Environmental Film Festival Turns 25

It’s something of an occasion this week when the 2017 Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital — a Washington institution, but also in many ways a national and planetary institution — kicks off March 14 at National Geographic with a screening of “Water and Power: A California Heist,” about the corruption behind California’s water crisis.

The festival runs through March 26 at a range of venues inside the Beltway, including the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the National Archives, the Avalon Theatre and a number of embassies.

From small beginnings as the first festival of its kind, it is now very big with 180 or more films from 32 countries, focusing this year on “a planet in transition, exploring what has happened over the past 25 years and what lies ahead.”

That quarter-century is significant, because the festival is also celebrating its 25th anniversary of presenting films that are, according to founder Flo Stone, not only about the environment but about environments. The anniversary also occurs at a time when global warming, climate change and the environment itself are issues being hotly debated.

For Georgetown resident Flo Stone — and her husband Roger — the timing is both critical and auspicious. The festival has grown like Topsy. Twenty-five years ago, there were approximately 1,200 attendees. That number grew to some 30,000 and is likely to exceed it this year.

The Stones were honored at a 25th anniversary benefit at the Embassy of New Zealand several weeks ago. The citation read: “for their work to advance understanding of Earth’s diverse and endangered environments through the power of film and the written word. By calling attention to this overarching importance of the environment in our lives, their vision has inspired innovative approaches to educating, engaging and empowering the public to protect our planet.”

Flo Stone, who continues to work with the festival as an active, inspiring member of the board, remains as committed as ever. “People often ask me if I am an environmentalist in terms of the festival,” she said. “To me this is not just an issue, it’s about the environment, period, this world we have, its components, the dangers to it. It is also about making good and excellent films. We’re about good films, and if you have that, and we do, then the issues will be fairly and powerfully represented.”

For Stone, the festival grew almost organically out of her interests and activities in science and anthropology. “I worked at the American Museum of Natural History, and I’d also created the Margaret Mead Film Festival previously,” she said. “So those interests naturally sparked other things.”

In 1986, she was film chair for the Smithsonian’s National Forum on Biodiversity and established the Earthwatch Institute Film Awards for documentaries, presented annually by National Geographic. She also chaired juries for the American Film & Video Festival. “All of this kind of came together naturally, there were so many gifted documentary film makers that were doing wonderful work back then.

“I think the festival resonates in this city. We live in this hugely important city and town, with its neighborhoods, and there was and is a receptive audience for it here.” she said.

By now the film festival has become a part of Stone’s identity, her role in the world. At the embassy reception, everything coalesced: Stone the filmmaker, the parent, the wife, the true citizen of her world, eloquent, resilient and evocative in talking about the festival, with an aside from her favorite poet, E. E. Cummings. She says she and Roger Stone “are partners in what we do, personally and with this festival. He is sounding board and inspiration, a wellspring of ideas and knowledge.”

Roger Stone, who is director and president of the Sustainable Development Institute, is an author, journalist and environmentalist, a one-time bureau chief for Time magazine in San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro and Paris. He was vice president of the World Wildlife Fund and is the author of seven books, including his forthcoming biography “The Lives of Dillon Ripley: Natural Scientist, Wartime Spy, Pioneering Leader of the Smithsonian Institution.”

Flo Stone received Washingtonian magazine’s first Green Hero Award in 2008. Most recently, she was honored with the 2015 Rachel Carson Award.

The themes of the festival — while always dealing with the environment — are eclectic, touching on wildlife, air pollution, dwindling resources, how we live in the environment in terms of design and how we express ourselves in terms of art and culture.

Grace Guggenheim, daughter of the late multi-Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, created an anecdotal and eloquent film about Flo and Roger Stone for the reception, a vision of a couple well met and lives well and productively lived for the common good.

A few highlights of this year’s festival: “Before the Flood,” about the climate activism of actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio; “The Lost City of Z”; “Kokota: Islet of Hope”; a special advance screening of the new Disney nature film “Born in China” (which is, as you might guess, about pandas, but also about snow leopards and golden monkeys); “Planet Earth II”; “Cities”; “Flint,” a work in progress which documents the drinking-water disaster in Flint, Michigan; and, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Academy of Sciences, “Food Evolution” and “Spillover: Zika, Ebola and Beyond.”

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