The Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival begins Thursday with an opening night gala featuring the California premiere of “How to Change the World,” a riveting movie about the early days of Greenpeace.
The filmmaker and two Greenpeace founders will be at the screening, in the Brent Auditorium at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.
Among the other highlights of the eighth annual festival are a series of films directed by noted Bay Area filmmaker Les Blank, including the unofficial premiere of his final work. Blank died in 2013.
A local favorite is sure to be “On Her Own,” the story of Nancy Prebilich’s struggle to save her family’s century-old farm, Gleason Ranch, near the Bodega coastline.
The film documents Prebilich’s effort to earn enough to keep the land in the family, the land that she says in the film “holds our family together,” as she endures the death of her father and then her mother, both at age 64.
Festival director Jason Perdue said this year brought more than 500 submissions (for 70 slots), far more than ever before.
“It’s a sign for us that filmmakers want to be here. Films came in from every corner of the world,” he said. “It gave us a lot of choices, and I think the program shows that.”
Perdue is especially thrilled that “How to Change the World” will have its first California screening in Sebastopol.
The film shows how a group of wildly idealistic activists came together to try to stop a nuclear test on an island west of Alaska.
The group managed to delay the test but didn’t stop it. They named their group Greenpeace and embarked on a new campaign: Whales were being slaughtered, some species to the point of near-extinction, so the eco-warriors went to sea to try to stop the whaling ships.
Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler said founder Bob Hunter, the group’s first leader, understood that “demonstrating one’s opposition to something” would have “a minor effect” but creating “a story, a legend so to speak, a narrative that would... feel compelling to people” was the way to move the needle of public opinion.
Hunter and Weyler, both journalists, and their motley band of co-conspirators sought a confrontation with a Russian whaling ship, and that’s just what they got.
A couple of Greenpeace Zodiacs (skiffs) got between the whalers and a pod of sperm whales in the Pacific Ocean, but that didn’t stop the Russians from firing their harpoons. A high-powered harpoon whizzed just 15 feet over the heads of one Zodiac and hit a female whale. Despite the turbulent seas, a Greenpeace cameraman caught the dramatic moment and filmed the pool of blood emanating from the stricken whale.
Returning to San Francisco, the eco-warriors received a hero’s welcome, visibly thrilled that with a decrepit bucket of a boat and a few rolls of film they’d made such an enormous impact.
“How to Change the World” is an “extraordinary piece of documentation,” says Weyler, who will be at Thursday’s screening. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t deify the activists. Viewers see the internal struggles and battles for power among the sometimes bull-headed environmentalists.
Calling the group a “dysfunctional family would not be unfair,” Weyler said, noting that “in the heat of the movement, we came face-to-face with our shortcomings and challenges. I’m thrilled that Jerry Rothwell dealt with this stuff in the film because this is real history. It’s really the way things happened.”