“It is in the wild places — in the damp, clean air of an ancient forest; on a heavy ocean in unpredictable winds; on a snowy summit at the top of the world — that I enter my own personal cathedral, and know where I fit in the vastness of creation.”
Those words, spoken by Jim Whittaker in A Life Well Lived — a very short film made to mark the 50th anniversary of his becoming the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest — probably do more to capture the point of the Julian Wild & Scenic Film Festival than anything I might write. Still, please bear with me while I scribble a thought or two.
There’s something fitting about driving into the country to experience a collection of short films that “celebrate nature, the environment, and people who are making a difference.” You won’t have to sleep under the stars or sit out in a field at the Julian Film Festival, but you will be surrounded by great swaths of the stuff these filmmakers care so much about.
Of course, they care about people, too. Consider the Robert Redford-narrated The New Environmentalists: Marshland Dreams, which takes note of one Iraqi engineer, Azam Alwash, and his magnificent effort to restore the Mesopotamian marshlands that were drained and burned by Saddam Hussein back when he was hunting rebels. The marshlands were a valuable ecosystem, sure, but they also supported an ancient way of life for the people who lived there. “Dream big,” our engineer exhorts us. “It’s free, first of all. But it’s possible.”
Or consider Josh Izenberg’s Slomo, a New York Times video story about Pacific Beach’s own rollerblading radical: John Kitchin, a man who walked away from a career as a neurologist and psychiatrist because he was afraid the grind would transform him into an asshole. (His word, not mine.) He looked at his life, and his work, and his stuff, and he recalled the words once spoken to him by a spry 93-year-old: “Do what you want.” What he wanted, it turns out, was to skate. He has an anatomical explanation for that, but you’ll have to see the film to hear it. The upshot: sometimes “wild and scenic” just means a ridiculously happy old man skating along the PB coast.
The Festival opens Friday night at 6 p.m. at Jeremy’s on the Hill in Wynola with a farm-to-table event featuring food from local organic farms, attended by several of Saturday’s filmmakers. The films themselves screen all day Saturday at Julian Union High School — in four blocks, totaling about five hours of film — with an awards party in the Town Hall starting at 7:30 p.m. Sunday gives you a chance to stretch your legs after all that sitting, with guided hikes through the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve and Santa Ysabel Preserve East. A full weekend pass costs $35; movies only, $25. Proceeds benefit the Volcan Mountain Foundation. For more information and tickets, visit the Festival’s website.
The fest’s longest feature, clocking in at just over an hour, is the documentary Xmas Without China. Here’s a review.
Xmas Without China — It starts out looking like a piece of gotcha documentary work: a youngish Chinese immigrant (who took his first name from Tom & Jerry) challenging affluent Americans to give up, for one December (including Christmas), everything in their house that’s made in China. (The ostensible motivation: American outrage against toxic Chinese toys in particular, and American anti-China sentiment in general.) But then it feints left and becomes something much more personal — and more interesting — for both the filmmaker and his subject family, hilariously named The Jonses. Tom’s mom wouldn’t dream of moving back: she came here so her son could have a better life. Tom’s dad thinks his son’s challenge is unkind: anyone who accepts will surely fail, and anyone who refuses loses face. Plus, he wants an eye-popping Christmas display, just like all his neighbors. And Tom himself feels torn: when Mr. Jones asks if he’s an American citizen, the question proves unsettling.
The result is probing without being confrontational, searching without being portentous, and engaging even when seems to lose focus. It could have dug deeper and looked harder, but then it might have lost some of its affectionate, personal tone.