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Tales from Planet Earth 2009 film fest returns with broad community ambitions
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Gregg Mitman thought Tales from Planet Earth would be a one-shot deal. The UW-Madison history of science professor and interim director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies was a principal organizer of the 2007 environmental film festival. "Opening night, there was a line two blocks long waiting to get into the Orpheum," he remembers. He had anticipated 500 people might show up that first night. Instead, more than twice that number turned out. By the end of the festival, total attendance was estimated at 3,500.

Success like that has a way of turning one-shot deals into sequels. Scheduled for Nov. 6-8, this year's expanded edition of Tales from Planet Earth represents a significant leap in ambition. Driven by the strong attendance of two years ago, plans for the 2009 festival have grown to set almost double the number of films on a cornerstone theme of "Justice." Tales 2 also engages in close partnerships with nine community organizations, endeavoring to broaden the definition of environmental to include social aspects of the word.

"I would say you can't tease those two apart," Mitman observes. "We're really trying to get people to reconceptualize environmental and social justice," he continues, "emphasizing the idea that the environment is not just about wildlife and public lands but the places where people live, work and play."

Perhaps most of all, Tales aspires to galvanize its audience. Witnessing the response to the 2007 festival, Mitman says, "we really wanted to figure out a way to take that energy and enthusiasm and inspiration that people got from watching these films and put it into action."

Toward that goal, the festival is partnering with Centro Hispano, Cooking Healthy Options in Wisconsin (CHOW), First United Methodist Church, Four Lakes Wildlife Center, the International Crane Foundation, Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC), Preparedness Through Linking All Neighbors (PLAN), Porchlight and Troy Gardens in an effort, Mitman explains, "to leverage the films and festival to help these partners achieve their needs and goals."

Tales from Planet Earth's schedule arranges 45 films under four headings: "Landscapes of Labor," "Precious Resources," "Strange Weather" and "The Company of Animals." In addition to the films themselves, the weekend includes lectures, panel discussions and appearances by more than a dozen filmmakers. Participating venues include the Memorial Union's Fredric March Play Circle and Wisconsin Union Theater, Vilas Hall's Cinematheque and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

The festival's structure also includes engagements with the Wisconsin Humanities Council initiative "Making It Home," under which a smaller distillation of festival films will be toured to Ashland, Baraboo, Dodgeville and Milwaukee; the Nelson Institute's festival co-host, Working Films, an organization that endeavors to put documentary filmmaking to the service of "social, economic and environmental justice, human and civil rights" and to support non-profits working for social change by helping them develop multimedia resources and strategies; and two fall-semester UW-Madison courses (Environmental Filmmaking, Community Engagement Through Film), taught by Mitman and Working Films co-founder Judith Helfand.

To accommodate economic and ethnic diversity among the festival's audience, Mitman has been "adamant" that the festival remain free. Reconciling a budget in the neighborhood of $200,000 with grants and donations during a recession poses a challenge, he allows, but a dozen community and state entities (including Isthmus/TheDailyPage.com, the Great Dane brewpub, Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, Madison Arts Commission, Wisconsin Arts Board and Wisconsin Public Radio) have joined with another 20 UW-Madison departments, funds, initiatives and institutes to support the festival.

"We're going to be running vans with Centro Hispano from the south side of Madison to the festival," he adds, in a bid to make the event even more accessible to a broad audience, boost engagement with the community and blur the line between the university and its surrounds.

Students in the Community Engagement Through Film course have been working on a matrix by which they can measure the festival's goals in terms of real impact, Mitman notes. To meter the extent to which audiences take up its call to action, he explains, the tool will track such factors as sales of Porchlight products and trends in traffic to the nine partner organizations' websites.

Friday's opening keynote signals quite an impressive schedule indeed: Majora Carter -- founder of Sustainable South Bronx, co-host of Sundance Channel's The Green and public radio's Promised Land, and recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant" -- presents "Green the Ghetto and How Much It Won't Cost Us" at 7 p.m. in the Wisconsin Union Theater. Trouble the Water, last year's Oscar-nominated documentary about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, follows, with its filmmakers among those scheduled to attend this weekend.

Other films among the weekend's intriguing lineup range from a science-fiction feature about immigration and labor (Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer, introduced by the filmmaker), 20th-century classics (Harvest of Shame, Man of Aran, The Grapes of Wrath) and familiar family fare (Born Free, Princess Mononoke) to documentaries about the building of a green-certified building in south Boston (The Greening of Southie, presented by filmmaker Ian Cheney), species on the brink of extinction (Ghost Bird, presented by filmmaker Scott Crocker), and aggressive efforts by environmental activists to stop the Japanese slaughter of dolphins (the provocative, Sundance award-winning The Cove), along with a number of shorts and works in progress.

Among those screenings for which Mitman expects the longest lines: Near Oracle, a feature-length work-in-progress about Biosphere 2; and What's on Your Plate, a 2009 Berlin Film Festival pick that follows two New York City pre-teens as they endeavor to navigate contemporary foodways to the source of healthy dietary habits, which suggests built-in appeal for anyone who attended Michael Pollan's recent appearance here. The makers of both movies are scheduled to attend.

Two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke -- a defender of regional Great Lakes resources and proponent of renewable energy and sustainable foodways -- draws the festival toward its conclusion with a keynote on "The Economy for the Next Seven Generations," at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8, in the Wisconsin Union Theater, but film screenings and other events continue into Sunday evening.

For more information, consult the program in this Oct. 29 issue of Isthmus and visit the festival's Facebook page and its films, speakers, and community events guides.

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