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Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty Documentary

I met award-winning filmmaker John de Graaf many years ago at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, a festival meant to inspire activism and where both of our films were screening. My short, fantasy film, Dorme, was doing well on the film festival circuit. But, I had not submitted it to this film festival, because it is known for screening environmental documentaries. So, I was surprised when I received a letter from the film festival saying that they had gone out and watched Dorme, and wanted to invite it to screen there that year. They acknowledged that fantasy wasn’t their usual genre. But, expressed that they loved that the film inexplicably brought out a feeling of awe for the planet and things unseen with its imagery and messages of connection and peace that were woven into its dream symbolism (I did that on purpose) …and just like that, a children’s film was screened among a venue of serious documentaries.

I remember driving out to the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Grass Valley, which is roughly 2,500 feet in elevation in the foothills of the West Sierra Nevada mountains. The film festival was in a location surrounded by the wild.

Locals sponsored filmmakers in their homes. My sponsor was a college professor who lived in the boonies. Trying to find his cabin/home, off a curvy mountain road, in the dark, without streetlights, at night was a white-knuckled challenge. He let me know, when we briefly met that morning in town, that he would leave the porch light on for me, with the door left unlocked, so it wouldn't matter if I arrived after he had already gone to bed.

What I wasn’t expecting was that I couldn't park my car near the house. The road stopped, with trees everywhere and a narrow, long path to go on foot the rest of the way on. When I turned off the car lights it would be pitch black with only the distant porch light to walk…run to. Looking at the vast black silhouetted mountains surrounding the area, the realization came to me that I was in mountain lion country. I could see the headlines already, “Filmmaker Eaten by Mountain Lion at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival.” I got my suitcase and purse ready to go, so the minute I turned off the headlights I could start running towards the light. I tripped over the one tree stump in the path, got up, kept running, and made it into the house without becoming dinner, and gave the professor a good laugh with the story the next morning.

It was a wonderful film festival. I enjoyed a conversation with naturalist Charlie Russell, who was the subject of the film The Edge of Eden: Living with the Grizzles. Then, I had the pleasure of meeting Washington-based, filmmaker John de Graaf. He has been a regular presenter at the film festival as a highly respected documentarian. The John de Graaf Environmental Filmmaking Award, named for him, is presented annually at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. We have stayed in touch over the years with projects. I just saw a sampling of his new documentary on Stewart Udall, someone whose accomplishments I had not realized, and wanted to share about it here. This will be a documentary to watch.


Sylvia: John, you call Stewart Udall the Godfather of the modern environmental movement. It’s a shame that more people haven’t heard of him these days. Now they will through your film. Will you share with us on how he began the environmental movement?

John: Godfather is probably stretching it a bit. But Udall was really the first political figure who represented the new environmentalism of the 60s that replaced a primarily scenic preservation, economic resource and recreation-based conservation movement.

Udall went beyond creating new parks, dams, monuments etc. to focus on the impacts of air and water pollution, pesticide pollution (he was Rachel Carson's champion in government), destruction by mining, etc. and on the need for endangered species and habitat protection, water conservation, reductions in consumerism, population, suburbanization, our love of the automobile and convenience--to save the environment for future generations.

He changed the Department of the Interior from one focused on development to one focused on preservation. He also understood and spoke out against environmental racism, particularly with regards to Native Americans. These things were quite new in government with him and they immensely aided the growing citizen environmental movement of the period.

Sylvia: You mention that Stewart Udall was also the first American public official to warn us about global warming. Can you expand on that?

John: Yes, there were a few scientists who were warning about it in the 1960s, especially oceanographer Roger Revelle of the Smithsonian. Udall hired Revelle to be his science advisor, took Revell seriously and began speaking out about climate change. Only Daniel Moynihan was sounding the alarm in government at roughly the same time, so they were the first, but Stewart as Secretary of the Interior was more prominent.

In his book 1976: Agenda for Tomorrow, published in 1968, Udall warned that global warming would melt the polar caps flooding coastal cities like Miami. At the time his views were widely dismissed. He continued to warn about climate until his death at the age of 90 in 2010. No other public official has been as vociferous in their calls for climate action.

Sylvia: What do you hope your film brings to the audience’s awareness and what changes might it inspire?

John: I hope it inspires viewers to appreciate the work of forgotten heroes like Udall and to recommit to all the things he fought for--environmental preservation and restoration, racial justice, world peace, simpler lifestyles, the value of nature and beauty in our lives, smart urban design, etc.

Udall was the first major public official to question the US gospel of economic growth--in 1968, he wrote: "An expanding Gross National Product has become the Holy Grail and those economists who are its keepers have no understanding of the economics of beauty." He was far ahead of his time in so many ways.

He also worked well across the political divide, winning bi-partisan support for environmental protection and was dismayed at the polarization in our politics.

He also made mistakes--the Glen Canyon Dam, for example, or his early support for the Vietnam War, but then admitted them and changed direction, something all of us, and especially our current politicians, would do well to learn from.

John de Graaf is an author, filmmaker, speaker and activist. More than 15 of his programs have been broadcast nationally in primetime on PBS. He is the recipient of more than 100 regional, national and international awards. &


The views and opinions expressed by the interviewees do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Conscious Media Movement.


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