This weekend the inaugural Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival takes over The Prince Theater for 3 days of environmentally conscious programming. Opening this on Friday with Fisher Stevens’ Before the Flood and closing on Sunday with James Cameron’s Avatar, the Festival will showcase dozens of new shorts and features from international and domestic filmmakers on the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement, Earth Day weekend.
Last week in anticipation for the fest I got to chat with the founders of the festival Executive Director, Debra Wolf Goldstein and Artistic Director Alexandra Drobac Diagne who are hoping to start a new Philly tradition with their fest. When not working on the festival Debra is head of Conservation Matters, LLC, a firm providing legal, policy, and strategic planning services to environmental organizations and government agencies. Alexandra comes to Philadelphia from LA where she has over a decade of experience in the film industry working under James Cameron on such titles as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Abyss, Titanic and Avatar. Get more details on the fest and pick up tickets/passes here.
So what inspired you to start a new film festival in Philadelphia?
Debra Wolf Goldstein: I’m an environmental attorney. I’ve worked in this area doing land conservation for a couple of decades and have been going down to Washington, D.C. to their big environmental film festival for a couple of years now. I always come back and say, “We should start one in Philadelphia.” We need one. People here care about the issues and someone should do that. So I was talking with my friend Alexandra who has a wonderful film background.
Alexandra Drobac Diagne: I come here as an out of towner from the LA film industry. I worked in art house films for several years and then I worked with one big blockbuster maker, for many years I survived at his side, James Cameron. I joined him at the end of The Abyss and from the first word was written on the page for Terminator 2, till 3 years later when we walked the red carpet for that film. Then I stayed on for research in the beginning days of Titanic and discussed ideas about Avatar, when it was just a dream in his head.
Nothing had been written yet because he was working on Titanic, but there was images being sketched out and blue things floating in magical lands. So when my friend Debra mentioned it to me we did a quick Google search and realized most major cites have an environmental film festival ranging from Abu Dhabi to Dakar, to Amsterdam and everywhere in between; and we didn’t have one. It was a natural fit between her environmental film background and history in this city and my film background to combine our talents to put this on the map.
What has the response been so far, I know your screening at the Prince for your 3 day run?
Alexandra: We received over 230 films, submitted from 34 countries all over the world. We had a team of jurors who watched every single film and rated them. When we asked them to be jurors we thought we’d get 30 or 40 films for the first year. Little did we know we’d get over 230 and really need their devoted time and attention and we were very grateful to all our jurors who ranked them.
Then Deborah and I went through and carefully selected a group of 26 films we are showing. Ranging from shorts that are animated to features that range from fun, topical, whimsical, to films that celebrate the profound beauty of nature to films that deal with dire, serious issues. Like Before the Flood with Fisher Stevens and Leonardo DiCaprio.
So we covered the whole spectrum and made sure we did it right.
Debra: Except for Avatar we are focusing on new films.
Alexandra I have to ask, how did you come to work for James Cameron?
Alexandra: I trained as an art historian. I worked in a modern art museum in Madison Wisconsin, we moved to LA for my husband’s job and I just so happened to start working in the area I loved and that is art house films and one day I didn’t have a job anymore. One of my contacts knew that Jim was looking for somebody and I went into him and actually said I’ll help you out for a while, but I’ll need time off to interview because I am looking for jobs in art house, I wasn’t really interested in the blockbuster world.
I think he was so taken aback that someone had the audacity to say that I ended up staying with him for a very long time. He was close to finishing postproduction on Aliens, so he was with 20th Century Fox he had a bungalow there, which was an editing bay at that point.
Then the day came when he had the idea for Terminator 2 and he sequestered himself writing, and while he was doing that I helped build his company Lightstorm Entertaiment for him.
In the festival there’s a focus on independents was it difficult to find films that echoed your message?
Debra: No in fact, we could have easily programmed 2 to 3 times the amount of films we did if we had more screens and venues. But we wanted to start out this film inaugural year….
Alexandra: Lean and mean! We had to turn away films that really broke my heart to turn away. But we are very excited our first environmental advocacy award will be presented to our opening night feature Before the Flood, to Fisher Stevens who will be attending and we’ll have him for a 10-minute Q&A after the film.
Finally, the environment is a hot button issue right now, what do you hope your attendees will take away from the fest?
Alexandra: We first want them to be entertained; we want these to be fun entertaining films not just for film people, not just for environmentalists, for anyone and everyone. These are great films. Then we want them to be inspired as well and finally….
Debra: Informed. Maybe learning a little bit more about a topic they didn’t know about before or maybe having their eyes opened to something they didn’t.