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October 30, 2008

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Daniel Nocera—a guest at Mountainfilm’s 29th annual festival in 2007—is the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy and Professor of Chemistry at MIT. His group at MIT focuses on the basic mechanisms of energy conversion in biology and chemistry. Earlier this year, Nocera helped develop a potentially revolutionary catalyst that can use solar power to generate hydrogen from water. His discovery may be the long-elusive answer to efficient solar power and the leading breakthrough scientific discovery of the century.

Here is the latest article about Dr. Nocera, and a list of related articles.

Following are excerpts of an interview he held with executive director Peter Kenworthy during the 2007 festival.

PK: In layman’s terms, what is your energy conversion work all about?

DN: It’s pretty simple. If you take water and sunlight, you can basically do everything you do with oil. My group is in the business of catching the light and then converting it into a different energy form.  We make things called catalysts that capture the light acting on the water and then we try to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

PK: Isn’t that effectively photosynthesis?

DN: Yes, it’s exactly photosynthesis. As a matter of fact, the group is expert in how photosynthesis works. Most people don’t realize, leaves are buzzing with electricity. It’s wireless but they’re actually making current and then they make hydrogen and they make oxygen. We try to emulate the leaf and if we could do that we could power the earth.

PK: If photo-generation becomes practical science, what are the implications?

DN: The world would change as you know it. You’ll be pulling cars up to stations but you won’t be using gasoline – you’ll be using hydrogen. In terms of geopolitics, the world’s going to become safer: people will be generating their own energy – they won’t be relying on this one precious source from this place in the earth that causes a lot of geopolitical instability. If you could just use water and sunlight to make energy, a little town in Bangladesh could be as powerful as New York City.

PK: So what do people need to do to win the global energy challenge?

DN: First, they need to become activists. It’s what Mountainfilm is all about and it’s been a real inspiration to be here and see so many people committed to what I would call the right thing. I work with a lot of people in Washington – they all get the energy problem, whether it’s the environment, energy security or the economy. Everybody gets it but they need to be empowered. As individuals, we can all start empowering their constituencies so that they can have the discourse with their constituencies and won’t be voted out of office when they have it.

PK: Are there people in the scientific community who think you’re crazy?

DN: There aren’t many scientists who think I’m crazy. What bothers me about my field is that there are not enough of them who are heroic enough. The ascent of that peak that you thought you couldn’t get up – enough of them aren’t heroic to take that ascent. If you’re making that ascent that no one’s ever gone up, you might not get funded. At some level, you just have to say “Screw it! I’m going to make that ascent and what happens, happens.” So, there just needs to be a more heroic bunch doing it.

PK: How do you see your role in a festival setting like this one?

DN: These complicated energy things that you hear are complicated for a reason: there’s a lot of money to be made. It’s hard to get an honest broker. I feel I need to be the honest broker for people who care, so they can then take the knowledge I give them and do something with it. All I really care about is the planet, and mostly the people on the planet. You should always remember with CO2 and global warming, the earth is going to be absolutely fine. If that’s your concern, don’t worry – she will adapt. You won’t be living on it very well, so I’m more worried about you living on it, not the planet. So to be able to give people that perspective, artists and people in the media, journalists, so they can go out and spread the message in an educated way, put the filter on and know when they are getting the political or financial message versus the real core science message, it’s really important for me to connect with them. Scientists just provide proof. I need to give the truth so people can use that proof in their own course in life.

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December 11, 2007

It’s great to get out on the road with Mountainfilm. Although our Tour shows can only hint at the variety and mix of our festival programming, it’s a treat to be able to introduce, or re-acquaint, people to what we’re about.

Last week I was in Washington, D.C. for four shows. The first was at the Chevy Chase Club—an exclusive, blue-blood venue, for sure. Notwithstanding Mountainfilm’s rabble-rouser credentials, I could not have been more warmly received. And what a hoot to play hardcore, extreme, adventure films jacked-up on rap and hip-hop tunes to a mostly white-haired crowd—and to have them love it!

Our show at National Geographic the next night was a sell-out and, apparently, the biggest show of the season for their Live! Series, which featured twenty-two programs prior to ours this fall. Not bad for our maiden effort with the series and the crowd seemed pleased with the program.

Small shows at Woodrow Wilson High School (DC’s largest and most culturally diverse comprehensive school) and the Bell Multicultural School (in conjunction with The Latin American Youth Center) rounded out the week. At the Bell show we had special permission to screen one of my favorite films from the 2006 festival—“Favela Rising”—an exceptionally well-told and inspiring story of personal and community redemption.

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Ando from the film Favela Rising. Photo courtesy Favela Rising, LLC

The four DC shows were radically different in terms of playlists and audiences. The cool thing for me was that Mountainfilm could span such vast programming and demographic differences and still make solid connections at every show.

