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Environmental blockbusters: Daniel Beck, UK Green Film Festival Director

At long last, it’s getting near impossible to discard green thoughts: even the veritable hell of London renting has a green hue, delivered in the shape of the energy performace certificate. Councils are making recycling compulsory, hybrid busses are making a mark and the UK Green Film Festival is making another splash, ready to unleash environmentally mindful features from 3rd of May.

In the spirit of decentralisation, the festival escapes the confines of the capital, bringing its programme to over 20 cinemas in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The eclectic selection this year includes 5 UK and one European premiere, topics that range from Michelin star farming to corporate law bending, and a grand total of seven documentaries that might be on message but don’t sacrifice artistic qualities to any agenda. Festival director Daniel Beck is after thoughtful explorations with blockbuster qualities – we caught up with him to talk about individual responsibility, the importance of trusted local cinemas, and why there are so few British green films.

Run Riot: When we last spoke almost a year ago, you talked about the need to start cooperating on environmental issues instead of constantly discussing them. Since then, we’ve seen The Guardian start a campaign to stop big charities investing in fossil fuels, and we've seen the Green Party raising green issues in the electoral campaign - but have we seen any movement on the cooperation front?

Daniel Beck: I think things are improving. There have been great examples of mass cooperative action in this past year or so on green issues. The fight to ban bee-killing pesticides, which we highlighted through our programming of More Than Honey in 2013, continues to gain support from businesses, charities, organisations and members of the public alike. Also, we’ve seen enormous numbers of people out on the streets at the various marches for climate change across the world in the past year. Here in the UK we have The Climate Coalition who are continuing to do great work in bringing organisations together. I think what we’re seeing is a movement, a shift in public perceptions around issues like climate change and it’s our individual responsibility to join with others to increase the pressure required to make a significant change.

Run Riot: This year’s programme considers cycling, biodynamic farming and water sustainability - to name but a few focal points. Can you give us a curator's tour of the festival?

Daniel Beck: When programming for UKGFF we’re always thinking about how to find films that have an important environmental message but retain everything you would expect from a blockbuster feature. It has to be beautifully crafted, it has to make us feel something. That’s certainly true of all of the films in the programme this year.

The programme is kicking off on the 3rd of May with our opening gala and European Premiere of Fredrik Gertten’s Bikes vs Cars. It’s a captivating film that takes us to cities across the world where local cycling groups are fighting for space on their roads. Good Things Await directed by Phie Ambo is an astonishing tale of a farmer called Niels Stokholm whose farm in Denmark supplies some of the world’s finest chefs and restaurants.

Divide in Concord tells the story of a grandmother in Concord, Massachusetts, who having been told about the Pacific Gyre by her grandson decides to go on a quest to ban the wasteful use of bottled water from her hometown. I don’t want to give away too much but it turns into a real battle. In Above All Else, one man risks his family and future when he rallies against the controversial oil pipeline in East Texas.

H20mx is a gripping and timely documentary that takes a look into Mexico City and its daily struggle to supply water for its 22 million citizens. Sud Eau Nord Déplacer takes us on a journey along the Nan Shui Bei Diao, a politically motivated scheme that’s designed to move water from the south to the north of China and the biggest water transfer project the world has ever seen. And Seeds of Time follows agriculture pioneer Gary Fowler on his passionate quest to save the one resource we cannot live without: our seeds.

Run Riot: What did you discover - that you might not have known before - from the films programmed?

Daniel Beck: I think there’s something to discover in each of the films. The film I found most shocking was probably Above All Else. I couldn’t get my head around it. The film follows a group of landowners and activists in the US whose land is directly in the path of an enormous tar sands oil pipeline. With their rights to protect their land completely stripped away by a US legal system that leans heavily in favour of the corporations, their fight to protect their freedoms and their land is inspiring and shocking in equal measure.

Run Riot: The number of cinemas taking part in the festival has grown by a third this year. Can you tell us more about how you collaborate with cinemas?

Daniel Beck: We have tremendous support from our network of cinemas. There’s a real enthusiasm for environmental causes in the UK film industry and it’s growing year on year. This year we’ve added new venues across London with the Islington Vue, Dalston Rio, Crouch End ArtHouse and the Bertha DocHouse all screening with us. We’ve also added great new venues in Scotland where we’re working with the Scottish Documentary Institute to bring some special events to our Bikes vs Cars screenings.

We’ve now expanded to 25 venues across the UK. We think we might now be the largest touring feature film festival in the UK, which is a testament to the wonderful cinemas we have here in the UK and their commitment to bringing environmental films and ideas to their audiences. The best way to see where we’re screening is to pay a visit to the venues page on our website. We have listings of all the cinemas and there’s also full programme info there so you can decide what to watch.

Run Riot: How do you approach audience development as the festival reaches ever more corners of the UK?

Daniel Beck: The primary aim of the festival is to get the latest and greatest in green films to every area of the UK. It’s about access, people need to have access to these issues and film is a great medium for gaining understanding of an issue. Our venues really are the key to bridging the gap between the festival programme and the audience. Most of our venues are independent, local cinemas, some even community run. It’s the venues who have the connection with the audiences in their local areas and we work hard to get the right films to the right venues each year.

Run Riot: The festival selection this year is once again cosmopolitan but, similarly to last year, lacks any UK films. Is this a curatorial coincidence, or is there something to be said about local funding for environmental films, perhaps even filmmakers’ interests? What’s your take on the UK’s green films?

Daniel Beck: That’s a really difficult question to answer. Our Palme Verte Award in 2013 went to Candida Brady’s Trashed, which is a wonderful UK green film. We do look for UK titles each year but we don’t always find what we’re looking for and that has been the case for the past couple of years. Maybe there is a gap somewhere in terms of funding on environmental issues in film in the UK. The UK Green Film Festival has survived without any kind of industry funding since 2011 so it stands to reason that perhaps our budding green filmmakers are suffering the same difficulties finding the funding they need in the UK to make their films. That said, a large part of the programming process comes down to timing and there have been great UK green films that we’ve unfortunately missed out on over the past two years.

Run Riot: Last but not least: if you could introduce one green policy to London, what would it be?

Daniel Beck: I’m going to go with cycling, I’d like to see us limiting HGV traffic in central London to make the roads safer for people to ride on and also to build bigger and better cycle lanes across the capital. I love London, I’ve lived here all my life but the levels of pollution coming from our roads each day are a big concern and we’ve got great green technologies now that can go a long way to fixing it.

UK Green Film Festival

Various locations

3 – 10 May