At the 13th annual Colorado Environmental Film Festival (CEFF), one motif pulsed across the screens: environmental justice is social justice. The mission of the festival has always been to inspire, educate, and motivate audiences to take action through the power of film. In late February, over fifty short and feature-length films were screened at the American Mountaineering Center in downtown Golden, Colorado. The festival also included an “Eco-Expo,” where patrons could interact with local businesses that promote environmental responsibility, such as solar panel services, at-home tower gardens, and a network of volunteers that monitor poaching activity in Africa from their mobile devices. From conservation to sustainability, it seemed there was no message or part of the world unreached at this festival.
Alaska Thaw (2018, directed by Bjorn Olson), the festival opener, set a beautifully somber tone not unlike the feeling one experiences when alone on a mountain top or in a dense forest. This short film—just over two minutes—won the Witnessing Change Video Competition last year but didn’t take home a prize at CEFF. The whole piece is a series of short, hauntingly stunning clips of Alaska’s new winter landscape, complete with bodies of water not entirely frozen and dusty dry mountainsides. These images are overlaid with text conveying the director’s thoughts about how the winter culture of Alaska will vanish with the permafrost as well as melodic instrumental music that sounds as ancient as the culture Olson fears losing.
While the majority of the films at CEFF were documentaries, a few short films (categorized as running under forty minutes), used fiction as a storytelling tool to convey messages about a future damaged by climate change and a population even further removed from nature. The Living Plant (2018, directed by Justin Bogardus) used satire to depict this population. At a “Tim Talk”—mocking the popular TED Talks—in 2025, a charismatic entrepreneur sells an audience on a new wireless technology that is both solar- and hydropowered and offers a multitude of health and social benefits: real, living plants. Though it did not captivate in the way many other films did, it provided a reprieve from what can easily become a depressing and divisive topic. In that instance, humor was an excellent tool to display how quickly society can become disconnected from something once so commonplace [Image 1].
A true standout in the feature film category was Hearts of Glass: A Vertical Farm Takes Root in Wyoming (2018, directed by Jennifer Tennican). The documentary follows a budding company season by season as they tackle the challenges of “architectural, environmental, and social innovation.” The company, Vertical Harvest, is a multistory hydroponic greenhouse in Jackson, Wyoming. In the film, stakeholders in the startup attempt to feed the local community fresh, healthy food (even in the dead of winter), while also employing and mentoring adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Tennican weaves together the story in a way that truly reveals the character and personality of the Vertical Harvest employees. And in an era where weather patterns are becoming harsher and the food industry is blamed for creating such a strain on the environment, this is an example of how businesses can get it right.
The Fracking Threat (2018, directed by Justin Bogardus), though it contained a slant local to Colorado, offers a narrative that is true to any community that has had this form of gas extraction forced upon it. Bogardus, who also directed The Living Plant, shows off an entirely different style in The Fracking Threat. This short is fast paced, quickly jumping between clips of the bright and active landscape, startling maps depicting fracking wells taking over Colorado’s open space, interviews with scientists and community members sharing their alarm, and footage of the wells both in action and in flames when they malfunction. It plays like a poignant PSA. “If you’re being gassed, I think you have a right to resist. And I think we’re being gassed,” said one concerned citizen in the film [Image 2].
This year’s CEFF excelled in selecting films that expressed how interconnected humanity is with the environment, even when that doesn’t seem like the reality. Again and again, the audience was reminded that environmental justice and social justice are intertwined. A win for the environment is a win for the people who depend on it. Spears from All Sides (2018, directed by Christopher Walker) perhaps embodied that ideology more than any other film at the festival and ended up winning the Spirit of Activism award. As a follow up to his 1996 film, Trinkets and Beads, Walker returns to Ecuador to see if the Waorani tribe has successfully staved off the invasion of oil companies that have been pursuing their diminishing land for over twenty years. In one powerful scene, members of the tribe sit down for a screening of that older film, which gives the audience an interesting peek into the history of this group. Some of the most memorable festival moments are realized in this documentary, such as the image of a nearly naked Waorani man (wearing a string around the waist to tie up the penis, tribal face paint, and feathers per tradition) wading through a polluted marsh in tall yellow rubber boots and protective latex gloves to demonstrate the goopy black sludge that is tainting their land. The story of the Waorani tribe is one we’ve heard before from other indigenous groups that have been taken advantage of and pushed out through history—but this is happening in real time. It’s clear that Walker is passionate about the people affected by this oil crisis in Ecuador. Hopefully, he will be able to continue to follow this story and one day present audiences with a truly remarkable successful conclusion.
