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June 7, 2016

“Dominican Republic Environmental Film Festival: the Path to Synergy “, an article by Natasha Despotovic


As Director of GFDD and DREFF, Natasha Despotovic, contributes to the publication How to organize a film festival with a social commitment, a handbook for organizers of human rights and environmental cinematographic events (Cómo organizar un festival de cine con compromiso social, un manual para organizadores de eventos cinematográficos de derechos humanos y medio ambiente), with the article “Dominican Republic Environmental Film Festival: the Path to Synergy”.

The pieces in a puzzle

Sometimes it’s hard to identify the exact moment an idea is born, as only rarely do ideas arrive in a single moment. Rather, the process is something like a series of small flashes that flicker until at last a clear and dense stream of light flares up, containing all the potential for everything to come after it. As an image on a puzzle only fully emerges when the final piece is fit into place—such was the conception of DREFF.

Here at the Fundación Global Democracia y Desarrollo (Funglode) and the Global Foundation for Democracy and Development (GFDD), sister institutions with offices in Santo Domingo, Washington, DC, and New York, we’ve spent the last 15 years developing projects and programs related to sustainable socioeconomic, democratic, and cultural development aimed at improving the lives of citizens in the Dominican Republic, the United States, and the Western Hemisphere. We work in the fields of education, health, democracy, environment, international relations, security and defense, knowledge management, IT, globalization, culture, economics, and communications, among others. Through our many activities—including conferences, seminars, workshops, courses, professional training, discussion forums, international events, and cultural festivals, as well as research projects and publications—the two foundations contribute to progress, exchange, and collaboration in the Dominican Republic and throughout the region. Our programs and activities aim to elevate public awareness and debate, fill a vacuum in the supply of professional training programs, develop better public policies, foster exchange and understanding at the international level, and respond to structural and other contemporary needs in our society.

We do our work in collaboration with numerous public, private, and nonprofit institutions worldwide, especially universities, think tanks, multilateral bodies like the various agencies and entities of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN), private foundations, professional organizations, and government bodies. In our work with these national and international partners we exchange experiences, lessons learned, and best practices, allowing us to continually improve our programs and to present new initiatives.

Since the nascence of both foundations (of Funglode in 2000 and of GFDD in 2002), our work has displayed an interest in cinema both as an art form and as a medium to better understand the world. Workshops and cinema conferences, as well as small film festivals, were our first efforts in this respect. From 2006 this aspect of our work underwent a revolution, with the celebration of the first Dominican Global Film Festival (FCGD).

An initiative of then Dominican President Dr. Leonel Fernández, who is also the founder and president of Funglode and GFDD, the Dominican Global Film Festival was the first step in his project to stimulate the country’s film industry and attract moviemaking from abroad. I had the honor and challenge of directing this first edition of the Festival as well as its two following editions. The Funglode and GFDD team had no experience planning film festivals, but their enthusiasm and complete dedication to the project as well as experience with similar kinds of events served to provide both guidance and inspiration: and so we managed to make the first FCGD a success. We were also lucky to enjoy the support of an experienced external advisor and a team of technicians who handled the screenings—the print traffic (as we call the handling of the films themselves; and yes, in this festival we were actually working with 35mm reels!) and the operation of the projectors and other technical equipment.

From November 8 to 12, 2006, a selection of 18 high-quality films were screened and seven panels and master classes held in six venues in three cities around the Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo, Santiago, and Puerto Plata). This was our first stab at a large-scale cultural event and it would eventually become the largest film festival in the Caribbean, which now screens more than 100 features in eight cities around the country.

Over the last 10 years, filmmaking in all its aspects—national productions and co-productions, foreign shoots in the country, film schools, cinema-related entertainment programs, filmmaking contests—has undergone dizzying growth and improved in all respects: in cinematic quality, promotion at the international level, screening venues, appreciation among specialists and the general public, etc. The Dine Law enacted in November 2010 and the creation of a General Directorate of Cinema in 2011 were two cornerstones in this process that continues to advance today.

Now: How, when, and why did an environmental film festival arise among all this?

Three years after its launch, the FCGD had already become quite consolidated and its path toward a promising expansion appeared clear. The Funglode/GFDD team had survived an enormous trial by fire, and emerged exultant, renewed, with new lessons learned, skills acquired, and international contacts forged: ready, in short, for new challenges. In our first four years of work we visited several renowned film festivals and sponged up everything we saw in our eagerness to do everything just as well or better and adapt it to local conditions in the best possible way. Since one of our offices is in Washington, DC, we attended several editions of the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital (more commonly known as the DC Environmental Film Festival) and we loved what we saw.

There are certain differences between a general film festival and an environmental one and I’d like to take advantage of my experience with both and share it with you. Hopefully it helps cheer on and encourage our colleagues working in the environmental field so they can see the manifold fruits of their labor which so often pass unnoticed and are taken for granted.

