By Lawrence Specker on November 04, 2013 at 4:04 PM, updated November 05, 2013 at 9:34 AM
The inaugural Fairhope Film Festival is bringing dozens of films from around the world to the Eastern Shore this weekend, but it’s also providing a forum for the premiere of a home-grown documentary about an intensely local subject: the health and future of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
The film, “America’s Amazon,” is a documentary created over the last two years by producers Ben Raines, writer and narrator of its script, and Lynn Rabren, who directed. Clocking in at just under an hour, it’s a densely packed primer on the delta, covering everything from the ancient climatic forces that shaped its evolution to its remarkable biological richness to current issues putting increased pressure on its fragile ecosystems.
For those familiar with the vast expanse of wetland north of Mobile Bay, it’s a broad recap of what makes it so special. For those who aren’t, it’s an eye-opening introduction to an underappreciated resource. Needless to say, Raines hopes it’ll reach a lot of those people, starting with a screening at 5 p.m. this Friday in Centennial Hall at 450 Fairhope Ave. on the Faulkner State campus.
“This is the global premiere,” said Raines.
Raines and Rabren began work on the film about two years ago. Among other background, it draws on Raines’ work as longtime environmental reporter for the Mobile Press-Register. Raines left Alabama Media Group in early 2013 to become executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, but work on the independent film was more than half done by that point and it is not a foundation project. It did receive funding from Alabama Nature Partners, a nonprofit led by Mary Riser, who also is the executive director of the Fairhope Film Festival.
Much of the film’s runtime is devoted to simply getting a handle on the natural wealth of the delta. Figures such as pioneering biologist E.O. Wilson and longtime Press-Register Environment Editor Bill Finch appear to put the bounty of flora and fauna in context. Other, less academic guests give a more personal look at the region’s possibilities for hunting, fishing and general exploration. (The film’s trailer, which can be seen at www.americasamazon.net, provides a sampling.)
A theme gradually emerges. Over the last couple of centuries, Raines says, the Delta has absorbed an incredible amount of punishment, much of it in the form of pollution, logging and restriction of the freshwater and saltwater flows that nourish it. Its inaccessibility, the tremendous amount of water running through it and its sheer size have served it well. But its ability to rebound has its limits, and there are signs we have reached them, Raines asserts.
Some observers in the film even worry that Mobile Bay’s famed jubilees – in which marine life sometimes surges into the shallows for easy catching – have taken on a new character. Jubilees were once considered a miracle, but some now see them as a warning sign that something is seriously amiss in the bay and the waters that empty into it.
“I definitely worry about the jubilee issue,” Raines said.
Only towards the end does “America’s Amazon” touch on a current hot-button issue: The suggestion that the delta should be classified a national park, or that the idea should at least be seriously studied. Some sources, such as Wilson, are clearly in favor. Raines takes a diplomatic approach.
“We’re trying to say, we’re starting to screw it up,” he said of the delta. “We need to be careful.”
“I think that wherever you come down on the park idea, it needs to be protected,” he said. “And the idea that we’ve protected enough of it – we could never protect enough of it.”
One thing he’s not diplomatic about at all: His wish that the environmental laws already on the books, however weak they might be, would be better enforced. “The legacy of environmental protection in Alabama is atrocious,” he says in the film.
As an example, he cites the problem of silt. The most damaging pollutant these days isn’t DDT or any other chemical: It’s plain old mud. Generated by construction, agriculture and other activity on the fertile edges of the delta, it chokes clear-running feeder streams and the life within them.
“Making it a park won’t solve that problem,” he said. “Regardless of the national park issue, we have to take care of this.”
A Q&A session will follow the premiere. The film is slated to run on Alabama Public Television in January, and Raines said he hopes it’ll be picked up for broadcast elsewhere in the nation after that. He and his partners also are exploring the possibility of developing educational programs around it for school use, he said. Mainly, he just hopes the message of the delta’s value gets out to a wider audience.
“It’s really important on a national scale,” he said.
Film fest details
The inaugural Fairhope Film Festival takes place Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 7-10. About 40 feature films, a mix of narratives and documentaries, will be shown at four venues within walking distance of each other in downtown Fairhope. The festival also will present four blocks of short films organized by category: animation, drama/narrative, documentary and shorts with connections to Alabama.
Tickets are now on sale through www.fairhopefilmfestival.org. A six-pack pass, granting access to a half-dozen screenings, is $55; a 10-pack pass is $80. Event tickets for a Red Carpet Party and the festival’s Awards Party are $30 per person for each event, and the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort is offering festival packages.
Individual screening tickets will be sold during the festival, but sponsors and pass-holders will have priority over walk-up patrons.
Planners have said they hope to attract thousands of patrons, including locals and visitors, generating an economic impact upwards of $1 million. The festival is supported in part by the Alabama Humanities Foundation, the Alabama Tourism Department and the Alabama Film Office, among other sponsors.
Read this article in its original format at AL.com