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San Francisco’s Green Film Festival proves critical complement to climate conversation

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NOVEMBER 07, 2023

Doors opened at the historic Roxie Theater on Oct. 13 to a bustling crowd of anxious environmentalists, stone-cold film critics and IndieFest groupies finding commonality only in the ten days of films ahead of them. The event credited with this pilgrimage: San Francisco’s Green Film Festival. As a subsect of the multiverse of San Francisco IndieFest, a historic nonprofit accredited with exposing unsung gems of the arts and entertainment scene, the Green Film Fest adopts similar patterns.

With more than 50 independent features turning an analytical lens to environmental issues, Green Fest isn’t your average environmental documentary showing; the egregious, fear-mongering narrative “the world is ending in two years” isn’t the main focus, and rarely are droning experts talking about the mechanics of carbon emissions. Alternatively, Green Fest explores every aspect of “environmental film” and all the nuances this begets.

Can the discussion of environmental issues in the media last beyond the first ten minutes after viewing, when a friend turns to you and says “Wow, that climate stuff seems pretty serious!” Or even beyond the existentialist crisis, you may have on your way home from cinemas that’ll probably fade the next morning after a late-night snack and some sleep? Can digestible media enable environmental action? The Green Film Festival is game for experimentation.

— Stella Occhialini and Varnika Dhandapani

Photo of one of the films shown at the San Francisco Green Film Festival.

‘Stay at Conder Beach’

The environmental film celebration opened with “Stay at Conder Beach”, directed by Aaron Khandros, a mystery set in Conder Beach, a decaying tourist town plagued by a string of uncanny murders that threaten to stain their reputation. The film follows Jordan (Joseph Cross) who anchors the tension between reality and metaphor, outsider and insider.

The film begins convoluted and wispy, lingering on a smoky white screen for a few moments before panning to the beach in a traditional top-down camera stroke used liberally during the 97 minutes of run time. And though the milky screen evaporates into frames of serene beach, the disorientation stays. “Stay at Conder Beach” is incredibly covert — so much so that part of you feels like nothing much happens, while a more analytical part knows that so much does. The underlying conflict between outsider and insider is so slyly placed that one might shrug it off as a simple disapproval of tourism.

Conder Beach is a tourist hotbed, but seemingly against its will. There is an air of retaliation against this modern-day colonialism from title sequences to rolled credits. Jack (Thomas Francis Murphy), the owner of a local restaurant, smacks the table when tourists swing his doors open asking for a table, signaling a general frustration at the sightseeing trend. Two characters visiting from Georgia are the subject of town speculation, confirming the narrative of: “You don’t belong here.” They are stereotypically parasitic: they violate the unspoken urinal code by standing directly adjacent to Jordan and striking up conversation. They consistently appear in Jordan’s frequented spaces such as the bar or beach. But among the “insiders” — those deemed locals — there is camaraderie and acceptance.

This forces a thought: What is it to be local? And more than that, who is the real outsider? Jordan has only really lived there for two years, so he straddles insider and outsider status. The film spends its time developing this duality, often through sequences that frame him within the natural world, tanning bare-chested on the deserted beach.

A metaphor builds of nature’s retaliation against humanity’s forceful invasion. As the film progresses, the shots themselves become more and more manmade. Gradually, cars, machines and more characters are introduced to the story. By the end, a beach that was once empty is now packed with tourists and their towels, coolers and umbrellas.

But the film doesn’t render the natural world completely defenseless. In fact, it places it on an equal playing field with humanity. It has a voyeuristic energy — as if the natural world is watching and waiting. Threatening thumps and eerie music converge with the hum of waves crashing — a sound not unlike human breathing. The movie wraps on footage of Hurricane Ida’s wreckage on the Grand Isle circa 2021, their shooting location, insinuating that maybe the murders weren’t murders at all. By personifying the natural world there is a hope that maybe people will tread lightly on it.

— Stella Occhialini


“Lagunaria,” directed by Giovanni Pellegrini, looks back at Venice from far into the future. A narrator tells a history of the lost city in a lagoon over shots of the natural landscape where the city once stood. The documentary’s nontraditional narration and sequencing subvert expectations to tell a tale that spans centuries. The narrator likens the homes and buildings in Venice to ships that must be constantly maintained.

Upon hearing that the sea levels are rising, threatening to drown the city, tourists come from all over the world to see the sinking ship — but not to save it. Pellegrini contrasts striking images of tourists wearing brightly colored boots to withstand the rising water with lighter, lower-saturation tones of the natural landscape and Venetian architecture. While the tourists laugh and take pictures, Venetians repair the water damage in floor tiling and canal walls.

In the fictionalized future — after the city is lost — some theorize that the entire thing was merely a capitalist tourist operation. Once Venice was destroyed, the outside world attempted to erase its people and its history. The terror behind the documentary lies in its visualization of the slow self-destruction of a civilization at the hands of capital.

At one point, the narrator remarks that when the city was rediscovered, it seemed to be a “silent geological formation,” without a trace of the life and culture it once sustained. Much of the film is purely visual, without any dialogue or narration, encouraging the audience to fill in the gaps and make connections between this speculative future and the impending threat of climate change in our present. In the end, the city is found and brought back to be inhabited by people again. The people reconcile the city with the lagoon, finding ways to live symbiotically with the natural world. This hopeful ending urges the audience to remember what is at stake in the face of the climate crisis and to remember that there are solutions worth fighting for outside the confines of existing economic systems.

— Varnika Dhandapani

Photo of a scene from one of the movies at the San Francisco Green Film Festival.
‘Finding the Money’

The Green Film Festival finds a pragmatic end with the documentary “Finding the Money,” which follows Stephanie Kelton, American economist, advisor to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and one of the main proponents of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) —the notion that government spending should not be impeded by the fear of debt.

The documentary is framed as a myth-buster, ultimately debunking the narrative that government spending cannot accommodate a Green New Deal or, for that matter, any environmental legislation. The film’s focus isn’t the climate crisis, but money — making it an unconventional finale. However, it’s a necessary one.

Documentaries can often become muddled with information, but “Finding the Money” organizes its content into an easily digestible format that doesn’t back down from the weeds, but is both engaging and shocking. It labels five major points to back the MMT debate: the federal government is the issuer of currency, finding the money is never the problem for a currency issuer, currency issuers spend before taxing, taxes drive demand for a currency and money is an I.O.U.

This framing incites a shock value, but perhaps the most shocking part of the whole documentary is simply that it sets out to tackle the money question, one of the most taboo and widely avoided topics of conversation. Though this is how we take back the power of the purse, the documentary argues. Though governmental finances are democratic, they are also incredibly muddled. Comprehending the system gives the people their power; “Our money, our power!” is shouted in clips of protestors.

Though stylistically characteristic of traditional documentaries — rapid cuts, perfectly pulled quotes, inspirational music, powerful background footage and controversial opinions — it also takes a nonconventional route while delving into the money debate.

Rather than looking at it from a purely Wall Street perspective, it takes into account philosophical questions such as “What is money?” and “Who created it?” An anthropological perspective also comes into play with digressions on the first forms of money which, contradictory to an infamous barter system narrative, has always existed whether it be in the form of clay tablets or paper notes.

The film closes with a famous quote from John Maynard Keynes —“When I find new evidence, I change my mind. What do you do?” — leaving audiences only one question left to ponder: What’s next?

— Stella Occhialini

Contact Stella Occhialini at 


NOVEMBER 07, 2023