant and Muslim identities through hip hop, as an environmental film; but recognizing it as such is what I think makes Talesunique among the world of environmental film festivals.

Mitman: Tales has always tried to foster a more inclusive community – to challenge people’s perceptions of what they think of as the environment and to convince them there are themes here for them.

“Tales has always tried
to foster a more inclusive
community – to challenge
people’s perceptions of
what they think of as the
environment and to convince
them there are themes
here for them.” 

For example, when we think of environmental heroes, particularly in Wisconsin, we think about Aldo Leopold, John Muir and Gaylord Nelson, and Rachel Carson. But why don't we consider Cesar Chavez a kind of environmental hero – someone who committed his life to addressing questions of social justice connected to environmental issues? The opening night film, Cesar’s Last Fast, treats us to remarkable home footage of a long fast he undertook at the age of 61, inspired by his faith, to bring visibility to the plight of migrant workers and pesticide exposure.

Reaching out to different faith traditions within the Madison community and beyond is quite appealing to us.  We have films that touch upon the experience of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, among others. It is a big tent, and we are hopeful everyone – regardless of their faith, creed or belief – will find something of interest.

Boger: In the end, I think what excites us most are the ways in which the festival is, and always should be, a platform for building engagement between UW-Madison and a broader community. Not only do filmmakers and activists from around the world come to connect with our scholars and attendees, but the festival allows the Nelson Institute and CHE in particular to share our understanding of the environment with a public audience.

At Tales 2015, for example, you’ll find CHE faculty and graduate affiliates like Anna Gade, Elizabeth Hennessy, Judd Kinzley, Cathy Middlecamp, Rachel Gross, Eric Nost and Nathan Green publicly sharing their knowledge at introductions of festival films. You’ll see continued outreach to Wisconsin’s Native Nations, part of a concerted effort initiated last year by the Nelson Institute’s director, Paul Robbins. And hopefully you’ll find audiences inspired to reflect on belief and its relationship to the environment – illustrating our belief, as curators of this festival, that issues don’t move people; stories do!


Katharine Hayhoe