Moving the Planet Forward

By Grace Collins '22, May 6, 2021
Ryan Bieber ’22 receives national recognition for environmental short film.

Lots of class projects can earn you an A, but only the select few can earn you recognition in a national environmental storytelling competition at the same time.

Journalism major Ryan Bieber ’22 was able to achieve both after being recognized at Planet Forward’s 2021 Storyfest Summit for his short film, “The Quest For Activism in Journalism and Environmentalism.” His film was one of just four that were chosen by the judges to be highlighted and discussed in depth.

In the film, he explores the line between advocacy and objectivity in environmental journalism.

Bieber’s film seeks to answer tough questions about advocacy and journalism.

“My documentary poses the question of ‘should we be objective, or should we be activists?’ and during the Planet Forward summit, even the panelists and judges had different perspectives on it,” said Bieber. “I think it's interesting starting that conversation and getting people to think about it, and hearing other perspectives was cool as well.”

Planet Forward, an initiative run by the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, uses storytelling and media to promote and educate young people about environmental issues and advocacy. Every year, Planet Forward hosts Storyfest, challenging students to creatively tell an inspiring environmental story.

Bieber learned about Storyfest in his one-credit course: “Environmental Advocacy in Documentary Film - The Art of The Interview,” taught by professor of media arts, sciences, and studies Bradley Rappa. Students conducted an interview with an environmental activist and used what they learned to produce a short film.

“I knew in my heart I could now be both a journalist and an activist. I also felt reassured that I could make a difference in the world, even if it was a small one.”

Ryan Bieber ’22

Bieber was inspired by the activism of documentary filmmaker Jeff Orlowksi of Exposure Labs, who spoke at Ithaca College in 2019, and he set out to find if the place between the worlds of objective journalism and environmental activism could co-exist.

In his film Bieber discussed that concept with Stacey Piculell, co-producer of Orlowski’s film “Chasing Coral,” and Max Steinman, director of campaigns at Exposure Labs. Bieber says the conversation was helpful in clarifying his approach.

“I walked away feeling energized,” he said. “I knew in my heart I could now be both a journalist and an activist. I also felt reassured that I could make a difference in the world, even if it was a small one.”

While Bieber’s submission didn’t receive a grand prize at the summit, he doesn’t mind. It received plenty of attention when it played for the audience and a panel of experts discussed and analyzed different aspects of the film and Bieber’s story.

“Getting that advice and hearing experts critique and talk about my film was a great learning experience,” he said. “It sounds cliche, but that might have been better than winning.”

Bieber’s passion for environmental advocacy, stoked by Rappa’s course, continues. Although the class officially ended after block one, Bieber, Professor Rappa and the rest of the students continue to informally meet at class time twice a week to critique documentaries and analyze films.

“It was such a fun time that we just kept doing it,” Bieber said. “Professor Rappa says that as long as we keep coming, he’ll keep coming. That’s what makes the Park School so great; faculty like him who are so invested in their students.”