“The New Environmentalists” — Grassroots Activists Fight for Justice

On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was held. It was the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, Governor and Senator from Wisconsin. Alarmed by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, Nelson was prescient in his concern about “environmental degradation” and the minimal concern it garnered within the domestic political sphere.

Harnessing the Zeitgeist of the 1970s, when anti-Vietnam activism was at its height, Nelson decided to tap into the energy of the “teach-ins” that were taking place on college campuses across the nation. An advocate for social justice, Nelson took his agenda to the public. He spearheaded the concept of mobilizing a huge grassroots protest on behalf of environmental concerns.

Nineteen years later, in 1989, the Goldman Environmental Prize was created to bring acknowledgment to the work of “grassroots environmental heroes” from the regions of Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America. The annual event, which awards a cash prize of $150,000, recognizes individuals whose local endeavors have effected change through community efforts and initiatives. Many winners have faced risks to their personal safety as they have engaged in David and Goliath conflicts—taking on harmful development projects backed by big money corporations that endangered ecosystems and established ways of life.

The Prize endeavors to be an inspiration to average citizens, modeling how they can protect “the natural world.” Past awardees comprise a rich history—from Lois Gibbs, the mother and leader of the Love Canal Movement to Wangari Maathai, who later won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. This year’s recipients come from Kenya, China, Russia, Philippines, United States, and Argentina.

Ikal Angelei

Risking her life, Ikal Angelei is fighting the construction of the massive Gibe 3 Dam that would block access to water for indigenous communities around Lake Turkana. 

Ma Jun
Ma Jun is working with corporations to clean up their practices with an online database and digital map that shows Chinese citizens which factories are violating environmental regulations in their country. 

Evgenia Chirikova

Challenging rampant political corruption, Evgenia Chirikova is mobilizing her fellow Russian citizens to demand the rerouting of a highway that would bisect Khimki Forest, Moscow’s “green lungs.

Edwin Gariguez

A Catholic priest, Father Edwin Gariguez is leading a grassroots movement against a large-scale nickel mine to protect Mindoro Island’s biodiversity and its indigenous people.

Caroline Cannon
Caroline Cannon is bringing the voice and perspective of her Inupiat community in Point Hope to the battle to keep Arctic waters safe from offshore oil and gas drilling.

Sofia Gatica
A mother whose infant died as a result of pesticide poisoning, Sofia Gatica is organizing local women to stop indiscriminate spraying of toxic agrochemicals in neighboring soy fields.

There are two award ceremonies. The first in San Francisco, held at the Opera House, announces the 2012 winners. The second is held at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. To introduce the accomplishments of the winners to the public, a three-minute film segment is presented. Later, the six stories are edited into a 30-minute documentary entitled, The New Environmentalists. Robert Redford narrates, and in the 2011 film he introduces the material with the statement, “Many of us are trying to find new ways to build a sustainable world for future generations. On every continent there are new environmentalists who are committed to change—ordinary people affecting extraordinary change.”

The Mill Valley Film Group has been the creative force behind these documentaries for eight years. Lorrae Rominger, Deputy Director at Goldman Environmental Prize, wrote me by e-mail, “The New Environmentalists is shown nationally on PBS and on the Sundance Channel.  This program is not only to create awareness about the Prize winners’ work, but to inspire others to do the same. [They are] sent to environmental film festivals around the world, have won several prizes, and [have] been featured at conferences at universities. We hope that these films will educate us all about the importance of protecting our environment. [They] are proof that one person does make a difference. I feel we live in a very visual society. Having the Prize winners’ stories on film is an additional venue for people to understand and see what these amazing people are doing to protect our environment. Film speaks loud and clear and is a great way to communicate and easy to understand.”

I reached out to Will Parrinello, one-third of the Mill Valley Film Group team, to learn more about their involvement with The New Environmentalists. When we spoke by telephone, his passion for the subject matter was evidenced in his comment, “We are so lucky we get to do this work.” He shared the backstory on the relationship with the awards, the creative process, and the impact of documentary films in the following interview:

How did The Mill Valley Film Group come to be chosen as the documentary film team for the Goldman Environmental Prize Awards?

