Tone Madison’s guide to the 2015 Tales From Planet Earth Film Festival

The environmentally themed fest returns November 6 through 8 with an ambitious 40-film lineup.

The environmentally themed fest returns November 6 through 8 with an ambitious 40-film lineup.

Angel Azul.

Angel Azul.


The selections at the biennial-ish Tales From Planet Earth Film Festival, hosted by UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, represent varying degrees of concrete advocacy and calls to action. It balances the respectable heft of a legit film festival with as unabashed mission of altering our collective course towards global warming and all the known and unknown problems that accompany it. In previous years the programming has tried to stretch the expected notion of what an “environmental film” can be, resulting in some inspired selections. That effort continues as Tales returns this week, running November 6 through 8 with screenings at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Chazen Museum of Art, Union South Marquee, and, the UW Cinematheque screening room in Vilas Hall, and Upper House on East Campus Mall.

This year, the festival’s overarching theme is “Belief” (past fests have been themed Hope, Justice, Environmental Soundings, and Futures), and the 40 or so films scheduled to screen this year are filed into subsections of “Resilience,” “Knowing,” “Retreat,” “Belonging,” and “Sacrifice.” Those are only slightly less wispy ideological guideposts than the metaphorical golf umbrella of “Belief,” but it’s definitely a great way for the fest organizers to tweak the viewing experience by giving the audience thoughtful conceptual frameworks in which to take in the films.

The festival kicks off Friday at 7 p.m. at the Marquee with a opening-night roundtable titled “The Power of Belief,” featuring Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University and author of A Climate For Change: Global Warming Facts For Faith-Based Decisions, renowned documentary filmmaker Godfrey Reggio (The Quatsi Trilogy), and Mike Wiggins, Jr. who is the chairman of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Ojibwe. After the roundtable discussion, there will be a 9 p.m. screening of the 2013 documentary Cesar’s Last Fast, nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, which frames the life of Cesar Chavez around the 36-day “Fast For Life” he undertook in 1988, moving backwards to cover the advocacy work he did in defense of farm workers rights, and moving forward to show the legacy he left in his wake.

If you miss the Friday night Roundtable, you can catch Katharine Hayhoe’s keynote address “Climate Change and Religious Stewardship” the following evening (7 p.m., Upper House). A self-described “climate change evangelist,” in the most literal sense of the evangelism, Hayhoe will also bring faith, religion, and yes, even “belief” into the conversation surrounding environmentalism.

While Godfrey Reggio might not get nearly as much space to concretely lay out his perspectives on sustainability and environmental preservation, two of his films, 1992’s animal-centric Anima Mundi and 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi (both blessed with gorgeous scores by Philip Glass), will do the bulk of the talking for him when they screen back to back on Saturday (11 a.m. and 1 p.m., Marquee). Koyaanisqatsi, arguably the best-known nature/environmental film ever made, will be followed by a discussion led by Reggio himself.

The final third of the opening roundtable to get the opportunity to elaborate on their worldviews will be Mike Wiggins Jr., who along with UW-Madison professor of life sciences communication Patty Loew (herself a Bad River tribal member) will lead a discussion on the intersection of Native American spirituality and environmental ethics after the screening of In The Light Of Reverence on Sunday (1 p.m., MMOCA). Originally broadcast on the PBS series P.O.V.Reverence explores Devils Tower in Wyoming, the Colorado Plateau in the Southwest, and California’s Mount Shasta, contrasting the comparatively ignorant Western notions of those locations with the more accurate cultural and historical contexts they’re seen in by the Native American populations for whom these places have such importance.

One of the visually sumptuous highlights of the fest will be Marcy Cravat’s Angel Azul (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Marquee) which takes a deep dive into the gorgeous and profound underwater sculptures of Jason deCaires Taylor, tugging at the disastrous impact global warming is having on coral reefs. Cravat is scheduled to participate in a post-film Q&A discussion via Skype.

Two of the older films in the fest, John Huston’s The Roots Of Heaven (Sunday, 1 p.m., Chazen) from 1958, and Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (Sunday, 3:30 p.m., MMOCA) from 1972, stand out in the lineup because they’re just a bit less overt about being environmentally focused films. Roots Of Heaven packs a fair amount of star power (Errol Flynn! Orson Welles!) into a story of one man trying to help African elephants avoid extinction, while Brother Sun, Sister Moon roots itself deeply in the “Belief” theme of the fest with its dramatization of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. After Brother Sun, Bron Taylor (Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida) is scheduled to lead a discussion that will likely connect some of the dots between St. Francis, Catholicism, and conservation.

Another film that at first blush seems like an uncomfortable fit for an environmental film fest lineup is the 2008 documentary NoBody’s Perfect (Saturday, noon, MMOCA), which assembles a cast of adults who have been affected by thalidomide exposure. The director Niko von Glasow, himself born with thalidomide-related defects, gets a cast of others to join in and shoot a nudie calendar which will be delivered to the company which initially produced the drug. It’s hard not to think of Michael Moore leaving that picture of the 6-year-old girl in Charlton Heston’s driveway in Bowling For Columbine, but NoBody’s Perfect has more heart than that and seems like it will exceed potential scandalous novelty, drawing power from images that serve to reclaim the subjects’ bodies from the stigma of their disabilities.

The entries in the fest are far ranging in their lengths, with short-subjects and feature-length works being programmed back to back in a lot of cases. While you might end up looking more towards the longer-form works as tent-poles of the fest, you definitely won’t want to miss Unogumbe (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., Upper House) which, even at 35 minutes, is one of the most conceptually compelling films in the lineup. Unogumbe is an adaptation of a one-act opera from 1958 that transposes the Biblical story of Noah’s ark to Khayelitsha, South Africa, and the character of Noah is played by a woman (South African opera star Pauline Malefane). The production incorporates shadow puppets, rehearsal footage, and other inventive techniques. If you’re already at the Upper House on Saturday evening for the Climate Change & Faith Keynote, definitely stick around for this screening.

The fest will be closing with Merchants Of Doubt (Sunday, 7:30 p.m., Marquee), a documentary that reveals the ways that just enough of us are being led to doubt the science behind climate change. (Spoiler: It turns out that corporations, the only folks profiting off such stubborn denial, are behind it all.) Based on the book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes, this seems like one of the more important films to screen this weekend, so it’s fitting that it gets the heightened status of capping the weekend off.

Sadly, we really only managed to touch on a fraction of the films screening this year but, thanks to discussions with the filmmakers and a great many shorter works that you won’t likely be able to watch anywhere else, there is a real wealth of added value to the screenings. For example: Sure, you could watch Vice’s documentary TOXIC: Amazon (Saturday, 2 p.m., MMOCA) on YouTube or whatever, but having the directors on hand to follow up on what’s been happening in the wake of the murder of the two Brazilian activists the film profiles is a unique opportunity indeed. See? It’s tough to sum up everything here that’s worth highlighting, so make sure to give the schedule a proper browse for yourself.

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