FLEFF: Universe by the Projector Light

FLEFF offers an ever-expanding smorgasbord of indie and rare films, music, classes, and more. by Karin Fleming ’09 with Maura Stephens

“How many opportunities do we have for a shared academic experience that cuts across the entire campus?” asks Tanya Saunders, dean of the Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies. “The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival lets everyone find a place, and it doesn’t matter your major or your departmental affiliation.”

Since 2005 DIIS has been primary sponsor of the festival, which launched in 1997 as a project of the Center for the Environment at Cornell University. “Even though we kept the name Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival [after the move from Cornell],” says Saunders, “the vision was expanded to a program that could attract the participation of faculty and students from across campus.”

Since the move to Ithaca College, FLEFF has grown into a major regional event, and its organizers’ sights are set even farther afield. “We have seen a tremendous increase in audience size,” says Thomas Shevory, codirector of the festival and chair of the politics department, and that trend is likely to continue.

A glance at the numbers even in the last two years show Shevory’s not exaggerating. The 2007 festival brought in some 3,000 attendees, and the numbers just about doubled this year. Shevory and codirector Patricia Zimmermann of the cinema and photography department, a film scholar and longtime curator, also trained 100 FLEFF student interns from all the schools, who hosted events, answered questions from audience members, and helped ensure that screenings and programs ran smoothly.

After a year of researching, planning, and organizing, the weeklong April extravaganza was kicked off by two pre-festival rock shows. Musical guests included the Cary Brothers, Ingrid Michaelson, Meiko of the Hotel Café Tour, and local artists.

In addition to 75 international films that were shown on campus and downtown, programs featured workshops, a photography exhibit, minicourses, and lectures. Yet while the festival has expanded from its roots to include other art forms, films — documentary, feature, and experimental — remain the focus. They are used as the base for each of the workshops, and the conversations generated at the festival are typically about issues showcased in the films.

One such picture, Return to Penguin City, featured the work of filmmaker Lloyd Fales ’88 (featured in our series on IC documentarians, “Good Migrations,” ICQ 2006/1), who also participated in a post-screening workshop. Fales’s film, which will premiere on the Animal Planet network this year, explores how global warming affects Adélie penguin breeding colonies.

Fales was one of nine alumni who returned to participate in FLEFF as featured guests. Independent media exhibitor Gretjen Clausing ’86 used selections from her project Precious Places, a compilation of short video documentaries of residents discussing the history of their neighborhoods in Philadelphia. She gave three presentations during the week, matching three of the four “programming streams” the festival organizers used this year — “camouflage,” “counterpoint,” and “gastronomica.” The only stream on which Clausing did not present was “games.” 

Lectures, workshops, and screenings on campus were free. Festivalgoers could also see five screenings downtown at one of the two independent cinemas run by the nonprofit 7th Art Corporation, Cinemapolis and Fall Creek Pictures, for $40 ($32.50 for students) — a great deal by any measure, especially when the offerings included such anticipated, controversial, or rare films as 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival; The Price of Sugar, a documentary about a priest’s struggle to expose injustices faced by sugar harvesters in the Dominican Republic; and the world premiere of Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, a 1925 silent film about the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe in Persia for which Chris White ’87, Peter Dodge ’75, and Robby Aceto composed and performed a new improvisational score. Grass was just one of several silent films for which FLEFF commissioned original music to be performed live.

Year after year, FLEFF exhibits new ideas and new ways of thinking about the environment and sustainability. “The creative energy involved,” says Saunders, “is amazing.” Now in its second decade, FLEFF is more exciting and popular than ever, bringing more recognition to Ithaca College and the creativity of its people.