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IAH Film Festival Discusses Climate Justice

This year’s annual Institute for the Arts and Humanities Film Festival brought the issue of climate change and climate justice to the State Theatre on Saturday. The topic of climate change in the United States is still, for lack of a better word, hot — and Penn State’s part in the discussion is no exception. Last fall, notable climate change advocate Bill Nye spoke at the Eisenhower Auditorium as a part of SPA’s Distinguished Speaker series.

The constant reiteration of the relevancy of this issue in mainstream media puts Millennials in a concerning position. It is understood that this issue is one that will affect them the most in their lifetimes, and the IAH Film Festival turned to new ideas to spur the conversation surrounding this controversial topic.

“At first I said, ‘climate change and climate justice, so we’re going to show five or six documentaries that are basically feeding people oatmeal about how they’re destroying themselves? This is going to be interesting why?’,” said Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities Dr. Michael Bérubé.

“But when we announced it, the sustainability institute loved it, the center for indigenous knowledges loved it, and when we got Alex Rivera, with this really interesting angle on it we had ourselves a really successful thing.”

Alex Rivera, director of the 2008 science fiction film “Sleep Dealer,” participated in a Q&A session after the screening of his film. Rivera’s dystopian film deals with the commodification and corporate control of water, and how his protagonist, Memo, navigates these bureaucratic and corporate control mechanisms at work in a pursuit to provide for his family following the death of his father.

“I don’t really think of technology as a positive or negative, I think of it as an accelerator of the politics that we live in,” Rivera said. “And since we live in a political order in this country that believes in borders and believes in insiders and outsiders, and yet we also believe in globalization, global trade.”

Alex Rivera answers questions after screening his film.
Alex Rivera answers questions after screening his film.

The world of “Sleep Dealer” focuses heavily on the extraction of labor in a future setting. These methods of extraction, for Rivera, exist as a contradiction.

“We want to have sealed borders for people, for workers, but free trade for corporations and for wealthy people, that’s the world we’ve lived in for several decades now. Technology in my film accelerates that to the point it becomes absurd.”

Dr. Heather Davis, the postdoctoral scholar involved with developing the concept for the film festival, was interested in bringing the idea of how racial injustice and environmental issues work together.

“I don’t think racial injustice is that different than thinking environmentally,” she said. “Another film was talking about mining companies going into the Ecuadorian rain forest and the resistance that people put up against that, and in that case, the people who live there are completely disregarded, what people care about is access to the resources.”

Understanding the importance of these cultural effects of climate change and how they relate to other racial problems were important ideas for Dr. Davis to share at this year’s festival.

A different example of this type of cultural disrespect is the recent construction and protest of the Dakota access pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota.

“When we think about climate change we think about rising sea levels, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and although those things are incredibly important. I think what actually affects people more, is to tell stories about how people’s lives are changing and how it is actually affecting people currently.”

Rivera was surprised to speak at Penn State on the topic of climate change. To him, “Sleep Dealer” isn’t completely focused on the problems presented by this issue. However, as Dr. Davis explained, the narrative of “Sleep Dealer” portrays a symptomatic cultural phenomenon of climate change, that identified perfectly with this year’s IAH Film Festival prompt.

“After we stop having wars about oil, we’re going to be having wars about water, we’re already kind of getting there,” Dr. Bérubé said. “And this film doesn’t say that directly, it’s just part of the background.”

“Sleep Dealer,” along with the other films screened at this year’s festival, put the concept of climate change in a unique, human context and served as a refreshing take on a highly discussed issue.

About the Author

Nick Weiss

Nick is a videographer at OnwardState. He is a sophomore in the College of Communications, studying as a Film & Video major. With most of his experience in documentary film, Nick continues to tell stories at Penn State. Email him [email protected]

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