Leonardo DiCaprio is coming to Philly Earth Day weekend.
Well, not physically. But you can see Before the Flood — the documentary in which he and director Fisher Stevens travel the world and witness climate change firsthand — as part of the inaugural Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival April 21 to 23 at the Prince Theater.
There will be 26 films featured throughout the weekend, which appropriately overlaps with Earth Day. Fest executive director Debra Wolf Goldstein, head of Conservation Matters, LLC, is excited to see the festival finally come together.
Growing up in Carlisle, Pa., the self-proclaimed “nature buff” recalled a field of chestnut trees near her house that she liked to visit. One day, when she was 11, she went to gather chestnuts and saw that the trees had been chopped down and the area had been paved into a parking lot.
“It was literally like the Joni Mitchell song [“Big Yellow Taxi”], you know, ‘they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.’ That actually happened to me,” she said. “I credit that with going, like, ‘This isn’t right! Someone has to defend nature!’ So that’s how I got quote-unquote radicalized.”
Since then, an interest and care for the environment has influenced everything from her work as an environmental attorney to her holiday celebrations.
For Passover this year, she used a Haggadah from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College that outlined the 10 plagues of the environment — including water pollution, climate change and deforestation — instead of the typical blood, locusts, frogs, etc.
The idea for the film festival has been years in the making as she has attended the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital — an annual festival in Washington, D.C. — and believed Philadelphia needed one, too.
“There’s some great movies being made,” she said. “Entertaining, interesting new movies about the environment that are not too heavy, but they’re inspiring and I shouldn’t have to go the whole way to Washington, D.C., to see these.”
She began working with Alexandra Drobac Diagne, who serves as artistic director, because they noticed their backgrounds meshed well to produce an event like this. Diagne has a background in the film industry and worked with acclaimed filmmaker James Cameron (whose Avatar will be shown as part of the festival) to help set up his Lightstorm Entertainment Studio.
“We realized I had the environmental passion and the contacts in the community with a lot of these organizations that are now our sponsors or our community partners that are helping us get the word out about the festival, and she had the background and the connection with the film industry to really make this a world-class event,” Goldstein said.
The first challenge for the entirely volunteer-run festival was fundraising and finding supporters to make it a reality.
They found some early sponsors in the Nature Conservancy and Natural Lands Trust, and many other sponsors and community partners joined in soon after.
Having it coincide with Earth Day seems like a no-brainer, though Goldstein acknowledges that there will be plenty going on that weekend. But she hopes that in between the March for Science and other Earth Day-related activities in the city, people will want to come out and see a film or two — or maybe 26.
“Now the challenge is getting the word out because there’s so many things people might want to do that weekend. And I’m sure there aren’t going to be very many people who are going to watch all 26 films,” she admitted with a laugh, “but if they have an afternoon or an evening just to stop by and see one of these films — they’re all great.”
The 26 films from seven different countries — culled down from an original whopping 205 submissions — share stories of all aspects of the environment. There are short films, animated films, documentaries plus feature-length movies.
There is something for everyone, Goldstein promised.
You can find films about five orphaned baby Vervet monkeys in South Africa and how to help endangered monkey habitats, to films about the history of Wallacea located in the coral triangle within the Pacific Ring of Fire and its biodiversity.
There’s even one by a 14-year-old who was so impacted by reading about how sea turtles are dangerously ingesting plastic that he made a movie about the effects of plastic pollution. Many of the filmmakers will be at the screenings to talk with the audience afterward.
The films are being packaged in blocks, with most blocks featuring short films plus a feature-length one. Each block revolves around a theme.
“We have ones about coal mining because that’s an interesting topic for Pennsylvanians, and that is going to be featured in our regional block,” said Goldstein as an example.
The regional block will show films with such topics as oyster farming and overharvesting of horseshoe crabs on the Delaware Bay and the impact on shorebirds there that rely on the horseshoe crab eggs for food.
“It’s an interesting topic that I knew nothing about before watching this movie,” Goldstein said. “I feel like I got 100 little insights into interesting topics by watching all these films.”
Goldstein hopes the festival will be a mainstay in Philadelphia for a while. They already booked next year’s Earth Day, she said.
“Everybody lives on planet Earth, and so everybody has a stake in what happens to the earth and people can really make a difference,” Goldstein said. “And particularly at this time, people want to be inspired. They want to see what the problems are, but they want to see what the solutions are and a lot of our films talk about that.
“There are ways to make a difference, and rather than just be depressed and feel like there’s nothing we can do, I think by coming out and seeing these films you can really be inspired and be sharing the film-viewing experience with other people who care about these same issues.”
Buy a weekend pass, tickets to individual films or film blocks at philaenvirofilmfest.org. The Prince Theater is at 1412 Chestnut St.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740