'Tales from Planet Earth' leverages power of film for community action

October 27, 2009

The Tales from Planet Earth community and film festival takes center stage in Madison Nov. 6-8 with something new: a built-in call to action. "When the lights come up, we want people to take the energy and inspiration of great storytelling to build community and effect positive environmental and social change," says festival director Gregg Mitman. "To help people do that, we've worked hard this year to include community engagement as part of the festival's mission." Indeed, the event is billed as a community and film festival because organizers have partnered with Madison-area nonprofit organizations involved in issues raised by many of the films. "We hope to make the festival a new national model, using film to catalyze community action on broad-ranging issues in environment and sustainability like food, health, energy, climate, and biodiversity," says Mitman, interim director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Nelson Institute's Center for Culture, History, and Environment is hosting the festival in collaboration with Working Films, a national nonprofit organization that links the power of storytelling through film to cutting-edge activism. Admission to all events is free on a first-come, first-served basis. For a complete schedule, visit TalesFromPlanetEarth.com. When it premiered in Madison two years ago, Tales from Planet Earth drew enthusiastic reviews and more than 3,000 filmgoers. Surpassing a highly successful debut with an inspired sequel is always a challenge, but in this case the odds are good. The second edition will feature 45 films from around the world -- almost twice as many as the opener. And unlike its predecessor, this year's event will highlight a full year of community engagement. It also will spawn a traveling mini-festival. The theme of the first Tales from Planet Earth was hope. This year's theme is justice. The program again features four issue-based "strands": landscapes of labor, precious resources, strange weather, and in the company of animals. Besides films, it includes lectures, panel and audience discussions, interactions with filmmakers, and other community activities. Most events will take place at one of four venues: the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Fredric March Play Circle, both in Memorial Union, 800 Langdon St.; UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.; and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. The festival opens with a public lecture, "Green the Ghetto and How Much it Won't Cost Us," by green jobs and environmental justice advocate Majora Carter at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6, in the Union Theater. A screening of the 2008 film "Trouble the Water," an extraordinary portrait of terror, survival, and redemption featuring footage shot by an aspiring rap artist as she and her neighbors in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans are trapped by Hurricane Katrina, will follow. Carter, founder of the nonprofit group Sustainable South Bronx, president of her own "green collar" economic consulting firm, co-host of Sundance Channel's "The Green," and host of a new special public radio series called "The Promised Land," received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2005 for her work. Other headlining films include "What's on Your Plate" (2009), which follows two New York City pre-teens who tenaciously investigate the sources of their food; "Sleep Dealer" (2008), a Sundance Award-winning science-fiction feature that imagines a future in which all U.S. borders are closed to immigration yet foreign workers continue to perform labor remotely via robotic connections; and "Saving Luna" (2008), the moving story of an orphaned Orca whale that raises important issues about how people should relate to wild animals. Fifteen producers, directors, editors and animators of films being shown will participate in the festival. Among them are guest artist Alex Rivera, whose work addresses concerns of the Latino community through a language of humor, satire, and metaphor; and George Stoney, a professor of film and cinema studies at New York University and a pioneer in the field of documentary film. Native American activist and environmentalist Winona LaDuke will speak on "The Economy for the Next Seven Generations" at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8, in the Union Theater. A two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate, LaDuke is program director of Honor the Earth, a national organization that focuses on issues of sustainable development, renewable energy, and food systems. She lives and works on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota. Two graduate-level courses taught this semester by Mitman and visiting artist Judith Helfand, co-founder of Working Films, have paired budding student filmmakers and community organizers with the festival's Madison-area nonprofit partners to create films and outreach campaigns about these groups and their work in the community. The partners are Centro Hispano, CHOW (Cooking Healthy Options in Wisconsin), First United Methodist Church, Four Lakes Wildlife Center, International Crane Foundation, Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, P.L.A.N. (Preparedness through Linking All Neighbors), Porchlight, and Troy Gardens. Echoes of Tales from Planet Earth will continue in 2010 when a smaller selection of films will be screened in four communities across the state -- Baraboo, Milwaukee, Dodgeville, and Ashland -- as part of the Wisconsin Humanities Council's Making it Home initiative. More than 30 university and community organizations are providing financial and logistical support to the festival. For more information, visit TalesFromPlanetEarth.com.