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“I think we all left feeling invigorated and inspired”: Screening Environmental Justice at Stanford

The cover image from Aissa Maiga's Above Water (2021)
Cover image from Aïssa Maïga's film Above Water (2021)--one of the festival's selections
For us, truly, there are no “surroundings.” I can lose my hands and still live. I can lose my legs and still live. I can lose my eyes and still live. . . . But if I lose the air I die. If I lose the sun I die. If I lose the earth I die. If I lose the water I die. If I lose the plants and animals I die. All of these things are more a part of me, more essential to my every breath, than is my so-called body. What is my real body? 
We are not autonomous, self-sufficient beings as European mythology teaches. . . . We are rooted just like the trees. But our roots come out of our nose and mouth, like an umbilical cord, forever connected with the rest of the world. . .  
(Jack D. Forbes, A World Ruled by Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Aggression, Violence, and Imperialism (Davis, Calif.: D-Q University Press, 1979), 85–86. 
Environmental Justice Film Fest logo

Our visionary and indefatigable colleague Emily Polk, along with E'jaaz Mason, JSK Knight Fellow and award-winning filmmaker and cinematographer, organized a film festival this Winter and Spring, 2024, dedicated to environmental justice. In creating the festival, they brought together colleagues from several programs, including  the Doerr School of Sustainability, Iberian and Latin American Cultures and Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Together, they created a  forum for the films’ directors to engage with the Stanford community around  issues of ecological  injustice, extraordinary resistance,  and the fight for racial justice. Each screening was followed by an interview with the filmmaker and an open Q&A. Well attended events, the festival brought students, organizers, professors, activists, writers and directors together in a cross-campus interdisciplinary dialogue around environmental justice.

The profound hope for Polk, Mason and the film festival team was that we at Stanford might recognize our shared investment in environmental justice. The university can be a decentralized and thus disconnected place, with each of us working in dedicated, inspired ways, but often quite separately from each other. In creating the festival, they hoped to realize their belief "that no matter the area of work or study everyone can find space for environmental justice in their work" (Mason). As Mason explained "everyone on campus can join in fellowship around climate justice and see that we all need to be doing this work. We all live on this planet so it's all of our responsibility to protect it."

The festival's many sponsors

The festival was funded by the Doerr School of Sustainability and its affiliated programs along with the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, and was produced in collaboration with Lede, an organization founded by Mason that provides the tools, skills and resources to underrepresented communities to transform local media. The team selected four filmmakers, , Anne Kaneko, Edward Buckles Jr., Aïssa Maïga, and the team of Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre, whose work gives voice to the experiences and collaborative power of communities in response to climate disaster. 

According to Polk, each of the film screenings was a success and met with packed audiences. Polk further shared that, in addition to the films and panels, audience members were served dinner that was local to the film’s setting. Attendees also had the opportunity to walk through an art gallery with images connected to the film’s subject and themes. 

“We hope that the huge success means that we can make this an annual festival,” said Polk. “The language of film made the issues so personal and visceral for us, and the panelists helped us to understand in accessible and meaningful ways how each of us could participate in some way in the different efforts featured in the films. I think we all left feeling invigorated and inspired.”

Read below about the films they screened; they make for inspired research recommendations for students and summer viewing--for the stories they tell as much as for who is telling them and how they are told.

Manzanar Diverted film poster

The screening of Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust (2021) brought filmmaker Ann Kaneko and Associate Director of Asian American Studies, Thaomi Michelle Dinh, into conversation with Dr. Dena Montague, an environmental justice lecturer in the Earth Systems Program. The film tells the story of Manzanar “one tiny little square mile of land that has a deep history of forced removal. That can be forced removal from the place, as the government did with the Owens Valley Paiute, or this can be forced removal to a place, as the government did with Japanese Americans. “Water was also the means of resistance,” writes Monica Mariko Embrey, whose grandmother was interned there, “whether they were etching it in the concrete of the water reservoir or with the beautiful amazing gardens. Water became this metaphor, both of their oppression but also of the resistance to that.”


Katrina Babies film poster

Katrina Babies (2022), screened on  April 3, was the impetus for the festival itself. Mason helped as cinematographer on the documentary feature at different points between 2015 and 2022, working alongside his best friend and film director Edward Buckles Jr. Explaining the title of the film, in a piece he wrote for Medium on the impetus and meaning of the Environmental Justice film festival, Mason writes, “The film’s title refers to a commonly used nickname for the generations of young New Orleanians who experienced the horrific impact and turbulent aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That identity is what inspired me to be a storyteller. Those are the people I serve. Those are the people who I’m most connected to. And that’s what I’m bringing to Stanford. The film Katrina Babies, the lived experience of people like me.”

Above the Water film poster

Aïssa Maïga’s film Above Water (2021), selected by the Festival de Cannes in 2021, was screened on April 25. The film follows 12-years-old Houlaye who lives in Tatiste, Niger. Every day, along with other children in her village, she travels several kilometers to fetch water from a well. Water is abundant during the rainy season for them but disappears during the dry season. And yet, as the film narrates, there is a water source that exceeds their imagination two hundred meters below the surface. Houlaye’s aunt Suri eventually convinces an NGO to build a well in the village and this transforms their lives, present and future. Cat Lee Hing, a PhD student in the EIPER program in SDSS coordinated a panel conversation on behalf of the film festival team, with the filmmakers Dr. Rodolfo Dirzo, Dr. Khalid Osman, and Linda Lillienfeld who produces the “Let’s Talk About Water” series.

Maquilapolis film poster

Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre's groundbreaking film Maquilapolis (2006) closed the festival on May 23. Through a radically equitable film making process, Funari and De La Torre brought together factory workers in Tijuana and community organizations in both Mexico and the U.S. to create a film that “depicts globalization through the eyes of the women who live on its leading edge.”  The workers who appear in the film were involved, then, in every stage of production, from planning to shooting, from scripting to outreach. This was crucial to the filmmakers so as not to repeat the exploitative practices perpetuated by maquiladoras, where women produce value in silence. In its place, Maquilapolis “embraces subjectivity as a value and a goal.  It merges artmaking with community development to ensure that the film's voice will be truly that of its subjects.” Film festival team member Ximena Briceno, a lecturer in Iberian and Latin American Studies taught the film for many years in her classes and personally invited filmmaker Sergio De La Torre to speak on a panel with one of the women featured in the film.

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