Compared to our experiences dealing with complaints from movie stars, hypercompetitiveness among film productions, commercial interests tied up with the productions, sometimes even security concerns for certain guests, all the fussy decorations and “glamour” items needed for the red carpet and special screenings, not to mention the conflicts of interest that occasionally arise between productions—compared to that, planning an environmental film festival feels almost entirely peaceful and relaxed. And this without even mentioning the technical issues, especially back when quality films screened at a festival could be of no more than 35mm. We needed an entire team of vehicles and technicians from one screening location to the next and all of our hard work basically depended on whether the reels were correctly tagged, transported, delivered, stored, etc. It’s possible that in a country with a lot of experience and tradition of film festivals and with excellent screening venues, these technical issues wouldn’t have caused such anxiety, but I assure you that in ours a huge amount of organizational and creative energy was spent on nothing more than following huge reels around, especially since each reel traveled to several cities, from screening to screening.

So there we were, discovering a world of film festivals where “glamour” was not the be-all and end-all of everything and the staff was not absorbed in the nightmare of film reels not arriving on time or “Surprise! This isn’t the movie we just announced!”

In this world the filmmakers, the audience, and the organizers shared spontaneously. The filmmakers and stars of the features didn’t come in through a back door and then run out of it when the Q&A ended to avoid any personal contact. Filmmakers who carry their DVDs around in a backpack and hand them out to the audience? Or who call you to offer to give a master class or participate in a panel, because, since they’re coming to the festival, they’d like to contribute something? Yes, it was indeed a different experience that we were learning from our colleagues who’d been planning environmental film festivals for years.

In fact, as part of the FCGD we had already planned several screenings of enviromental films with panel debates: in the very first edition in 2006, for example, we screened An Inconvenient Truth, in the second Flow: For Love of Water, and in the third The Cove. We witnessed the enormous interest in these issues around the country and met environmental filmmakers and experts, who participated in several of our panels.

It was there that the pieces of a promising puzzle began to come together: visits to environmental film festivals; screenings of environmental films at our own festival; an international team with experience and skills gained in planning a film festival. And—voilà! In a meeting, the idea for DREFF—the Dominican Republic Environmental Film Festival—came into being.

The Funglode team in Santo Domingo was well prepared to carry on alone with the FCGD, whose growth required daily attention and monitoring in situ. The GFDD team in the Washington, DC, and New York offices was ready for a new challenge.

Another aspect to keep in mind is our work on environmental and sustainable development issues and the importance these matters have taken on globally, especially since the end of the 90s and the start of the 21st century. Since their beginnings, both Funglode and GFDD have organized numerous seminars, international conferences, and trainings on this issue. In 2011, after five years of research and design, we published the first Diccionario Enciclopédico Dominicano de Medio Ambiente (Dominican Encyclopedia of the Environment). Through our active participation in the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), we’ve been able not only to stay up to date on international debates but also to make contributions in the form of briefs and status reports. All this together with our experience planning the Dominican Global Film Festival prepared us for the first edition of DREFF in 2011.

Sounding out the territory
It might well be precisely because the path to the first DREFF was so elaborate and full of challenges and experiences that once the decision was made and the date announced, everything happened very quickly: we had launched a missile to which we were attached body and soul, but we could hardly keep up with its speed.

The first Festival was held September 8–11, 2011, in two cities (Santo Domingo y Santiago), with three screening venues and 17 films. Quite exhausted after having launched and set the FCGD on its path, and keen to create a more laid-back festival where we could better curate the content and the educational activities surrounding it, we opted for something modest and low-profile. Nonetheless, the conditions were in place for a large-scale project with a broad reach.

Our first guest of honor was none less than the renowned scientist Dr. Sylvia Earle, world champion protector of oceans. Two friends who had participated in the Dominican Global Film Festival—Debbie Kinder, director of the Blue Ocean Film Festival, and Charlotte Vick, head of content for Google Ocean—were the first members of our advisory committee and assisted us in selecting the films and preparing for the first festival. We started out shyly, gauging the response from the public. After each screening, we organized a panel debate in which our international guests participated alongside national experts.

Over the course of the Festival we were approached by many local experts and enthusiasts and discovered new partners who we’d had no idea existed. Everyone offered ideas and suggestions for films, topics, guests, new venues—the interest and support was astounding. By the end of the Festival, we had so many ideas and proposals that we didn’t know how we’d be able to respond to them all.

We’d started out worrying that perhaps there was still not much interest in these issues or that awareness was low, but we’d decided to do it anyway—“Let’s be on the cutting edge and at some point the public will appreciate it,” we’d said.

Lesson learned: There are lots of people worried about the same things as you but you’ll never know that until you show your concern. Another one: Don’t underestimate the general public. And another: If you have a lovely project you believe in and can put your heart into it, do it, and the rest will be built around you. Like that line from Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

The project leads us along
By the end of the first DREFF, we realized we’d given birth to something that would itself guide us along. Our responsibility was to hear its demands and respond in time to its needs and suggestions.

The group of local experts and enthusiasts quickly became our National Advisory Committee. By the second Festival it included 16 members. We began to expand our International Advisory Committee with people who generously shared their knowledge and networks of contacts with us. The growing enthusiasm around the Festival attracted more and more volunteers and employees looking to be part of the project to the Foundation.

In each edition of the Festival, we increased the number of films shown, screening cities, venues, partners, and sponsors (see graphic below).


