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FLEFF: Two Decades for a Different Environment

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Patricia R. Zimmermann & Stephen Tropiano
Coeditors of FLEFF's "20 on 20" collection of essays


How do you program a film festival to deconstruct the timeworn notion that environment equals nature?

       How do you curate a film festival encompassing a wide enough range of art forms, disciplines, public programs, and technologies to dismantle old ideas about film?

       How do you create dynamic spaces for discussion and debate both on the Ithaca College campus and in the local Ithaca community?

       Active in the festival since 1997, in 2004 Ithaca College increased its involvement, becoming a major sponsor of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF).

       Ithaca College boasts nationally recognized programs in the arts, business, communications, environmental science and studies, health, humanities, music and theatre.

       How could a film festival ignite dialogues across this all these disciplines?

       FLEFF began as an outreach project by the Center for the Environment at Cornell University. Dedicated to screening new documentaries on environmental issues, FLEFF, under program director Christopher Riley, expanded from a local film festival to a major upstate regional event.

       Now in its 20th year, FLEFF is a week-long multimedia extravaganza that challenges its audiences to redefine the environment.

       In 2004, the festival moved permanently to Ithaca College and is housed in the Office of the Provost as a program to link intellectual inquiry to larger global issues. Thomas Shevory and Patricia Zimmerman, professors of politics and screen studies respectively, were named festival codirectors.

       Together they refocused the festival’s mission to reflect the college’s commitment to interdisciplinary studies and sustainability. They transformed FLEFF into a multidisciplinary, multimedia, trans-arts event with an international focus and reformulated the environment as a dynamic among nature, built structures, and people.

       With a new logo, FLEFF employed a new conceptual strategy that focused programming around specific themes.

       In the early years, the festival programmed around multiple themes to reflect the intersections between arts, humanities, and sciences: Water and Ecopoetics (2005); Contagion and Contamination (2006); Maps and Memes, Metropoli, Panic Attacks, and Soundscaping (2007); Camouflage, Counterpoint, Games and Gastronomica (2008); and Spice, Syncopation, Toxins, and Trade (2009). 

       In 2010, when both festival directors were on sabbaticals overseas, the festival went virtual with blogs, contests, and new media exhibitions, exploring the theme of Open Space. With increasing national and international recognition, FLEFF transitioned to single themes: Checkpoints (2011), Microtopias (2012), Mobilities (2013), Dissonance (2014), Habitats (2015), Landscapes (2016), and Geographies (2017).

       The festival’s programming reflects its heterogeneous strategy. FLEFF features more than 50 guests and 100 events, including art exhibitions, concerts, labs, lectures, parties, readings, screenings, and workshops. More than 75 faculty from Cornell University, Hobart and William Smith, Ithaca College, and Syracuse University as well as local community specialists serve on the festival’s roster of moderators.

       Over the decades, filmmakers, musicians, new media artists, scholars, and writers from Argentina, Australia, Benin,  Bolivia, Brazil, Canada,  China, Colombia, England, France, Georgia,  Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India,  Indonesia, Korea, Mali, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland, Singapore, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, and Taiwan have presented.

       Since 2005, Cinemapolis, Ithaca’s local art house cinema, has served as a key partner, running the festival’s feature films and post-screening discussions for four days on three of their five screens. FLEFF also brings in filmmakers, scholars, and theatrical performers.

       FLEFF has developed signature programming through its original productions of silent films with live music, featuring renowned musicians playing original scores to silent films. The festival has also commissioned classical music concerts with projections and theatrical design.

       Festivals operate as hinges between the global and the local,  between the past and the future, and between films and audience responses to them. They galvanize art, film, music, and theater toward socially engaged intellectual inquiry and activism.

       Above all, festivals provide space for dialogues and debates when the culture at large offers fewer opportunities to participate in public dialogues about significant ideas.

       FLEFF showcases Ithaca College as a regional and national center for thinking differently—in new interfaces, forms, and ways—about the environment and sustainability. 

       FLEFF’s tag line is “a different environment.” 

       “A different environment” is used in three senses:

       First, FLEFF creates a different lens through which to consider environmental issues-- complicating, connecting, expanding, internationalizing, problematizing, and unsettling. 

       Second, the festival creates a different environment through its own operation, foregoing traditional academic conference practices in favor of foregrounding discussion and debate among  visiting activists, artists, filmmakers, new media artists, musicians, scholars, and writers to engage unresolved issues of urgency.

       Third, FLEFF intends that the act of coming together at the festival will produce a different environment, a future that endorses all forms of sustainability from a global, collaborative perspective.

       Unmooring preconceptions of the environment and nature, FLEFF emphasizes the necessity to think across, between, and around. We need to discover interconnections among different issues and sectors rather than thinking of ideas, politics, or problems in isolation.

       The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival at Ithaca College embraces and examines sustainability across all of its forms: aesthetic, cultural, ecological, economic, political, social, and technological. The festival operates in the spirit of UNESCO’s initiative on sustainable development, which has redefined and expanded environmental issues to explore the international interconnections among air, cultural heritage, disease, diversity, education, food, genocide, health, the land, technology, war, and water.

       FLEFF figures the environment as a dynamic and fluid series of infusions, innovations, interrogations, interruptions, interventions, and reconfigurations.

       FLEFF critiques the notion of environment as a pastoral phantasm and imbues it with a more global perspective grounded in working for environmental justice. FLEFF disengages the idea that sustainability is somehow an individual responsibility.  Rather, it insists on a foundation of  provocative conversations and debates.

       FLEFF defines sustainability as a strategy to mobilize heterogeneity, a model we hope two decades of programming and audiences have materialized.

       FLEFF does not advocate a particular party line. Instead, it rouses discussion and debate to conjure possibilities for a different environment--and a sustainable future.