Launching a film festival in a quaint town surrounded by hilltop vineyards may sound glamorous, but it’s actually a lot of work. In addition to attracting international filmmakers and convincing directors to submit their art for viewing — and judging — event organizers have to motivate an entire community to get behind them.
If anyone is up to the challenge of establishing Los Olivos as a film festival venue, it is Sue Eisaguirre, director of NatureTrack Foundation.
“The idea that you’re in a small town and can [stand] in line with a film producer and not even know it,” she said, “you end up talking to people you don’t know.”
Eisaguirre operates NatureTrack from her home on a hilltop overlooking picturesque Los Olivos. She started the nonprofit foundation in 2011. Her goal was to introduce schoolchildren to nature and educate them about the importance of preserving it for future generations.
The NatureTrack Foundation offers teachers throughout Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties field trips at no cost. The organization even reimburses schools for transportation. Eisaguirre estimates 16,000 students have benefited from these trips since 2011. For the current school year, NatureTrack is fully booked, she reported, with more than 4,200 students participating.
To participate in a NatureTrack trip, teachers must align their classroom curriculum with state standards.
“We communicate directly with the teacher, so they can tell us exactly what the students are studying,” said Eisaguirre, noting she was inspired to start NatureTrack because of the limitations she saw accommodating students who aren’t exposed to nature.
“I wanted to reach more students, but I also wanted to help teachers to support them,” Eisaguirre said. “We’re allowing [teachers] to get students outdoors where it’s easier for them to learn about nature. Basically, what we’re doing is piquing the students’ curiosity.
“They need to be curious,” Eisaguirre continued. “They need to use all their senses. It’s really a way to support the teachers.”
Although film festivals are generally for adults, this one was inspired by kids. By stimulating the senses, films give children and adults opportunities to see places and hear sounds they might not otherwise be able to enjoy.
“First-person learning is crucial,” said Holly Cline, co-director of the NatureTrack Film Festival. “A lot of these students have never been out in nature.”
The inaugural festival has selected films from more than 20 different countries. Scheduled for March 23 to 25, the Los Olivos film fest will give people a chance to view works in several categories, including Adventure, Conservation, Kids Connecting to Nature, Student and Outdoors and Out of Bounds.
At the close of the three-day event, juried awards will be given for Best Student Film, Best in Category, Best Depiction of Children Connecting to Nature: “Dan Conaway Award” and overall Best in Festival. There will also be an Audience Favorite award.
“[These] films make you want to reconnect with nature,” Eisaguirre said. “These aren’t environmental doom-and-gloom films. When people leave … they’ll leave happy.”
In addition to more than 50 films, narrowed down from 1,500 submissions, festival attendees are invited to go on hikes with foundation docents on Saturday and Sunday morning.
Spring in the air
K.C. Murphy Thompson, co-director of the NatureTrack Film Festival, pointed out March should be ideal to take nature hikes in between films.
“We hope the timing is perfect for wowing people with that incredible explosion of colors on Grass Mountain,” Thompson said of the Los Olivos countryside in early spring. “Also, people who are walking with the docents will get to experience what the kids experience.”
Although it rarely snows in Santa Ynez Valley, Thompson announced film fest attendees will be treated to a special film about skiing.
“We’re going to be featuring a tribute to Warren Miller with at least one film,” Thompson said, mentioning the iconic filmmaker who recently died at 93. Miller introduced much of the world to places like Idaho, Utah, Colorado and British Columbia through films about Alpine skiing adventurers.
“We’re very excited about it,” Thompson said, noting similar outdoor films with well-known people — including Mutual of Omaha’s Marlin Perkins — will be featured.
“It goes back to Sue [Eisaguirre] stopping me in CVS and asking if I think a film festival will do well here,” recalled Thompson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in motion pictures and television from UCLA.
“‘Yes, I do,” she responded, noting Los Olivos. “We’re just in a place that’s ideal for films.
“I think there’s a proliferation of nature film festivals because people are interested in protecting the environment,” Thompson continued. “You can constantly tell a new story in nature.”
Screens and screenings
Cline, a professional graphic artist who designed the foundation’s website, said her interest in the film festival comes from teaching her own children the importance of honoring their environment.
“We want the films to inspire people about nature,” Cline said. “Growing up, I woke up and ran out the door and I was gone all day. When I had my children, they were more into reading books.
“I would drag my children out to trails and point things out to them,” she continued. “With the film festival, we have kids who are so attached to their screens. So I see the film festival as a bridge to bring them out into nature.”
Eisaguirre credits her husband with inspiring her to start a nonprofit foundation that invites K–12 students to explore nature. She agreed today’s technology can hinder efforts to make children more aware of nature.
“They’re more concerned about the electronic world than they are about the natural world,” she said.
Comparing worrisome water levels at Cachuma Lake to a fear of dropping their cellphones into a puddle, Eisaguirre hinted one is more easily replaced.
“Our goal is to … prepare school-age students and inspire them to be stewards of our natural resources,” she said. “One of the reasons we’re doing NatureTrack during a regular school day is [students] have more time.”
Thompson agreed with the foundation director.
“You get habituated” to a routine “and you’re not creating time for other things,” she said of today’s youth.
Today’s students not only spend more time with electronic games and cellphones, but they also are challenged by difficult Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses and competitive after-school programs.
“We’re igniting passion for nature through film,” said Thompson of NatureTrack’s first film festival.
“That’s our tagline,” she said, crediting Eisaguirre with coining the phrase.
Returning to the inspiration for the film fest — K-12 students — Cline said kids need to be encouraged to see and feel nature.
“I think kids that go out there, they learn how to look,” she said. “You value what you touch. I firmly believe you don’t protect what you don’t touch. And if you don’t touch nature, you won’t protect it.”
As if to lower expectations for the film festival, Eisaguirre said she’ll be pleased if it turns a small profit, noting all proceeds will go into the foundation’s efforts to help teachers incorporate nature exploration into their classroom curriculum.
“If we break even, great,” she said of the inaugural film festival in Los Olivos. “But what we really want is for people to say they’re coming back next year.
“We want to be the festival people put on their calendars,” Eisaguirre added. “We want the residents of Santa Ynez Valley to be proud of the festival.”