The trouble with many worthy environmental causes is that they try to scare the hell out of people. It may be true that if we don’t act now the planet is doomed, but put that way the problem is too big for most people to cope with and so they tune out.
When Stan and Mariam Gibson founded Ecologos, in 1998, a charity now completely devoted to water concerns, they raised the alarm about issues ranging from water pollution to oceans choked with plastic. They experimented with different approaches to their cause, including organized civil actions and social media campaigns.
But eventually they decided the best approach would be to reconnect people with their deepest experiences of water, using documentary storytelling and experiential learning. They felt that by re-establishing their bond with this fundamental element that connects us all, people would be motivated to act on its behalf.
Water Talks Through Water Docs
While Ecologos runs a number of programs, its yearly centrepiece is the Water Docs Film Festival, which combines water documentaries with speaker panels, gala social events and student screenings. I was hired on contract as writer to help promote the 2017 Water Docs festival, working closely with a dynamic team composed of director of programs Bob Isenberger, lead programmer and festival manager Melanie Howe and board/design team member Ronnie Seagren.
In the three-month lead-up to the festival, we hit the ground running, relaunching the Water Docs website with a cleaner, easier-to-navigate design and more focused content. The site included two blogs: one stream devoted to Ecologos news and the other to general water issues and current events. I wrote a regular program of posts that ramped in frequency as the festival approached.
The blog posts also served as content for newsletters and social media posts, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In conjunction with a dedicated social media campaign (run by Emily Charles-Donelson), we prepared packages for the entire festival and each of the five days of programming, and emailed them to other organizations that might have an interest and help spread the word. To make it easy to for the groups to communicate info about the festival to their members, the package included boilerplate text and images for email messages and social media posts.
Working with publicity specialist Patricia Garcia, I also wrote a radio ad for CIUT and text for a promotional contest running in the NOW newspaper and on its website.
The Reviews Are In
And our work, and the work of the larger Ecologos design team, paid off. While the first Water Docs Film Festival, in 2012, played to a small audience in a community centre, with a borrowed DVD player and boom box, this year’s edition had its run at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Bloor Street West in Toronto. The festival achieved its highest attendance yet and received widespread praise for its programming.
The documentaries, coming from around the world, beat the drum of environmental awareness, with films that warned about how the fashion industry generally, and blue jean manufacturers specifically, are ruining the planet’s rivers (River Blue), or how our destruction of the oceans may be leading to larger calamities for the planet (Sea of Life).
But this heavy subject matter was balanced by odes to the joy of water, such as the documentary Standing on Water, chronicling the unlikely rise of a young Dane from the frigid northern “Blue Hawaii” to become world stand-up paddling champion; or a lyrical tribute to the most Canadian of pastimes, canoeing our endless bodies of freshwater (The Canoe).
Activists, recreational users and documentary lovers alike immersed themselves in screenings that served as a reminder that we all swim in the same water.