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Fostering a Different Environment by Tanya Saunders

Dr. Tanya Saunders



As an international initiative and an institutional commitment to sustainability, the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF) represents Ithaca College at its best. For over twenty years, FLEFF has demonstrated the power of connection, communication, and informed recognition to change our engagement with the environment and those who inhabit it.  While emphasizing the interrelationships among knowledge, creativity, and character – core values set forth in the Ithaca College Vision, FLEFF simultaneously presents ways to approach the responsibilities of citizenship and service in action as proposed in our Institutional Mission. FLEFF models the College Vision and Mission as the motivation and realization of our values in the lives of those committed to sustainability; it delivers a comprehensive, integrated expression of the College’s educational purpose.

       The different environment that FLEFF creates operates on three levels: we talk to each other, share the experience of learning, and collaborate for a common goal. FLEFF is a hopeful and joyful gathering even as its themes challenge, overwhelm, and sometimes disrupt us. FLEFF can be a stunning shock to the intellect, a prod to better-informed attention, and a call for careful reflection on the part of the academic community and the public. In so doing, FLEFF asserts that engagement and dialogue are the basis of intellectual life and that intellectual life is not limited to the academy.

       Co-directors of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival since 2003, Dr. Thomas Shevory, Professor of Politics in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Dr. Patricia Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies in the Roy H. Park School of Communications, advocated early on for the adoption of the UNESCO definition of sustainability which broadened the College’s focus beyond trees, land, and water to include the interplay between communities and environments. Because FLEFF would support the College’s interest in the unifying goal of sustainability for the five Schools of the College, former Provost Peter Bardaglio embraced the move of FLEFF from Cornell University to Ithaca College.

       In the early 2000s, the College was in the middle of constructing its first LEEDS building (certified by the US Green Building Council) for the School of Business, with funding from Mrs. Roy H. Park and was also developing a new major in Environmental Studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences. The College’s First Year Reading Initiative committee had chosen Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber to discuss with the incoming class. We understood then that the environment could not reasonably be studied in isolation from its inhabitants nor from the impact of their interactions with one another. The UNESCO concept of sustainability greatly enriched FLEFF programming by bringing in interdisciplinary and international perspectives on questions to be addressed when confronting the environment.

       From those early years at Cornell University and then at Ithaca College, FLEFF has evolved from a series of documentaries about water, land, and air to become a week-long series of multi-media events encompassing student-centered components, faculty research forums, a doctoral fellows program, creative arts installations, performances, readings, and, most importantly, an opportunity to engage, discuss, and interact. FLEFF asks participants to listen, reflect, and communicate. Through the shared lens of sustainability, FLEFF brings together intellect, creativity, and character development - key outcomes of the College Mission – for each participant.

       Each year, the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival fosters a new environment at Ithaca College, one that is vibrant, campus-wide, and inclusive. FLEFF draws faculty, students and staff out of our offices, classrooms, and schools. It heightens our awareness of common interests across differences, and underscores our many possibilities for seeing, understanding, and collaborating. By embodying the term “community,” FLEFF invites us to re-focus and to re-convene.

       By offering a common, compelling thematic focus, FLEFF lowers the walls between the disciplines, between the liberal arts and the professions, between faculty and students, and between the academy and the public. FLEFF gives each of these distinct communities and separate interests the opportunity to participate together in conversations about the difficulties facing most of the world: the challenge of thriving within changing environments, the resistance to valuing life and the environment, and the barriers to moving across landscapes of competing ideas, actions, and reverberating consequences.  Faculty have opportunities to talk to each other across disciplines about their research, students begin to see faculty as learners, and the public sees the academy as a willing partner.

       No FLEFF experience is ever the same because students, alumni, faculty, and community members change along with FLEFF. We return each year with a new lens through which to see and interpret different ideas, a different set of multi-media events, and a different deliberative experience. FLEFF, therefore, has both immediate and continuing impact in our lives, actions, and ideas.

       Uncovering commonalities and facilitating dialogues for understanding and collaboration with others guide FLEFF’s programming decisions. In alignment with the College Mission, FLEFF reminds the campus community that we exist within a larger global arena and should apply excellence in our chosen fields to the work of civic engagement and service, not just locally, but globally. The different environment that FLEFF creates for participants reflects the complex permutations and expressions of the world around us. This different environment emphasizes the urgency of our responsibilities as citizens and the need and various possibilities for service in action.

