As the theater lights dim and the screen illuminates, the Athena Cinema’s Sustainability Series begins to unfold. For the past six years, the biannual series hosted by Athens’ beloved local theater has inspired viewers to consider solutions to environmental issues and challenges.
Twice a year, the Athena screens six films focused on the broad topic of environmental issues, known as the Sustainability Series. The spring series runs from Feb. 27 to April 19, with a screening at 7 p.m. every other Friday. Each film is only shown for one night with free admission.
“The ultimate goal of the series is to fulfill our wider mission here at the Athena, which is to educate, entertain and engage,” Athena Cinema Director Alexandra Kamody says. “We want people to see a movie and engage on a different level than just a passive viewing experience.”
The Sustainability Series began about four years ago and stemmed from a University College project called the Common Experience Project on Sustainability. Environmental Studies Outreach Coordinator Loraine McCosker and University Librarian Lorraine Wochna choose the films shown each semester. The duo researches popular films from different environmental film festivals and collects information about newer releases from regional and national distributors. Then, the university purchases the films and allows the theater to show newly released content in the Sustainability Series.
McCosker also attended the 2015 American Conservation Film Festival for ideas about possible documentaries to show in the series. McCosker and Wochna discuss their ideas with Kamody to create a well-composed lineup of films.
“There are so many great films out there right now; it’s amazing,” McCosker says. “I mean, we could show films all day long, and we wouldn’t run out of them.”
McCosker says she chooses movies that are interesting, gender-balanced and show issues that occur globally.
“There is a sort of formula,” McCosker says. “We like to show films that are engaging, not too long and that are also just beautifully filmed.”
There is a panel discussion following each movie screening. The panel consists of a faculty member, a student and a community member who review the topics examined in the film.
“[The panel discussions] really bring an educational aspect to the screenings,” Kamody says. “It gives people a chance to decompress afterward and talk about ideas and ways to work on solutions.”
McCosker looks for people who have environmental knowledge and resources when choosing panel members. She will also refer to professors with an interest in the film’s topic for recommendations of students to include on the panels.
The series also invites several guest speakers to accompany the screenings. During the fall series, filmmaker Laura Kissel appeared alongside her film “Cotton Road,” which is a documentary that follows the global supply chain of cotton from South Carolina farms to Chinese factories.
Attendance at the Sustainability Series continues to grow, bringing in larger crowds every semester. Attendance rates have ranged from 400-700 total guests for each series, and many screenings hit the theater’s capacity of 200 seats.
“I think [free attendance] helps a lot,” Kamody says. “Professors can send students for extra credit, and some community members come to keep aware on environmental issues and see cool new documentaries for free.”
Kamody says some events garner more attention than others, and she notes that food-related topics often bring the highest turnouts.
“Athens is kind of a foodie town,” Kamody says. “There’s a lot of interest in locally sourced food.”
Fracking-related documentaries have also brought large audiences to the Athena in past series due to local interest in the topic. McCosker says she wants the series to engage students in discussions about globally relevant topics.
“The goal is to educate students about the environment and to provide resources for them,” she says. “[We want] to expand the understanding about sustainability and environmental issues, … challenges and solutions.”
Megan Popke, a senior and Athens employee, says the program sheds light on topics that need to be brought to the forefront of local discussion.
“It’s just a really cool program we do to get people coming into the theater and experiencing the history of the theater itself,” Popke says, “then also being able to learn about topics that aren’t really talked about.”
For Wochna, the most exciting aspect of the series is when students learn something new from the one of the documentaries shown in the series.
“It is all worth it if just one student will say, ‘I never knew any of this… I had no idea’” she said.