Coming to the rescue of Mother Earth

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GREAT BARRINGTON >> A 91-year-old man takes care of more than 300 nest boxes for bluebirds. An Alabama native turns his camera on toxic chemicals. A young woman faces death threats in an effort to save one of the most polluted rivers in Mexico.

On winter evenings, Karen LeBlanc has been scouting films, paring more than 125 to 25 — to fill Project Native's 6th Annual Film Festival, which began last Saturday at Tower Theaters in South Hadley and continues this weekend with two evenings and one day of free films Saturday and Sunday at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and the Triplex Cinema.

In past years, the festival has focused on specific and critical challenges — climate change, ocean acidification, food waste. LeBlanc now believes most people accept these as real and serious challenges.

"We are at a pivotal place in time," she said in an interview, "where we need to use our creativity. We have a chance for us as a society to look for change."

LeBlanc felt a positive sense and action in many of this year's films that surprised her.

"It was what I needed this year," she said.

She needed it in part because Project Native is also at a pivotal time.

LeBlanc confirmed what Project Native's general manager, David Ellis, says in the festival program — that Project Native is leaving the 1800s farm house, barn and 54 acres on North Plain Road that has been its home for 12 years. They have accepted an offer from Helia Land Design to take on the property with the goal of continuing the native plant nursery.

Project Native is looking for ways to move on with its teaching and programming. So the festival this year takes on new significance. It carries the message that people can act and make a difference, even against forces as strong as ocean currents or climate.

The weekend programming begins at 7 Saturday night at the Mahaiwe with two films and a panel of change-makers in academics, politics, community, film — Bruce Wynn, co-founder of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT); State Senator Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield; Maia Conty, activist, life coach and community organizer; Quincy Saul, co-founder of Ecosocialist Horizons, who appears in one of the evening's two films, "Wisdom to Survive: Climate Change, Capitalism and Community"; and documentary filmmaker and storyteller Chris Landry, who created the second film on the program, "Joanna Macy and the Great Turning."

People of all ages are embracing the challenges of today with ideas and energy, LeBlanc said, like 20-year-old Dutch engineer Boya Slat, who has designed and crowd-funded a football-field-sized device to clean plastic from the ocean using the tides and the currents of the Pacific gyre.

"It's essential to living on the planet right now," Conty agreed. " We can find solutions to egregious problems — we need to know how to put those solutions into play."

LeBlanc too has seen a new and active spirit in the films she has collected over the six years she has run this festival.

"It used to be easy to put films in categories," she said — water, social justice, farming.

Now films are seeing connections between issues like these and people are coming together to deal with them.

To foster this active spirit, with each film LeBlanc will introduce a local group that takes on the challenge the film presents.

"Here's something you can do," she said, "a place to volunteer, a way to connect."

In LeBlanc's hands the film festival has grown, and she has seen the effects ripple outward. One of the first meetings of 350Mass Berkshires, a volunteer climate action group, happened one week after a screening of "Revolution" at the Mahaiwe during the 2014 festival. More than 100 people came, LeBlanc said, and many had heard about it at Project Native's event. And a showing of "Bag It" at the first festival in 2011 spurred a local ban on plastic bags.

The festival has grown naturally from her enthusiasm.

"No one told me I couldn't do it," she said.


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