- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

The 11th annual Environmental Film Festival began 11 days of mostly free screenings yesterday. The most satisfying preview tape forwarded by festival organizers is the French documentary feature "Les Terriens" (2000), or "Down to Earth."
Either title conveys the unassuming and disarming virtues of this 83-minute impression of farmers in the village of Vattetot-sur-Mer in the Seine-Maritime district of Normandy. They are observed by director Ariane Doublet in midsummer 1999 as a major cosmic spectacle approaches: a total solar eclipse certain to attract swarms of outsiders.
A certain amount of apprehension is expressed at a city council meeting. Which animals need to be protected from catching a harmful look at the sky? Should visitors be discouraged from congregating too close to the cliffs that overlook the English Channel? The summer has been dry, so do special measures need to be taken to guard against fire? Can a town of 258 comfortably accommodate thousands of campers for a few days? One skeptic hopes for rain to wash out the big event and its potential drawbacks.
Miss Doublet turns out to have more than adequate coverage of the eclipse, including one spectacular image of moon superimposed over sun. There also are beguiling indirect reflections in a water tank placed in a wheat field precisely for that purpose. The townspeople, armed with Polaroid glasses, also contribute some sidelights that might not occur to outsiders: One farmer brings along his rooster to see if the eclipse will induce a midday crow.
Anyway, the suspense element in "Down to Earth" defies improvement. One is reminded of how thrilling it can be when a payoff is dependent on natural phenomena rather than the fallible and cliched imagination of a screenwriter. It's fun to think of Miss Doublet placing her trust in higher powers. If the weather had failed to cooperate, she would have been obliged to finesse an anticlimax for both her subjects and her audience.
An affectionate and revealing pictorial diary, the movie uses the eclipse as a transcendent, humbling scenic payoff after sharing the company of five or six farm families. An easy intimacy seems to exist from the outset, in part because Miss Doublet plays her jolliest human-interest card by way of introduction: a rotund and puckish tenant farmer named Philippe Olivier, who excels at playing the cagey bumpkin and emerges as a marvelous welcome mat for everyone else, including his somewhat cranky spouse, Annick.
"Down to Earth" justifies so much fleeting fondness for these people, their region and their way of life that you depart with considerable reluctance. The roll call at the end doesn't supply all one would like to know about relatives and neighbors, but dropping in as invisible houseguests is certainly gratifying. The eldest subject, Albertine Lethuiller, makes an observation at one point that aptly anticipates the savor of "Down to Earth." She says she likes to watch the Tour de France on television, not for the race, but for the scenery. "It's the way I travel," she explains.
A number of filmmakers are scheduled to make personal appearances during the festival, which enlists the support of cultural institutions all around town, including most of the museums along the Mall. For example, Ric Burns, younger brother of Ken, will introduce his biographical feature about the great nature photographer Ansel Adams at 2 p.m. tomorrow at the National Museum of American History.
Two local filmmakers whose subjects have a direct bearing on conservation problems in this region Dave Eckert with "Reclaiming Our Water: the Occoquan River Watershed" and Michael W. Fincham with "The Pfiesteria Files" will play hosts to the screenings. Mr. Eckert's movie has a world-premiere showing Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Mr. Fincham's movie is scheduled for noon March 21 at the National Museum of Natural History.
If you feel an aversion to "environmental advocacy" documentaries, it's advisable to study the festival brochure closely enough to spot the agitprop in advance.
"Down to Earth" has no ax to grind, but a feature called "The Harriman Expedition Retraced," dealing with a scientific excursion to Alaska and the Bering Strait that was designed to update a voyage of 1899 bankrolled by E.H. Harriman, can scarcely approach a vista without mounting a soapbox and showcasing an environmental grievance.
Whenever the historical impressions of such participants as Harriman, John Muir and Edward Curtis can be separated from contemporary polemics, the film has some evocative appeal. There are some fabulous sights to see beyond the talking heads.
In the spirit of Grandmother Albertine, a good deal of free vicarious travel can be enjoyed by judicious attendance at the Environmental Film Festival.

WHAT: Environmental Film Festival
WHEN: Through March 23
WHERE: About 40 participating museums, embassies, schools and other institutions
CONTENT: 130 documentary, animated and children's films about environmental topics and issues
ADMISSION: Most programs are free
PHONE: 202/342-2564
WEB SITE: www.dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org

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