An Interview with Mark Haslam, Founder of Planet in Focus
What inspired you to found Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival?
Canada has strong and deep traditions of filmmaking about our relationship to the landscape and environment, but most people are not aware of this. At least not in the same way that we recognize the treatment of these themes in Canadian literature. And while there were environmental film festivals in other countries, we didn’t have one in Canada. It seemed logical to start one here.
How did you manage to pull off Planet in Focus for the very first time in 2000?
In 1999, I shared the idea with a few friends from the environmental community, academia, law, business, public relations, film and television and community and labour organizing, and they all enthusiastically supported it. So we registered a not-for-profit-organization. At the same time, I went online and came up with a list of over 700 film contacts around the world to whom we sent a call for submissions. Once I started watching the VHS tapes that came pouring in, there was no turning back. When our volunteer programmer fell ill and dropped out, I took three garbage bags full of tapes to the home of Michelle van Beusekom, a friend of a friend, and said, “Can you help me program the festival?” She and I soon whittled down the selection. But we still had no money. The Ontario Trillium Foundation was willing to give us matching funds if we could demonstrate community support. Deborah Barndt, a Board member, managed to get support from several unions. Family and friends made donations, and just weeks before the opening night we finally had a confirmed cash budget of $27,000. The value of the volunteer labour that went into the festival was probably four times that amount. Blood, sweat and tears—priceless.
What, in your opinion, is the role of environmental film festivals? Do they have a future?
Environmental film festivals should inspire and call to action. Environmentalists and organizations have been valiantly informing us of what we need to do and not do to live in harmony with the planet, but most people are not paying attention. So we need to reach them on a deeper, emotional and psychological level. That’s were art comes in, and film is one of the most persuasive art forms.
I see film as a process; one that starts in the world around us, continues through the creative actions of the filmmakers, the viewing/reflecting/questioning experiences of the audiences and has continuing consequences through their subsequent actions out in the world.
I also feel strongly that environmental film festivals have a responsibility to debunk the perception that environmentalism is a western concept. Cultures all around the world have traditional teachings and practices around how to live responsibly and harmoniously with nature. There are also numerous environmental activists who happen to speak different languages, have various shades of skin and live in diverse ecosystems that we can meet and learn from through the forum of a film festival.