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My biggest advice – listen carefully

Interview with Natasha Despotovic, director of DREFF, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Dominican Republic Environmental Film Festival takes place not only in Santo Domingo, but in 12 cities around the country. Festival director Natasha Despotovic also doesn’t always stay in Dominican Republic capital, but actively works between Washington DC and New York, where she is the executive director of the Global Foundation for Democracy and Development (GFDD), an US non profit organization.

Together with DREFF she films and produces environmental movies, makes huge educational campaigns and recycled art projects. You also could add here work in architecture, health, teaching and yoga, but in our interview we tried to concentrate on story of DREFF, the festival. You probably will hear more and more about it, as this September it hosts the Green Film Network Award.

We keep on exploring festivals of the network with our monthly interviews. Welcome to DREFF!

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How did it all start? How DREFF  was born? 

Before the Dominican Republic Environmental Film Festival (DREFF) we were organizing the DR Global Film Festival, which we initiated in 2006. That festival was a general international film festival and its organization was much more complex than that of DREFF: it involved screening movies in 35mm and organizing participation of more than hundred movie stars and executives.

In 2011, inspired by the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital in Washington DC (where one of our Foundation’s offices is located), we got the idea that, based on our experience in film festivals, we could take on a new project: an environmental film festival, first one of its kind, in the Dominican Republic.

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Do you remember your very first festival? 

I remember clearly our first festival. We were confident about our organizational skills and capabilities. So luckily, we didn’t feel so much stress in that regard. But we were testing new waters content-wise: the environment and sustainable development community in the country and the general interest in topics in those areas among Dominican audiences. We had worked in the area of environment as the Foundation (Global Foundation for Democracy and Development, GFDD) in the past but we had never screened environmental movies or done big national events on the topic. We felt a bit tentative, assuming that if we could only organize several screenings and get some positive responses, that would be the summit of our accomplishment.

The reality took us by surprise and we were amazed: all sectors of national life (students, experts, leaders, public officials, private companies, schools and universities, non-governmental organizations and others) were extremely interested and they all joined asking for more venues and more screenings!

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What is the most difficult in your work now?

Strangely, the most difficult part now is prioritizing and accepting the limitations of what we can do. We have gone from screening twenty movies in three cities to screening around fifty movies in twelve cities and forty venues around the country. Many national partners have asked us to expand even more and the number of great environmental movies we can present has been growing yearly.

Apart from that, we have developed numerous environmental programs that run during the year. It includes screening around the country, but also:

EcoHuertos – organic school and community vegetable gardens

ReCrearte – a recycling art project

RDescubre – a program that takes children and young people to excursions around the country

Globo Verde Dominicano – a multimedia competition in the area of environmental production

We have also started to produce our own environmental short movies, and they have traveled around the world and won awards. We have our hands full and are delighted, but have to remind ourselves that there is only so much we can do.

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Do you have some funny story about Festival preparation that you can share?

Many funny things happen all the time. Let me go with the first one that comes to mind.

For DREFF 2015, we had been trying hard to convince Louie Psihoyos to come to our closing night as we were screening his “Racing Extinction”. Two days before the festival, we still didn’t haven his confirmation. We kept the movie in our schedule for the closing night but really didn’t have anybody to accompany that screening. A day before the start of the festival, we had a meeting with the members of our national advisory committee, and one of the members exclaimed:  “What, I don’t see Louie’s name on the list of our guests!” After we explained the situation, he said: “Wait a minute, I’ll mend this in a second.

We were all smiling at our benevolent advisor who was trying to be enthusiastic and thought: well, he’s nice, trying to be positive… But our surprise was great when he showed us, five minutes after, a text message from Louie, his scuba diving buddy for many years, confirming his arrival in two days!

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What is the film festival among ones you visited that you remember the most?

Every year, we all go to the DC Environmental Film Festival as our offices are in Washington DC, and we have made it a habit to almost finalize our programming after seeing all the movies at that festival. It’s a beautiful festival with fantastic programming and it’s amazing to see how many institutions in the city are part of it! I have been several times to the Blue Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit, which is a delightful and inspiring experience. I have participated in Cinemambiente, Torino, where the level of organization and the kindness exhibited by all the staff members is extraordinary, and I have also been lucky to get a taste of the FIFE in Paris, with its highly motivated and sophisticated audience. Every festival teaches us something new and different; it opens our minds and hearts to new ways of thinking and doing!

What can you advice to other film festival organisers? Some word of wisdom.

Perhaps the biggest piece of advice I can give to other festival organizers would be to listen, patiently and carefully, to everybody: your audiences, partners, your advisory committee, and your staff! Every festival is nothing but a sum of all these thoughts, interests, emotions, commitments, engagements, desires and hopes. The only way to success and sustainability is making sure that your festival is a real and true amalgam of all these components.

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Why did you choose films as a tool to give environmental message? Why do you think is a good media? 

Our Foundation has been organizing all kind of events for more than twelve years: conferences, seminars, workshops, international meetings. But, at some point, you start to notice that there is a limit to how much you can communicate, understand and project by discussing topics. For a real change to happen, you need deep experience. Body, mind, heart and spirit have to be involved at the same time. Movies engages our senses and stimulates our thoughts and feelings, leaving a permanent mark. Our consciousness is transformed and hopefully, we are ready for a different kind of action.

What are your ideas about the future? How do you think is going to look like? 

All of us who have seen so many excellent environmental films and read so many impressive books on sustainability are aware of how big the challenge is, how high the stakes are and how huge the probability of failing is. I guess we all have sometimes left a movie theater with a sense of impending doom and no hope. The scientific data provide more and more evidence that we are doing too little, and too late. The scientists also tell us that the doom is really not for the planet or the universe – they both can reorganize and rebuild themselves, as the nature always does in one way or another, even if we destroy our marvelous ecosystems. The onus is on us. It’s about us rising to the occasion and fulfilling our mission and responsibility, or failing.

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One of my favorite quotes is Albert Einstein’s “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. The same way our destructive actions breed consequences that are impossible to evaluate at this level of being and thinking (of which scientists remind us constantly talking about exponential chain effects), our right thoughts, emotions and living can take us to a different level of existence where solutions reside. My desire is to continue working in that direction.

By Anastasia Laukkanen