Taking home the Best Feature Film award was The Butterfly Trees: A Migration Love Story (2018, directed by Kay Milam). This documentary also won an award from the Houston International Film Festival. With truly tenacious cinematography, it’s not a surprise that this film about the eastern monarch butterfly migration came out a winner. Catching thousands of butterflies in flight at a time is mesmerizing. However, the clichéd narration is hard to ignore; it is crowded with obvious metamorphosis metaphors as both human and insect overcome obstacles. The over- anthropomorphism of the butterflies also diminished the credibility of the storytelling. Are mating butterflies actually in love? Probably not. Though it does make an entertaining story [Image 3].
Best of the Fest went to From Seed to Seed (2017, directed by Katharina Stieffenhofer) which followed several farmers in Manitoba who all farm organically through varying methods—and one farmer who chooses to return to conventional farming with pesticides in order to save his crops. Getting past the overly structured thesis-style introduction, in which Stieffenhofer tells the audience exactly what the documentary is about and what she learned in the process, the rest of the film feels incredibly free and authentic. As in Hearts of Glass, the subjects have personalities and stories that are easy to become invested in, like Terry Mierau, the family farmer and opera singer who is attempting to manage the genetic diversity of his crops and livestock to survive in a changing and unpredictable climate. From Seed to Seed has also won Best Environmental Film at the Ridgefield Independent Film Festival and Best Documentary Film at the Seneca Film Festival, and is slated to continue making the festival circuit throughout this year.
The selection committee of seventy volunteer viewers awarded three other films. The Ocean: Our Foundation (2018, directed by Malia Cahill) was selected as Best Youth Film. While younger people are accustomed to taking on the role of students, these young filmmakers reverse the role with a four-minute educational video about the ocean and its oldest resident: coral polyps. Our Last Trash (2018, directed by Joanne Yue), which is twenty minutes in length, won Best Short Film. It follows the role of plastic pollution in the environment and how a zero-waste lifestyle might be possible. Finally, Offshore (2018, directed by Jenna Miller), a fifteen-minute film documenting researchers from the Ocean Observatories Initiative and the National Science Foundation as they attempt to gather data about the oceans, received an honorable mention for being received as the festival’s five-hundredth submission.
One last outstanding film to mention from a weekend’s worth of inspiring environmental films was The Blue Devil (2018, directed by Nebiat Assefa Melles and Olivia Rempel). Melles, originally from Ethiopia but living in the United States, heard about the struggle the people who depended on Lake Tana were having with an invasive plant called “emboch,” or blue hyacinth. Together with Rempel, the two spent three weeks in Ethiopia learning about this weed that was taking over the lake faster than anyone could remove it. Considered to be in the top one hundred most aggressive invasive species, blue hyacinth has been destroying the lake ecosystem and the livelihoods of many of the local villagers. The filmmakers took advantage of drone cameras to capture the true scope of the problem and the changes in blue hyacinth density between harvest and regrowth.
Documentaries that bring the facts that scientists have been reporting on for years into the homes and minds of the people who can make a difference have been slowly ramping up in recent years. Since Pare Lorentz’s 1936 agricultural documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains, environmental and conservation-themed films have become more mainstream. That’s because film is the medium that gets through, that resonates. It may seem contrary at times, but humans do care about what happens to the earth. It’s just a matter of grabbing their attention and making them see.