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The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival from the interns' point of view
Friday, March 2, 2018
By Michael Mulvey
In studying social movements I often focus on how they share information. I ask what their forums for internal discourse are, how they generate consensus, and how they express themselves in the wider culture. For example, an important nodal point during the rise of the early 19th century labor movement was William Heighton’s Mechanic’s Free Press.
The paper was published for less than four years beginning in 1828. In that time The Mechanic’s Free Press initiated the founding of a highly effective political party, the Working Man’s Party. The paper was also instrumental in organizing an effective legislative campaign articulated by the Workingman’s Party.
By 1834 they had achieved: enactment of the first child labor laws in Pennsylvania, a guaranteed ten hour workday, and the passage of legislation that created tax funded public education in that state. The campaign had national implications. Other states like New York followed Pennsylvania in enacting publicly funded education.
Heighton intended, in part, to create a platform for the distillation of the movement’s goals and strategies. He committed an extensive amount of space in the paper to editorials by the public. By providing an open forum for the presentation and critique of ideas, the movement was able to articulate several goals. The ultimate objective was the liberation of successive generations from an inter-generational cycle of poverty and oppression.
At the center of the movement’s platform were the dual priorities of the eradication of child labor, paired with publicly funded education for all children. These goals, first articulated by an independent rag that didn’t survive four years, are foundations of U.S. moral economy. They undergird the social contract between labor, capital and government. The role of independent media has been integral to the dynamics of social progress throughout U.S. history. (Rodger Streitmatter provides in depth history and critical analysis of this case and the role of independent media in social movements in his 2001 volume Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America.)
Through IC’s FLEFF Festival Blogging Seminar I’m shown the role film festivals play as forums for alternative discourses. In Cindy Hing-Yuk Wong’s Film Festivals: Culture, People, and Power on the Global Screen, her chapter on Events as Public Spheres discusses how theme based film festivals, “can constitute alternative public spheres/counterpublics where ideas, often- times repressed or ignored in larger contexts, are exchanged and explored.” Wong also asserted that those festivals were usually limited by their focus. This first point prompted me to question how FLEFF maintains its coherent focal point, the environment, while engaging a wide range of disciplines and perspectives.
In researching this question, points two and three emerged. Dr. Tanya Saunders articulates how, through creating a “different environment…FLEFF asserts that engagement and dialogue are the basis of intellectual life and that intellectual life is not limited to the academy." In pondering this I began to recognize point number three. FLEFF constitutes alternate public spheres, in which counterpublics can develop and find meaningful public expression. (Dr. Tanya Saunders is the Assistant Provost of International Programs and Extended Studies at Ithaca College. She is the executive producer and head administrator of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.)
This seemed relevant, but didn't answer my question of how FLEFF retains its focus, while embracing so much. Upon digging a little further I became aware of FLEFF’s alignment with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Sustainable Development Goals. The U.N. General Assembly adopted UNESCO’s “17 Goals to Transform Our World,” in 2015. They engage wide-ranging issues including poverty, gender equality, sustainability and peace justice & strong institutions among others.
From this revelation came a fifth point, which does answer my question. By applying the UNESCO goals to the festival forum FLEFF allows for engagement of environmental issues from diverse perspectives. UNESCO's goals also inform IC’s commitment to involve the entire range of disciplines and departments that the institution embodies. For example, the course descriptions for each of FLEFF’s eight mini-courses reveal the course’s relationship to one or more of the 17 UNESCO sustainability goals. By applying the lens of UNESCO's Sustainability Goals, various perspectives and disciplines are brought under a common forum. Interdisciplinary collaboration and discourse increases, creating new interstitial spaces at these intersections.
In essence William Heighton provided a broad, open forum that incorporated various immigrant groups with different cultural orientation under the umbrella of labor reform. Prior to the use of any electronic media or railroads The Mechanic's Free Press constituted an alternative public sphere where ideas, which were repressed or ignored in larger contexts, were exchanged, explored, and ultimately canonized into that wider context. This model recurs in social movements throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the mid 20th century Pacifica Broadcasting attempted to apply the model to electronic media. Pacifica attempted to organize a forum that would support a national network of counterpublics.
My sixth point, is that FLEFF represents a multi-disciplinary 21st century articulation of the critical function of independent media in social movements, which William Heighton helped to define 190 years ago: to provide a forum for critiquing power, challenging the dominant narrative, and expressing effective and just alternatives to the status quo.