Environmental film festival makes first appearance in Columbia

Thursday, November 6, 2008 | 6:26 p.m. CST; updated 7:22 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 6, 2008

COLUMBIA — Film is a powerful medium that reaches and touches people quickly. That is why Justin Johnson, executive director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation, says he believes bringing “visually stunning” environmental films to viewers is a way to get people exposed to issues and get a conversation started.

To get the conversation started locally, the Missouri Prairie Foundation and the Columbia Farmers Market are hosting the Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival On Tour at the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts on Sunday.

The sixth annual national festival is making a tour stop in Columbia for the first time. The festival is held for three days in January in Nevada City, Calif., followed by a nationwide tour. The annual festival has 125 films, but for its tour, each venue chooses its films from a narrowed list of 50. There are more than 90 venues on the tour’s schedule this year, tour manager Susie Sutphin said.

The agreement of the power of film is what brings together environmentalists and filmmakers, she said.

“Some environmentalists are accidental filmmakers because they realize film is a powerful medium to get their message across,” Sutphin said, “and the filmmakers they work with agree with their message.”

The festival was started by the nonprofit corporation South Yuba River Citizens League and is presented by Patagonia, a designer of outdoor clothing and gear. The league looks for festival venues throughout the country that have local Patagonia dealers, such as the Alpine Shop in Columbia.

For 25 years, the league has been working to bring the community around the protection of the South Yuba River in the Sierra Nevada area of California. Its mission is to restore the Yuba Watershed and maintain non-dam flood control, water quality monitoring and overall community collaboration on such issues. In 1999, 39 miles of the river were added to California’s Wild and Scenic River System, which gives the film festival its name.

The Missouri Prairie Foundation shares the league's community-oriented idea of activism.

“Our mentality is all-around cooperation and sustainability,” Johnson said. “That really means people working together to protect a place that’s special to them.”

The Missouri Prairie Foundation is a statewide nonprofit organization in Columbia started in 1966 with a cooperative community mentality, he said. The foundation works to permanently protect prairie habitat and create understanding of the role of native grasslands in wildlife conservation. It directly protects 4,000 acres and works with neighbors to protect thousands more.

“Once something becomes relevant in someone’s mind, they will leave with a better understanding of what it takes to save a pretty place,” Johnson said. He hopes the festival’s closing film, award-winning “America’s Lost Landscape: The Tallgrass Prairie,” will put the beauty and natural history of the prairie on Columbians’ radar screens.

Although the festival’s subject matter attracts activists, it speaks to a broader audience.

“People in the Midwest are often unaware that their landscape was once so diverse, lush and wild,” said Daryl Smith, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa.