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The Eighth Annual RVA Environmental Film Festival Has Plenty of Critical Issues to Explore 

click to enlarge This still shot is from the original Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral,” directed by Jeff Orlowski.

This still shot is from the original Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral,” directed by Jeff Orlowski.

The second most vulnerable community to sea level rise in the country is right here in Virginia. Only New Orleans is more at risk than Virginia's Tidewater region. And because it encompasses Hampton Roads, it's not just an environmental issue, but as home to the world's largest naval station, one with the potential to affect national security, too.

"Tidewater," a documentary addressing these issues is just one of the more than two dozen films being screened at the eighth annual RVA Environmental Film Festival held next week at multiple venues around town, including the Science Museum of Virginia, University of Richmond, the Visual Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University, public libraries, WCVE and the Byrd Theatre.

The local and national films were selected to raise awareness of environmental issues relevant not just to the Richmond region, but the country and the planet. Films are selected from around the world based on their adherence to the festival's environmental mission as well as the production, content quality and power of the story. The selection committee brought more than 140 films to the table, from which they chose 25 — not including a local filmmaker competition. 

A panel of judges decides the winner of the Virginia Environmental Film award for local filmmakers, as well as the best-in-festival category. This year's local winner, "An Oyster's-Eye View of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program" by Ron Lopez, will be screened at the Byrd on Sunday, Feb. 11. As has been the tradition since the first event in 2008, this year's festival features programming for children at 10 a.m. on Saturday with the Dr. Seuss classic, "The Lorax," chosen to inspire new environmentalists and re-ignite the passions of those who remember when it first came out in 1972.

Among the films chosen to headline the festival are "Age of Consequences," "Blooming Business" and "Chasing Coral," a much-lauded documentary that could come across as apocalyptic sci-fi were it not for the time lapse cameras used to document the alarmingly rapid demise of coral reefs and the devastating effect on fish populations.

With breathtaking views, "Penguin Counters" tells the story of a lawyer who gave up his practice to lead groups of field biologists to Antarctica. Their goal is to calculate penguin populations and ascertain damage done to them by climate change. While it could have wound up a downer of a documentary, critics agree it maintains a hopeful note.

Several films have speakers or panels afterward to engage the public and expand on the film's themes. Mary Finley-Brook, University of Richmond associate professor of geography and the environment, will speak after a screening of "Here's to Flint."

Aaron Sutch is program director of Solar United as Neighbors of Virginia, a group that provides technical support and engages a nonpartisan constituency of solar supporters to fight for solar rights. After "Happening: a Green Energy Revolution" ends, he says, " I'll give a quick background and overview of solar in Virginia and talk about Richmond Solar Co-Op, which officially launches later this month."

The festival is by all accounts growing and this year's event is the longest yet: nine days. According to organizers, the last several years it's begun picking up steam, expanding and attracting a younger audience. Notably, the non-profit film festival is entirely volunteer run and free.

Melissa Lesh, an environmental documentary filmmaker, was first-place winner of the Virginia Environmental Film Award in 2014 and 2016. Impressed by the festival's potential, she chose to continue her involvement by becoming a volunteer in order to help foster other local environmental filmmakers.  

To her, the festival is a public reminder that the planet is an incredibly unique and fragile place. "Environmental issues and solutions can often seem out of reach or not locally relevant," Lesh says. "Having an RVA Environmental Film Festival not only brings global issues into view, but also highlights local issues and solutions that energize action within our own community. Richmond has a lot to celebrate and still more to do." S

The RVA Environmental Film Festival is Feb. 5-18 at various venues. Rvaeff.org.

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