       FLEFF is highly innovative among film festivals nationally and internationally because it is more than a series of film screenings. FLEFF is tied to an academic institution and to classroom discussions. It invites open public participation without advocating any specific political position. It brings students, faculty, and staff together for engaged interaction. Its multi-media productions encourage all of us to think more broadly, to set aside assumptions, and to push forward to new, informed awareness. Creative writing, the spoken word, music, and academic research are as essential to FLEFF as are film and new media.

       These innovative approaches open up vistas for students who are usually more focused on a major or profession and for faculty ordinarily absorbed in the demands of their discipline. Each FLEFF participant chooses whatever level of engagement, reflection, and informed action that aligns with his/her level of motivation. Through FLEFF programming, participants have a means to learn more about whatever element of sustainability may spark their interest.

       FLEFF brings students into the conversation not only as attendees, but also as interns, bloggers, performers, and staff support. The faculty offer students the opportunity to take special mini-courses addressing specific threads within the larger festival theme and bring films and speakers into their regular courses so that students may make the connections between their subjects of study and the focus of the Festival. Students are offered workshops, seminars, and small gatherings that allow them to interact directly with speakers, film producers, and creative artists. FLEFF even offers students a course on how to understand and make the most of a film festival since for almost all, FLEFF is their first festival experience. 

       By providing different points of entry into the festival, FLEFF helps students see the many ways they can contribute to an effort without being an expert. It gives them the opportunity to ask questions, write and post, and to reflect on what they have experienced. FLEFF also gives them something to talk about with each other, with faculty, and with festival guests so that no one is left on the margins.  A professionally run festival entailing a diversity of perspectives, media expressions, and programming ideas, FLEFF is, nevertheless, accessible.

       While acknowledging the complexity of sustainability, FLEFF also connects local and regional environmental and sustainability efforts to the larger global conversation. It invites academic and scholarly responses to the practical social imperatives of sustainability. Moreover, FLEFF provides glimpses into the lives of others, not as objects to be deconstructed, but as subjects defining and presenting their own experiences, identities and perspectives.  The collaborative partnerships FLEFF enjoys with film distributors, documentarians, artists, writers, performers and social justice organizations around the world ensure that FLEFF offers different voices, experiences, and perspectives that heighten international awareness on campus and in the local community.

       A sampling of our collaborators include, Alliance for Community Transformation – ACT Africa, Bulldog Films, Chiapas Media Project, Cine Invisible/KDC of Spain, Documentary Educational Resources, Engage Media of Indonesia, Global Alliance against Trafficking of Women – Thailand, Outcast Films, the United National University of Japan, and Voices from the Waters Film Festival of India, among many others.

       FLEFF demonstrates for students and faculty the creative, rejuvenating power of cross-disciplinary dialogue to overcome the artificial and real divisions among us and to move us toward collaboration. For example, FLEFF creates multi-media environments in its classical music concerts with media projections to place various genres of expression in communication with each other around a common theme. The interplay of the power of the written word with the immediacy of the visual image and the virtuosity of musical performance convey the creative forces and destructive consequences of our interactions with each other and with our environment.

       It takes a large team of dedicated individuals to mount FLEFF each year. Members of the team come from across the College and include students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Working together, we model collaboration in the creative process and highlight the importance of FLEFF to Ithaca College and to our own teaching, research, and educational agendas. As a college-wide initiative, FLEFF is based in the Office of the Provost, but many offices and individuals from the College and from the larger Ithaca community bring FLEFF to life each year.

       Among these contributors are Barbara Adams from the School of Humanities and Sciences who brings stellar writers to FLEFF; Stewart Auyash from the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance; Frank Campos, Jairo Geronimo, Cynthia Henderson of the Theatre Department who provides spoken word performance in combination with silent film and jazz performance; Brad Hougham, Deborah Martin, Dawn Pierce, Warren Schlesinger from the School of Business who is organized to the penny; Gordon Stout and the student performers from the School of Music; and Stephen Tropiano from the Ithaca College Los Angeles Center.