Click here to read a blog post from a member of the audience.

Posted by Peter Kenworthy

Editor’s note: Today is Peter’s birthday. Please join me in wishing him a very happy birthday!

April 25, 2007

Putting together a press release today, I actually counted up all the premiering films showing at this year’s festival and was very pleasantly surprised to find out there are 19!!! Among our first showings will be 5 World Premieres, 9 North America Premieres and 5 USA Premieres. Our World Premieres are: A Peak Experience; Crawl, Walk, Run; Dalai Lama Renaissance; Nine Winters Old; and Running Down the Man. You can find descriptions of some the films, here on our website. (Editors note: The complete final film list with film descriptions hasn’t officially been published, but will be online on the above link as early as May 1st.)

Posted by Peter Kenworthy

December 12, 2006

With Mountainfilm’s marketing diva, Daiva, I took in the Third Annual International Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas last week. Vegas, or “Lost Wages” as the airport gate announcer in Denver referred to it, is surely one of the stranger places on the planet. Disney World on crack (and steroids) might be an apt description.

We stayed at The Excalibur. With 4,000 rooms, it could readily house the entire population of Telluride, including visiting friends and family and their pets.

Daiva had taken care of the travel/accommodation booking and assured me that her choice of The Excalibur had nothing to do with the all-male Australian revue that was playing there, called Thunder From Down Under. Hmm.

The summit was good. For someone like me, who has little direct experience in the industry, it was very helpful to compare notes with other festival organizers and managers. It seems we all face many of the same challenges in marketing our events, filling theaters, keeping our programming relevant and vital, and trying to at least break even with what is, too often, essentially a money-losing enterprise.

It is this latter challenge that is of particular interest to me. My primary charge, after all, (apart from taking in the occasional Vegas-type event) is to generate money in sufficient quantity to cover costs that are, seemingly, in almost complete disproportion to the length and scope of our annual festival.

While I was relieved to learn from other festival folk that their costs are, likewise, out of sync with their end product, I probably experienced even more satisfaction in finding out that they, like I, struggle to get sponsors on board; and, once on board, to keep them there.

Along with ticket and pass sales, grants and donations, and not forgetting the odd fundraiser and flogging a bit of swag such as t-shirts and baseball caps (logo-emblazoned, of course), corporate sponsorships are a primary source of revenue for film festivals — at least in theory. The problem is that corporate sponsors are extremely zealous of their cash and are not typically driven by philanthropic considerations. Instead, they tend to be motivated by that much-hackneyed concept “return on investment.”

With a festival, especially a smaller, niche festival such as ours, it can be tricky to prove, in any kind of strictly quantifiable terms, a given ROI. We’re not like a piece of commercial real estate, or a marketable security, or new and improved manufacturing equipment. It’s really not easy, with a festival, for a sponsor to say, “Okay, we put x dollars in and we got x + y out. Divide x by x + y and, voila, ROI is…”

How do we, and the sponsors, deal with this lack of financial definition? Well, for sponsors the answer is often to provide in-kind support in lieu of cash (thus the aforementioned t-shirts and baseball caps). Or they may pressure us to give them added sponsorship benefits that are not commensurate with the dollars that they actually pony up. Or, worse case, with more or less grace, they simply decline the invitation to partner.

For our part, we festival managers wheedle and plead about our extraordinary mission and about the inordinate impact that we have on our audiences. We optimistically overstate our audience numbers and the number of impressions that sponsor logos make on eyeballs. We promise what we’re not sure we can deliver and, in one form or another, we pray a lot.

Of course the real answer to a film festival’s revenue woes were probably staring me right in the face everywhere I turned in Vegas. To guaranty solvency and financial sustainability, what better solution than a heavy dose of neon, nudity and one-armed bandits? I think I’ll take it up with our board. And I definitely need to talk to our festival director Arlene Burns about including Thunder From Down Under — The Film in next year’s program.

Posted by Peter Kenworthy

November 24, 2006

There is nothing, perhaps, like a walk in the mountains to clear the head, ventilate the soul, and regain a balanced sense of perspective. In Telluride we are blessed with a virtual artery system of trails leading directly from town that, within minutes, deliver you into the rugged embrace of the mountains’ solitude.

One of the most popular trails, an up-and-back with a gentle gradient, is the Bear Creek Trail that comes to an end at the foot of the magnificent Bear Creek Falls. The trail slices south from town through soft spruce and aspen cover punctuated by patches of alpine meadow and bordered by stunning San Juan peaks, spires and pinnacles. The trail runs through land that was once sacred to the native Ute Indians and essentially bisects a 420-acre parcel that has been preserved in perpetuity as open space.

Having been laid low of late by the flu and still physically depleted by the experience, Bear Creek seemed a good option for me yesterday: a bracing walk, rather than a demanding hike, to help me start to regain my fitness.

