Envirodocs are raising awareness -- and drawing crowds

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In 1997, Louisiana native Josh Tickell did something many recent college graduates do: He took a road trip. But this wasn't a vacation with buddies. It was a two-year cross-country journey in the Veggie Van, a Winnebago painted with sunflowers and powered by a substance most Americans hadn't yet heard of -- biodiesel.

Tickell brought along a video camera, and that footage became "The Veggie Van Voyage," a short that premiered at the 2003 AFI Fest and evolved into "Fields of Fuel," a full-length documentary that in January won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and in March won the AFI Dallas International Film Festival's Current Energy Earth Friendly Award.

"Fields" is but one standout in the burgeoning envirodoc genre, which hadn't demonstrated mass-market appeal until "An Inconvenient Truth" won the docu feature Oscar in 2007 and grossed nearly $50 million worldwide.

"(Al Gore) proved playability of an environmental message," Tickell says, "and he proved marketability of an environmental message."

Other envirodocs are capitalizing on those gains. Zeitgeist Films' "Up the Yangtze," for example, deals with the impact of China's Three Gorges Dam, while this year's "Flow: For Love of Water" tackles the world's fresh-water crisis.

"Whether it's the environment, mountaintop removal, mining or human rights, I think a lot of people are coming up with a lot of interesting films because there is a need for change that is so big," says "Flow" director Irena Salina.

Of course, getting the films made is still a struggle. The privately funded "Flow" took four years to put together, while "Fields" utilized donations, grants and programs like the International Documentary Assn.'s Fiscal Sponsorship program. The IDA's new Pare Lorentz Finishing Fund Grant received 177 applications this year, three-quarters of which were for environmental films, notes IDA executive director Sandra Ruch.

Despite the interest, major distributors haven't taken much notice of the genre's growing audience. Yet.

"Every time we go to a film festival, these movies are sold out for the most part," says Rhino Films head and founder Stephen Nemeth, who executive produced both "Fields" and "Flow." "You're selling tickets to the general public to documentary films, and they're filling theaters."
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