by Meg Cohen Ragas
It all started with a conversation on Lincoln Drive. Alexandra Diagne and Debra Wolf Goldstein were driving together one day last March when Goldstein tossed out the idea of launching an environmental film festival in Philadelphia.
“It was like, Bingo! Lights went off in my head,” said Diagne a Wyncote resident and an art historian who worked in the film industry in Hollywood for more than a decade. “We did a quick Google search and discovered that most major cities in the world have an environmental film festival, and most minor cities, too. There’s one in DC and one in Princeton, but nothing in between. We saw an obvious void that needed to be filled.”
The two women, who met when their sons attended Germantown Friends School, have complementary skill sets; between Diagne’s film experience and Goldstein’s background in environmental law (she’s a land conservation lawyer), it was a perfect marriage of expertise and interests. But pulling together a major film festival—in just 12 months, nonetheless—is no small feat. And yet that’s exactly what Diagne and Goldstein have done: The inaugural Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival will make its debut April 21-23, 2017, at the Prince Theater, during Earth Day Weekend.
To fund their dream, the women raised $100,000 through a combination of sponsorships (from organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the Natural Lands Trust, among others), foundations and generous individual donors. They reached out to 300,000 filmmakers worldwide using the platform Film Freeway, and received 209 submissions from 34 countries, from which they selected 26—with the help of a knowledgeable panel of judges—for the festival, a mix of shorts and feature-length films. “One of our criteria was that the films had to have been shot in 2016,” explained Diagne. “We wanted a fresh slate of the newest and the hottest. We weren’t taking films from three, five or 10 years ago. We curated the films carefully to create a cohesive program.”
Adds Wolf (of Mt. Airy): “It’s amazing how many great films are out there, being made, and we just aren’t aware of them. We see a couple of the big ones sailing past, but there’s so much more that’s brilliant that no one’s ever heard of.”
To guide them in their efforts, Wolf and Diagne assembled an experienced board of directors, including longtime film critic Carrie Rickey, writer/producer/director Tigre Hill and environmental filmmaker Tim Schlitzer. “We’ve had really good advice and feedback from people who have told us, ‘Definitely do this and definitely do not do that,’” said Diagne. “We were told to keep it tight and strong, lean and mean.” For their inaugural festival, Diagne and Wolf chose the historic Prince Theater for its old-world, movie palace feel, where Leonardo DiCaprio and director Fisher Stevens’ documentary about climate control, “Before the Flood,” will be screened opening night, followed by a conversation with Stevens, who will receive the Environmental Advocacy Award, moderated by Rickey. A dance party hosted by WXPN DJ David Dye will close out the evening.
The rest of the weekend is divided into two-hour film “blocks,” and tickets can be purchased for the whole weekend ($30) or per block ($11); student tickets are $5. Saturday will feature a regional panel, sponsored by Drexel, as well as a “youth” block, including a film by a first-time, 14-year-old director from Seattle, “Plastic is Forever.” Most of the films are documentaries, but not all are issue-oriented; some are lighter in content, exposing the beauty in our natural world. Popular themes include coal, water and plastic, and many of the films will be accompanied by a conversation with the director.
“We chose films that are entertaining and inspiring, stories that grab you emotionally,” Goldstein said. “We want people to feel like there’s hope, that they can still do something. Even if the government isn’t doing anything, we still have enormous power to evoke change.”
The Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival runs from April 21-23 at the Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets, screening information and more details are available at philaenvirofilmfest.org.
Meg Cohen Ragas is director of publications, marketing projects manager and upper school journalism at Germantown Friends School.