Although it was Thanksgiving Day, and the ski mountain is officially open, the season in Telluride has not really started and the day, though mild, was gray and a little bleak so Bear Creek traffic was minimal.

I savored the long slow drawls of clean air that I pulled deliberately through my nose and exhaled from my mouth. I tried to keep my mind clear in a walking meditation but, of course, undisciplined and disparate thoughts regularly interrupted the brief interludes of calm.

One set of thoughts that I had trouble banishing was about sharks. The night before I had screened a film entry for our 2007 festival called Sharkwater. The film was written, directed and largely shot by Rob Stewart and it is a work of passion and devotion. It is also deeply alarming.

At the 2006 Mountainfilm festival we were lucky to have Mark Marks as a guest. Marks is a marine biologist whose special area of expertise is Great White Sharks. In fact, Marks swims with Great Whites. All sharks, according to Marks, can sense your state of emotion and, by training himself to stay calm, keeping his blood pressure low, he has learned how to be in the open water with them without undue risk.

Marks says that sharks, especially Great Whites, are the most misunderstood species on the planet. Quite the opposite of the stereotyped deadly predators, the relentless killing machines portrayed by the media, Marks contends that sharks are highly cognizant social animals that are integrally in tune with their environment and almost categorically unlikely to attack humans.

In his film, Stewart strongly supports these points. Fascinated by sharks since his childhood, Stewart became increasingly alarmed by public misperception of one of our world’s most ancient and successful inhabitants. He was astounded, too, by the horrific slaughter that annually kills as many as one hundred million sharks of all species, mostly to supply the trillion dollar market for shark fins, centered largely in southeast Asia and, most notably, in Hong Kong.

That slaughter has served to decimate the world’s shark population. As the top ocean predators, sharks essentially control their ecosystems. As they become increasingly eradicated, those ecosystems quickly spin out of balance.

That is all worrying enough but perhaps even more alarming is the barbarity by which the sharks (and myriad other species including sea turtles) are caught on hooked long-lines and then butchered for their fins. Their carcasses, often still twitching in their death throes, are dumped back overboard to sink bloodily to the ocean floor where they will be eaten alive by other fish.

Also deeply disturbing is the fact that there is no international agency or body set up to protect sharks.

As with so much of what’s wrong with the world, the source it seems of so much suffering and injustice, lies ignorance, and fear. And, of course, excessive love of money.

The Buddhist – or the nihilist – in me argues that thus the world has always been and thus it always will be: that it is ultimately feckless to try to fundamentally counter or correct what is wrong with the world.

And yet, I cannot help but fervently applaud people like Rob Stewart who take enormous risks and make huge personal sacrifices to try to right manifest wrongs such as the atrocity of shark finning. And Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepard and a founder of Greenpeace, who is featured in Stewart’s film and in it succinctly sums up Man as ‘an out-of-control primate.’

Reaching Bear Creek Falls, I stand in rapt wonder of the blue-hued beauty of its largely frozen flow, a sculpted panorama of crystalline relief that is alive with light and sound. I close my eyes and shut out images of maimed sharks and desperately greedy shark fin merchants. I meditate on the courage and honor and heroism of people like Stewart and Watson and Marks and all the other countless individuals who strive daily to steer this planet away from its excesses and evils and toward equity and balance.

I think of the Utes who lived in harmony with their environment and held it sacred.

I breathe deeply of the ions released by the waters of Bear Creek that are not yet frozen and still sluice freely over the rock and ice face of the falls.

I give thanks for all that is good in life and pray for strength to fight and resist all that is bad.

For further information on sharks and shark finning, visit www.sharkwater.com, and www.seashepard.org.

November 16, 2006

Welcome to MF Blog!

We hope this site will serve as an extension of the conversations that buzz in Telluride during our Memorial Day weekend festival each year — conversations worth sustaining.

This is new territory for us — our first ever blogsite. We don’t know exactly what to expect nor what to predict. I, for one, certainly can’t guarantee that everything you come across here will be pithy and mordant … galvanizing nuggets, as it were, of rare sagacity and insight. But, with luck, there should be some pearls.

Our main purpose at MF Blog is not to make or break news but to pick up and comment on issues that relate to the Mountainfilm world.

What world is that?

The world of mountains and films, of course.

And the world of bold adventure, endangered cultures, threatened environments, and more.

Arlene Burns, our festival director, Justin Clifton, our world tour director, Daiva Chesonis, our marketing diva, and I will all take turns trying to keep the MF Blog lively, worthwhile and connected.

And we hope to have plenty of outside guest commentary from filmmakers, friends and the Mountainfilm family that stretches to the most remote reaches of the globe.

Wish us luck, stay tuned and stay in touch!

Posted by Peter Kenworthy

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