Mill Valley Film Group highlights courageous activists
by Annie Spiegelman, the Dirt Diva
Poor Mother Earth. She must be so done with us humans. We use more than a billion pounds of pesticides in American agriculture annually; home gardeners, even here in Marin County, are ignorantly drenching their yards with chemical fertilizers, which travel into local waterways and create “dead zones.” And even with the latest drought, Californians are still growing LAWNS. Arrrgh! Just when I was about to lose hope, I received an invitation from the filmmakers at the Mill Valley Film Group to attend a screening of the latest episode of their Emmy-Award-winning series entitled The New Environmentalists. The episode was so inspiring that the next morning I crawled out from under the covers, dashed outside to give my rusty ol’ compost spinner a few wild spins, and promised Mother Earth that I still had her back.
There are now a total of 13 episodes of The New Environmentalists, and starting this month you’ll be able to see them all on television. You won’t want to miss these. Each episode features six ordinary community members who blossom into dedicated activists and environmental heroes. Oftentimes these courageous champions place themselves squarely in harm’s way to battle intimidating and powerful adversaries who are unjustly threatening to pollute local land or endangered ecosystems. And to top it off, the series is narrated by Robert Redford. (Hear that sound? That’s the pitter-patter of the microbes in my compost spinner fighting for a selfie with their eco-heartthrob. Settle down now. )
In 2003, Mill Valley filmmaker Tom Dusenbery was asked to chronicle the work of recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest award honoring grassroots environmental activists. Dusenbery reached out to his colleagues, John Antonelli and Will Parrinello at the Mill Valley Film Group, who he had worked with in the past on various film projects. Since then, the team has been traveling globally to feature new eco-heroes annually.
“We delve into the personal side of the story and try to find the motivation for why an individual like Richard Blum would be driven to support healthcare and educational projects in the Himalayas or Richard Goldman would want to spend his resources to help honor and empower grassroots environmental activists around the world,” Antonelli says. “When we find the core value beneath that inspiration, we are able to tell stories that matter to those founding fathers and the remarkable family of leaders that they have gathered around them and to the audiences that we are able to reach through our work.”
Since 2004, Robert Redford has narrated each episode of The New Environmentalists. The filmmakers have a one-day session with him yearly and often must travel out of state or even do “phone patch” sessions with him to record, when he is on location. This year it was New Zealand. They sometimes are able to “hang out” with him for a while after a session and listen to his travel stories. “A few years ago John, Tom and I were recording Redford’s narration at Disher Sound in San Francisco,” Parrinello says. “We sat around after the session, talking about the Beat Generation. [Redford] told us about coming up to S.F. from L.A. as a teenager and landing at City Lights where Ginsberg, McClure, Rexroth and Snyder were reading while Kerouac passed the hat. When we told him we made a film about Kerouac, which premiered at the first Sundance Film Festival in 1985, he smiled saying, “We really struggled back then.”
The latest episode of the series is titled From Myanmar to Scotland and features local resident Jean Weiner restoring coral reefs and coastal degradation in Haiti; Myint Zaw, an accomplished photojournalist in Myanmar who launched a series of art exhibits to halt construction of a dam on the treasured Irrawaddy River; Berta Caceres in Honduras, who rallied the indigenous Lenca people to wage a grassroots protest against the Agua Zarca Dam; Phyllis Omido in Kenya, who stood up to her employer when she learned that factory lead emissions were lethally poisoning her community, former Canadian tribal chief Marilyn Baptiste, who led her native community in defeating proposed gold and copper mines that would have destroyed Fish Lake; and Howard Wood, an amateur diver in Scotland who put an end to destructive scallop dredging in order to restore the marine ecosystem.
Two things will happen when you watch this series. First, you will cheer the courageous eco-leaders on. Second, you will feel like a total eco-slacker. That’s OK. There’s still time for you to clean up your act. It can be small-scale. Simply getting off the gardening chemicals in your own backyard is a statement. (Compost, compost, compost is all you need.) Your stories won’t be as adrenaline-charged as those by these gutsy leaders and filmmakers, but you will automatically become my star students!
“Yes, we have scary stories,” Dusenbery says. “Having our gear impounded by Russian Customs on an island off the coast of Siberia due to a paperwork misunderstanding (and probably corruption). But the adventures have been amazing with opportunities to see places and things I would never have been able to, in parts of the world I hardly knew existed—and meet these heroic and remarkable people.”
And they’ll always have Honduras. “Shortly before we departed for Honduras our protagonist, Berta Caceres, told us she was receiving death threats and that we would have to hire Honduran “security consultants” (bodyguards) to work with us,” says Parrinello. “For the first five days of the shoot there were no threats, besides those that come with climate change and the intense unseasonal rains that turned a two-hour drive on a dirt road to the town of San Francisco de Opalaca into a 10-hour ordeal, with our four-wheel drive vehicles getting stuck in the mud so many times that we lost count after 12 times. The sixth day there were actual death threats to Berta and a roadblock. Suffice it to say, we all got out of it unscathed through a combination of help from the U.S. State Department, Honduran National Police and our own security team’s cunning ways, which use their brains more than their brute force or weapons.”
National broadcasts of The New Environmentalists series, beginning with The New Environmentalists—from Myanmar to Scotland, roll out the week of Nov. 8. Check local listings in Bay Area counties for cable channels, and learn more at mvfg.com.