We began to create new projects within the Festival. Ideas came from the films themselves, from the guests, from members of the advisory councils, from institutional collaborators, and from the public.

In the second edition we began organizing community activities such as beach cleanups with a dedicated local NGO and a swimming contest led by renowned Dominican long-distance open-water swimmer Marcos Díaz. In the third, we again cleaned up a beach and also organized a tree-planting day, and some young volunteers climbed up the Mogote and cleaned up the paths used by hikers and local farmers. We carried on like this, planning more and more community activities, to the point that we were holding activities year-round, outside the Festival setting. Why? Because after the screenings, audiences would ask: “Okay, we get it, but now what can wedo?” And we realized that although we can’t solve every environmental problem, we can provide examples and inspiration.

In the second Festival we also presented our first Globo Verde Dominicano awards for best short film and best awareness-raising message in the area of environment and sustainable development. The idea for the contest arose as a result of how difficult it was to find Dominican films for the Festival and how few films we had to offer in other festivals. We assumed the task of promoting environmental cinema in the country. In 2014 we added a photography award, and in 2015 a Globo Verde Junior award aimed at high school students who could use their smartphones for filming. In the same vein of offering examples and inspiration to national talent in the area of environmental documentaries, we decided to start producing our own short films, which have since traveled to many global film festivals and received several awards. Again, all these ideas were gradually added out of necessity, as before us a world was revealed full of possibilities waiting to be discovered.

We introduced the Audience Award in the second Festival to better capture the viewers’ receptiveness to the films and add a small element of suspense and expectation.

Other projects that have arisen during the Festival include: EcoHuertos, the organic school and community gardens project; Reciclarte, workshops to turn recycled waste into art and objects for daily use; Rdescubre, excursions to take young people to places of environmental interest around the country; and the Year-round Environmental Film Screenings, which continues the work of the Festival in response to requests we receive from all over the country.

I mustn’t forget to mention an important aspect of the Festival: the sharing and exchange between our international guests and our local experts and enthusiasts. In each edition of the Festival, we put special effort into planning social activities where the international guests and national filmmakers and experts get the opportunity to share—over lunch, dinner, beach excursions, etc. I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying that the empathy, friendships, and even joint projects that have been conceived during the Festival are one of the most important aspects of what we do. We also take advantage of the presence of guests from abroad to introduce them to some of the natural beauty and ecological gems of the Dominican Republic, such as the Organic Cacao Trail and the dunes of Baní.

In 2015, the Festival joined the Greeen Film Network (GFN), an international association of environmental film festivals that now includes more than 30 members. We can only imagine all the opportunities in store for us in future collaboration with these brilliant global projects, but our first experience will definitely be this year when we’ll have the honor of hosting the GFN Award, given annually to the best environmental film.

Looking back
After six years of work, we look back and have to say that we’ve been pleasantly surprised—amazed, even. We’ve learned so much.

Empowering others is the most important thing. How? By inspiring them with your own example and exposing them to experiences with others who can inspire them. An environmental film festival can and should do that. It’s not going to solve every problem, that’s true. Sometimes we get discouraged because there’s so much to do and every day we hear about new challenges. Nonetheless, the power of networks, of contacts, and of inspiration lies precisely in the fact that they produce unexpected exponential growth whose impact no one can control or even predict.

It’s extremely important to base a festival’s work on the ideas, suggestions, and guidance of its local audience, experts, and enthusiasts, local organizations keen to collaborate. The project can grow only in response to local demand and interest. Involving all partners is essential. We make sure we have meetings with partners and the advisory committee several times a year to refine our program and guest list to respond better to their interests and expectations. Instead of seeking audiences for different venues, we take the films to places where there’s a captive audience, regardless of the technical conditions. We often bring along a small projector and screen knowing that the reward with be the enjoyment and enthusiasm of the audience.

We’ve also learned to never underestimate the impact a film or an international guest can have on an audience, no matter how much we think the conditions for understanding are not there. That’s mainly our own prejudice. We’ve learned there are many ways of understanding things and many more ways of communicating them. Another unexpected gift is that the filmmakers and experts are themselves enriched and inspired by reactions and questions from viewers we might have thought were “not fully prepared for the experience.”

And finally: working on an environmental film festival team has many challenges—the challenges are exactly where the value and richness lie. The team is always made up of people whose aptitudes and professional outlooks are very different: the way a programmer thinks is different from how a graphic designer or filmmaker thinks, or how a media person or logistics manager thinks. Even speaking the same language, they may not understand each other, and if we throw in the fact that the team is international, coming from different cultures and places around the globe, the challenge is even greater. That’s exactly what makes the result so rich: that melting pot of ways of seeing, feeling, thinking, and acting—all different, but all aimed at the same goal and with the same concern for excellence in the result. Instead of getting frustrated by that, we should welcome it with joy and gratitude. How we do things is something we transmit to our audience and partners and sometimes that part of the message is even more powerful than the topic itself.

Our hope and wish is that environmental film festivals continue to sprout up and grow around the globe, and that, like a prayer or meditation chain, a single day or a single hour may not pass without a festival flourishing somewhere on the planet.

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