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Hear Your Imagination: All Roads Festival Opens Tonight in D.C.

National Geographic’s 2010 All Roads Film Festival runs tonight through Sunday at the Society’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. By Ford Cochran All Roads debuted in 2004 to showcase the work of indigenous and underrepresented minority-culture storytellers and promote “knowledge, dialogue, and understanding with a broader global audience.” Now the festival includes dozens of films, photo exhibitions, and other live events spanning nearly a week. I spoke with colleague Francene Blythe, director of the All Roads Film Project and the festival. What has you most excited about this year’s festival, Francene?

Everything, really, the breadth of it: We’ve got a filmmaker’s panel. We’ve got free screenings, which we’ve not had in the past. We’ve got evening shows beginning tonight. And we’ve got both our traditional programing and non-traditional programming all mixed in the festival. We’ve usually held a music concert, but this time we’ve got the Basement Bhangra Dance Party Saturday night. And then we have a photography exhibit as well, as we always have.

This will be our sixth time running the festival. Last year, we just held a showcase of works, so this is kind of a comeback for All Roads, and that has me excited, too. How many films did you and the other jurors watch to make your final selections, and what stands out about the films you’re screening this year?

We got about 380 submissions for 2010, and we narrowed that down to about 30 films in the festival. We’ve seen virtually everything, but what really came through is a lot of comedy and creative narrative stories, and a lot of environmental films. In fact, we got more environmental films this submission than we ever have before, but they’re mostly inspirational films about projects, works, accomplishments, positive things that are being done around the world.

In the past, they’ve typically been about, say, a river drying up, a drought and how it affects wildlife and people. This year’s environmental films are more about hope–people in communities working together to clean things up and make changes for the betterment of the environment, simple things that can inspire others to contribute and participate in small ways or big ones. Who have you invited to speak on the free filmmakers’ panel this Friday afternoon?

We have four panelists, and all of them are award-winning filmmakers. Three received an All Roads Seed Grant in the very early stages of their careers. We were nearly the first organization that ever gave them a grant to make their short films.

We’ve got Taika Waititi, the director and writer of Boy.

We have Kath Shelper, the producer of Samson & Delilah, which won the 2009 Cannes Film Festival Camera d’Or award for best first feature.

We have Suzi Yoonessi, also a seed grant recipient, with Dear Lemon Lima.

And we have Ainsley Gardiner, the producer of Boy, but also a seed grant recipient for other projects that she’s worked on. How has the All Roads Film Project evolved over the years?

Always, All Roads is as inclusive as possible in our search for films, and in encouraging filmmakers and voices from minority cultures all around the world. We are open to filmmakers and photographers anywhere in their careers, from their first-time films to 30 and more years experience, award-winning TV producers, whatever. We strive to remain as inclusive as we can. That’s been a constant.

We’ve seen lots of change, though, in the sorts of indigenous films that are getting shot and submitted for consideration. At first, they were largely about social and political issues going on in the places they were made. Now, we’re seeing a heck of a lot more creative narrative stories, both in shorts and in feature-length films. It makes the stories a bit more universal: Everybody may grow up with a crazy dysfunctional family or an absent father. Many of our filmmakers are telling their stories comedically, and this helps make the films more universal because people can relate to familiar situations.

Also, as I mentioned, the stories we’re seeing and screening have evolved more in the direction of inspiration, hope, success, accomplishments, achievements, as opposed to more gloom about the environment, degradation of culture, the loss of language. We’re getting films now about the revitalization of languages.

Elders in some communities want the youth to use media to record what they’re going to miss when the elders are gone, or to reflect and express their lives now as they make transitions between traditional knowledge and lifestyles and customs in their communities and modern living in urban areas. It’s opening up a lot more genres of film, including experimental film. So you’re getting blended animation and live action films, traditional music restructured, remixed with contemporary sound in film. The films we see keep getting more creative and innovative, more rich with ingenuity.

Another important trend: The creative tools for making films keep becoming more accessible and more powerful. Shooting video in high definition, great editing software–it’s coming within the reach of nearly everyone. Filmmakers can use YouTube to distribute what they make or to raise awareness about something that they’ve made.

It is much simpler now than just a few years ago–and much more affordable–to make a film, even in remote areas, on reservations, and such. With a cell phone, you can make a film in two-minute clips. You’re seeing young people making these things and trying to find opportunities, whether they can afford to go to college or not, trying to find someplace where they can get additional media training, shadow or mentor with someone in filmmaking.

There’s more understanding now than ever, too, that not everybody making films has to be a writer, director, and producer. The creative opportunities are getting more expansive. As artists find one another and see things, they collaborate, and that’s part of why you’re seeing a lot more ingenuity in films. It’s really exciting, actually, very, very exciting when we receive collaborative films to screen. It’s how we’re finding a lot of our new talent, and it’s why we remain as inclusive as we can: You never know where you’re going to find that diamond in the rough. What advice would you share with new filmmakers, or those who are excited about getting into filmmaking, and who want to tell the stories of their communities?

Try to find time to hear your imagination. We’re so bombarded with media–radio, television, tabloids, reality shows, Facebook, the Internet, everything. What young people may be losing as a consequence is the ability to use their own imaginations.

What you see in media and elsewhere may inspire you. But taking the time to hear your own imagination, your own thoughts, and then exploring with that is what I encourage anybody to do when they want to go into creative work. Whether it’s filmmaking or art, whatever it may be, it’s so important: Take the time to hear your own thoughts, listen to your imagination and your inspirations, and let them guide you into something that you want to create. National Geographic’s 2010 All Roads Film Festival opens tonight in Washington, D.C. View the complete program and purchase tickets. See where All Roads can lead with top picks from NGM Blog Central’s Pop Omnivore. And follow the All Roads Film Project on Facebook.

Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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