Event organizers celebrate return of live showings along with virtual screenings

Staff Report

Combining the fourth annual NatureTrack Film Festival with the Los Olivos celebration of small-town life “Day in the Country” brought out record numbers of people, especially after the long lockdown. This was the first time the NTFF was live and in-person for one day since its abrupt halt in the face of COVID-19 in March 2020.

Festival organizers followed the pop-up live with a two-week virtual run of the nature-related films, allowing the audience to be worldwide, not just local.

Stats for this year’s virtual event, which ran Oct. 17-31: 2,775 streams, and 407 passes. Audiences ranging from India, Spain and Germany to strong showings in U.S. on the east and west coasts especially, with Colorado making the charts.

“It’s very exciting when the films we’ve chosen get such wide exposure,” said founder Sue Eisaguirre. “Many of our filmmakers have had films in each year and they make our film festival stand out in the crowd.” 

“[NatureTrack] is one of my favorite film festivals on the nature circuit … extremely well-organized with a great selection of films. They host many educational activities promoting the appreciation of nature,” said filmmaker John Dutton, whose award-winning “Discover Wonder: The Octopus Garden” was included in the event.

Luis Palomino Benítez of “Flying with Spider Monkeys” lauded the “fantastic staff, helpful and friendly,” with a nod to the selection and talent his film was among, adding “I wish I could have attended.”

Next year is a milestone for festival — the fifth annual celebration of connecting people to nature — and the organizers have plans to get back to an in-person festival for three days, and possibly expand it further. The virtual part will remain in place for all future festivals.

Making its world premiere at the NTFF was a documentary co-produced by NatureTrack with Golden Cage Films — Mitchka Saberi and Francisco Lopez. “The Accessible Outdoors” shows how a manual wheelchair user can transform their chair into an all-terrain vehicle using Freedom Trax, while investigating the importance of connection and access to nature for all people.

The filmmakers noted how the disabled audience members in attendance were able to see a problem they’ve surely experienced firsthand reflected on screen, and were excited by one possible solution in the Freedom Trax devices.

Using the Freedom Trax removes barriers to accessing beaches and trails for wheelchair users and others with physical disabilities. NatureTrack uses the Freedom Trax so docents, teachers and students can participate in the outdoor field trip program.

NatureTrack has also expanded its program beyond just school trips to include trips for wheelchair users and others with physical disabilities, offering trips to beaches and trails throughout the county.

“As we were shooting the film about incorporating Freedom Trax into NatureTrack’s outdoor field trips for our website, I realized there was more to tell about the lack of access to nature and the outdoors for disabled people,” Eisaguirre said. “I wanted the film to convey the importance of connection and access to nature for all people. Mitchka and Francisco did just that. I enjoyed working with them.”

In their director’s statement the pair noted, “Before making this film, we hadn’t considered how extensive the topic of disability access is. As two able-bodied people, it wasn’t until talking to people with a variety of disabilities we came to realize access to nature isn’t an issue to be ignored until it impacts you or someone close to you.

“We all deserve the ability to experience nature and connect with it, and that ability could easily be taken away from us at any moment. We shouldn’t wait until that moment comes to advocate for change in this sector.”

The film will be submitted to more film festivals nationally and internationally.

“We’re thrilled to continue sharing the film with audience members of all abilities, hoping everyone can take something away from the topics we address in the film,” Saberi said.

The film festival organizers thanked its 70-plus volunteers who helped on the event, as well as staffing the Day in the Country booth, 5K and Fun Run.

Thanks were also given to sponsors for their support: The Land Trust of Santa Barbara, Dunn School, We Watch, Solminer Wine Co., Bell Street Restaurant, Global Gardens, Mechanics Bank, FLIR/Teledyne, J. Woeste, Montecito Bank and Trust, First Street Leather, McFadden & McFadden PR, Pacific HR, Visit SYV, El Rancho Market, and St. Mark’s-in-the-Valley for use of its facilities.

NatureTrack is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that provides cost-free outdoor field trips for Santa Barbara County schoolchildren, utilizing local trails and beaches throughout the county, and provides field trips for wheelchair users of all ages. Funds raised in the film festival support the year-round expenses for NatureTrack.

For more, visit https://NatureTrackFilmFestival.org.