Polluted air and water, mass extinctions, depleted fisheries, shrinking forests, rising temperatures—humans are making a mess of the planet. But all is not lost (at least yet): “Solutions” is the theme of this year’s American Conservation Film Festival (ACFF), set for Shepherdstown (venues: Shepherd University Frank Center / National Conservation Training Center [NCTC]) and Charles Town (venue: Cool Spring Nature Preserve), October 12-14, with an encore follow-up the next weekend, October 19-21.

Beginning in 2003 with 18 films shown over two days, ACFF has grown to six days of films and activities, attracting hundreds of submissions annually from around the world. NCTC historian, Mark Madison, explained that, for several years, “… NCTC had been running a conservation lecture series with occasional films, some by local filmmaker John Grabowska. In 2002, the idea of incorporating them into a film festival was proposed.”

The planning committee included Madison, Grabowska, UK filmmaker Thomas Harding, Steve Chase of NCTC, journalist Topper Sherwood, David Lillard of Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Sustainability, NASA educator Farzad Mahootian, and local entrepreneur David Levine.

“John Grabowska was the first selection chair,” recalled Madison, “and when we didn’t get enough quality submitted films for a festival, he provided a curated box of VHS tapes of some of the best National Park Service films to highlight. As a new festival desperate for an audience, all the films were free, and during lunch, free pizza and coffee was provided to the audience. A good time was had by all, and after the festival ended that Saturday night (over some wine), we decided to keep doing it.”

The Festival’s mission statement explains: “ACFF fosters a diverse community of filmmakers, scientists, students, and citizens to engage in conservation issues through film and education and inspire positive action.”

This year’s ACFF boasts 36 selected films that build vital awareness of fragile ecosystems—examining environmental problems and the innovative efforts to solve them, and saluting conservation heroes. The 2018 film list provides something for every interest, ranging from two-minute shorts to feature-length films. Film blocks will be followed by discussions and seminars with experts and filmmakers.

Festivalgoers will get the chance to meet rare wildlife, such as Mexican fishing bats and Philippine eagles, as well as the common creatures that secretly live around suburban homes. They will also learn how Mexican ranchers are figuring out how to coexist with jaguars. Additionally, audiences will delight in immersing themselves into the culture of the orangutans of Borneo.

Drilling down, attendees will follow the perilous work of a traditional honey hunter on sheer cliffs in Nepal, and get an intimate look at the work of chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall. They’ll take a tour of clean energy sites, see how oil platforms are transformed into reefs for sea life to colonize, meet teenage inventors who are working worldwide for the environment, and visit chefs finding creative uses for food waste. Closer to home, viewers will learn all about the efforts to clean up Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as well as Shepherdstown’s own Freshwater Institute—and its work on developing land-based fish farming.

RARE: Creatures of the Photo Ark is one of 36 films showing at the 2018 ACFF. – Photo ©ACFF

The Local Lens

ACFF didn’t forget about West Virginia. The Mountain State is certainly no stranger to workplace accidents and environmental disasters resulting from the actions (or inaction) of industries—particularly coal and chemical.

Mine explosions and collapses have killed hundreds of West Virginians over the decades. The earthen Buffalo Creek Dam (Logan County), which held back mine waste water, collapsed in 1972, killing 125 people and destroying over 500 homes. In Institute (WV) in 2008, a Bayer CropScience pesticide waste tank exploded, killing two workers. A worker was also killed in 2010 by leaking phosgene gas in DuPont’s Belle plant. And in 2012, Monsanto settled a $93 million class-action suit over 4,500 homes contaminated by dioxin dust, a byproduct of Agent Orange production in Nitro (WV).

ACFF exposes yet another West Virginia environmental disaster in “The Devil We Know.” Over the course of approximately 50 years, DuPont’s plant in Parkersburg (WV) disposed of more than 1.7 million pounds of C8, a toxic waste product from Teflon manufacturing. It was dumped into the Ohio River, buried in unlined landfills, and sent out through smokestacks. The toxin was linked to birth defects, some cancers and other health problems, and contaminated six public water systems in the area.

Health risks were studied as early as the 1950s, but the results were kept secret. The film tells how a group of courageous citizens took on the giant corporation in a 2001 class-action lawsuit. In 2004, DuPont settled for $70 million.

Similarly, “What Lies Upstream” is another festival production examining far-reaching water contamination. In 2014, the Freedom Industries chemical spill near Charleston (WV) contaminated the water for 300,000 people throughout nine counties. This film looks at the politics, policies, and failure of regulation that allowed it to happen.

“The Devil We Know” is one of two WV-based films examining toxic waste and corporate corruption in the Mountain State. – Photo ©ACFF

Particular Interests

Jennifer Lee, ACFF Executive Director, emphasized the importance of keeping new generations interested in conservation issues—highlighting how hard they’ve worked this year to “… to schedule events that will appeal to children.”

To that end, ACFF will present a story hour with nature-centered crafts at Shepherdstown Public Library, and the film “Backyard Wilderness” will be shown at NCTC, along with a pop-up interactive wilderness exhibit and a (weather-dependent) nature walk led by the Potomac Valley Audubon Society. Additionally, a “Bioblitz” event will be held at the Cool Spring Nature Preserve (1469 Lloyd Road, Charles Town), where parents and kids can observe and identify plants and animals with assistance from citizen scientists.

Free virtual-reality nature films will also be available to attendees—providing folks with a 360-degree opportunity to experience nature: be surrounded by baby orangutans, great white sharks, cave-dwelling glowworms, coral reefs, and giant sequoia trees!

For those with a particular interest in the filmmaking process, the Conservation Filmmaker Workshop will provide two days of hands-on workshops, along with seminars by experts on conservation filmmaking, covering everything from equipment to storytelling and distribution. Prospective filmmakers of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels are welcome.

A Pitch Panel will also be held for workshop participants who have reserved a spot. They’ll be allowed five minutes each to pitch their film concepts and get feedback from a panel of experts from National Geographic Partners, Smithsonian Channel, and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios. The public is welcome to observe. That said, if you have a film that you would like to submit for consideration into the 2019 Festival, submissions will be accepted from December 15 (2018) through April 1 (2019).

For all information on tickets, films (including trailers), venues, and related activities, click here or find ACFF on Facebook. And something to remember: government-issued identification is required at the security gate at NCTC for anyone 16 years and over.

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