In 2004 we were approached by the Goldman Environmental Prize to pitch our creative services as producers of their films. At that point in our careers, we had produced documentary films in remote locations around the world, so we were quite experienced with handling the logistics of international production. We had also worked with many different ethnic and indigenous communities. All of our films had been broadcast on PBS, A&E, The Learning Channel, MTV and other outlets, so we were confident we would get our films about these amazing environmental activists broadcast and distributed.

As independent filmmakers we made the point that it was important to distribute the films to a television network that would allow us to maintain the integrity of our protagonists stories and not have to compromise due to story and format constraints. We thought PBS was the natural home for the stories. The Prize agreed with us and we’ve been very successful with getting the films broadcast and seen by millions of viewers on PBS, the Sundance Channel, and foreign television. We’re at a point where the films are often invited to screen at festivals, conferences, and seminars around the world because of the positive reputation we have built for them.

There are six films. Is each member of the team responsible for two films? After the footage is shot, do you all work together on shaping the 
script and footage?

John Antonelli, Tom Dusenbery and I each produce two of the six short films each year. When we begin to research the stories, we each tend to gravitate towards one or two favorites. Early on we agreed that each of us would get one of our top two choices. We each produce our own films on location but come back together in the edit room to weigh in on each other’s stories. We share our feedback on all aspects of each other’s films, from story to narration, to shot selection, pacing, etc.

It’s quite challenging to tell these complex stories in only three or four minutes, particularly when they each could be a 30 or 60-minute film. But after nine years, we’ve honed our short film making skills. I think the proof is in the television ratings and the awards the films have received.

But most importantly, when the films screen at the Goldman Environmental Prize awards ceremony in San Francisco, the warm and emotional response from the audience is overwhelming.

How did Robert Redford come to be part of the project?

Lorrae Rominger approached Robert Redford about narrating when we began to work with her on the films in 2004. He has generously narrated the films ever since. Bob is a well know environmentalist and for many years has used his celebrity and his intelligence to shine a light on issues that are important to him. This isn’t a flavor of the month thing with him. He’s in it for the long haul. He donates his time to the Goldman Environmental Prize as well as to NRDC, where he is a member of the board of trustees. The value Robert Redford brings to the project is immeasurable. His involvement brings positive attention to the films, to the prize, and most importantly to the prizewinners grassroots work.

The Mill Valley Film Group has the tag line “Making films that matter.” How have you seen the 3-minute bios of the awarded activists, and the long-form film that
 is broadcast on PBS, impact the public’s knowledge and perception of global environmental struggles?

When we screen The New Environmentalists at festivals, they always make an impact. Audience members comment on how unique the films are because in a world with seemingly insurmountable environmental problems, these are stories of individuals who against great odds have effected positive change in their communities. As a result, viewers often ask how they can get involved and take action themselves.

Teachers are also drawn to the films and they are used in classrooms as a jumping off point for conversations about activism, environmentalism, conservation, social justice and human rights. The films have been seen by millions of people on PBS and the awareness that is created as a result of these broadcasts is undeniable.

Last year, I asked Ursula Sladek, the prize recipient from Germany who created one of her countries first alternative sustainable power companies, what she’d like audiences to take away from her story. She said, ‘Do whatever you can in your own community. We made a change and so can you. One person can affect another and in turn another and another…and that’s grassroots. Together we can make a difference. Get involved. Don’t say I can’t. Instead say, I can, and then do it!’

Are you doing other work with environmental subject matter?

We are now raising money to produce two independent feature documentaries with environmental subjects. Unfair Game: The Politics of Poaching is in post-production. This film explores what happens when measures to protect wildlife are in conflict with indigenous peoples’ land rights, human rights, and their very survival. Troubled Water looks at the multifaceted conflict surrounding gold mining in El Salvador. The mining companies claim their work will exceed the highest environmental standards and provide needed income to this poor country. Salvadoran farmers claim the mine will destroy their fragile water resources and way of life. The documentary looks at the human drama surrounding issues of environmental justice, food sovereignty, and globalization.

How do you think documentary film can impact social consciousness?

In 1999 we produced the documentary Dreaming of Tibet, a film about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming hardship. It looks at the plight of three Tibetan refugees and their struggle to maintain their culture in exile. The response to Dreaming of Tibet opened our eyes to the power of film to create awareness about important social and political issues. It was a natural progression from this work to our work with the Goldman Prize.

This article originally appeared on the website cultureID

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