       Some of those who have helped to administer the festival are former provost Peter Bardaglio who brought FLEFF to the College; Lis Chabot and the Library staff who ensure that we meet our copyright obligations and purchase many of the films we screen; former Ithaca College faculty members Dale Hudson, now at NYU Abu Dhabi, and Claudia Costa Pederson, now at Wichita State University, who curate our international new media exhibitions; Wade Pickren and the Center for Faculty Excellence who facilitate our faculty forums; Gordon Rowland from the Roy H. Park School of Communications, who developed our fellows and internship structure; and every Provost who has reaffirmed the College’s institutional commitment to FLEFF.

       Traevena Byrd, former associate college counsel, provided the initial funding for the FLEFF Doctoral Fellows Program; Rosalie Fitzgerald handled administrative logistics; Dean Diane Gayeski of the Park School of Communications hosts the FLEFF bloggers; David Priester overcomes technical difficulties, and the many faculty who teach festival mini-courses and serve as post-screening moderators make FLEFF accessible for students, faculty, and the community. Tim Murray and the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University supported our work with faculty; Phil Wilde and Ann Michel of Insights International support FLEFF’s multi-media projections while our friends in downtown Ithaca include Adelaide Gomer, Cinemapolis, John Jensen, Fe Nunn and his musical ensemble, the Park Foundation, and Reds.

       It is always a risk to mention names because there are so many more than appear here who have contributed to FLEFF’s success. Still, these individuals and organizations suggest the variety and diversity of talents that are brought to bear in producing a distinctly different FLEFF each year.

       FLEFF’s singular organization, institutional purpose, and creative programming consistently lead to recognition for members of the Ithaca College community via the publication of scholarly books and articles emanating from the Festival, presentations in the US and abroad, and online exhibitions with scholars, professionals, and interested parties from around the world. FLEFF creates recognition for Ithaca College and its faculty, not only among the scholarly community of screen studies, but also in the international community engaged with different forms of media expression, both new and traditional, and with different kinds of environmental justice projects. As FLEFF brings the world to Ithaca College through its programming design, it ignites the creation of new communities of inquiry about sustainability. These new alliances offer additional international engagement opportunities for FLEFF, its co-directors, and for Ithaca College.

       On the 20th anniversary of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, Ithaca College takes great pride in the history of its participation in FLEFF’s early years at Cornell University, its move to Ithaca College, the broadening of FLEFF’s focus on the environment to include sustainability, and in the continued participation of Cornell University faculty in the “new” FLEFF. The continuing collaboration between Ithaca College and Cornell University faculty members through FLEFF conveys the urgent need for academic engagement with the larger society and for academic expertise to inform discussions of public issues that matter to all who share the planet.

       FLEFF’s cutting-edge programming model demonstrates that difference need not be an impediment to advancing knowledge, challenging assumptions, and creating opportunities for communication and collaboration. Because FLEFF invites inclusion, pursues excellence on all levels, and both welcomes and engages the public, the festival itself becomes more expansive, innovative, and intellectually enriching. In this way, FLEFF models the necessary and critical position of higher education at the forefront of creating a better society for everyone.

       FLEFF is vital to Ithaca College because it strengthens our connections to each other and to our local, national, and international communities. FLEFF expands the professional and international networks of the College faculty and realizes our institutional Vision and Mission. It insists on intellectual inquiry as an activity for all members of the academy and for the public as well: the more we know, the better prepared we are to collaborate with each other on difficult questions and the greater the likelihood that we can create new environments that value life in all of its different expressions.

       Dr. Patricia Zimmermann, Dr. Thomas Shevory, and the entire FLEFF Team are to be congratulated for their incredibly imaginative work in mounting an intellectually compelling festival year after year. To do so, Dr. Zimmermann and Dr. Shevory are always forward thinking as they introduce difficult ideas and offer new and creative programming. In addition, their persuasive ability and their gift for bringing people together invite faculty, staff, and community partners to continue as willing contributors to the FLEFF experience.  As a result, each year we are all amazed by the versatility, creativity, and vitality of intellectual engagement brought into being by Dr. Zimmermann, Dr. Shevory, and the FLEFF Team. Ithaca College’s pride in and appreciation for their inspiring undertaking cannot be overstated. They ensure that FLEFF is an illuminating and appealing experience, whether one is attending one’s 20th FLEFF or participating for the first time.  

       The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival encapsulates what is best about Ithaca College: it brings us together as a community, facilitates dialogue and collaboration, and expands our understanding in service to others.