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The Power of Film


Learning about food, environment and culture

By Jim Detjen
Spring 2010

It was a perfect day for a film festival — cold, overcast and snowy.

We were sheltered from the wintry weather inside the theatre of Snyder Hall at Michigan State University. Several dozen students and faculty had just finished watching “Eat Drink Man Woman,” a 1994 film by Taiwanese-American film director Ang Lee. It’s a film that explores the relationships between family members as they cope with tensions between career ambitions and family traditions. An important theme is the role food plays in Chinese culture.

During a discussion following the film, Jinsha Li, a sophomore biosystems engineering major from China, teared up as she talked about the movie. “I am an only child and it’s very important for my father, mother and me to eat meals together. It’s only during meal times that we really talk to each other.

“This movie made me realize how much I miss my parents and having meals together with them. Food is very important in Chinese culture,” she said.

The emotional discussion following the movie showed how powerful a medium film is in sparking discussions and stirring emotions. Films resonate with viewers in a special way by weaving together moving images, stories and music.

This early film by Lee, who has made such celebrated films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2001) and “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), was one of five films shown at the “Food Film Festival” on March 20. The Knight Center for Environmental Journalism worked together with Laurie Thorpe, Wynne Wright, Laura DeLind and others to organize this event. Haley Walker, president of the Environmental Journalism Association, played a critical role in making this event a reality.

We showed five films that explored the connections between food, sustainability, culture and the environment. A variety of organizations, including the Sustainable Michigan Endowed Project and the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Agriculture, supported this effort.

This festival marks our center’s second campus-wide film festival. In November 2008 we worked with Susan Woods, Kirsten Khire and others in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences to organize “Green on the Big Screen,” a four-day environmental film festival that showcased more than 30 films.

Videos and documentaries are powerful media for informing people about environmental issues and moving them to action. But they are also expensive — especially in an era, which requires high definition cameras and other advanced technologies. We continue to seek grants and donations to support this work. If you’d like to see more documentaries and more film festivals and are willing to support them. please contact me at

Here’s what the Knight Center has been involved with in recent months:

Video instructor Lou D’Aria and his students are working on their fourth documentary, which will be broadcast on WKAR-TV and other Public Broadcasting Service stations later this year. This documentary, “Bad Company,” details the impact that Asian carp and other invasive species are having on the Great Lakes. Associate director Dave Poulson and dedicated environmental journalism students continue to do innovative experiments at Great Lakes Echo, the daily, multi-media environmental news service. If you haven’t seen this yet, go to and subscribe for free.

In December we published our first calendar, which showcased nature photos taken by students and faculty at the Knight Center. It included quotes about nature and lists of environmentally significant dates. Sales of this calendar were used to support the Environmental Journalism Association, the only student group of its kind in the nation.

On Feb. 23 we held our fifth workshop for Detroit high school journalism students at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History. This workshop, which has won national awards for educational innovation, has now trained more than 1,000 high school journalists.

Nine entries from EJ Magazine won awards at the Society of Professional Journalists’ regional journalism contest in Cleveland on April 9.  Congratulations go to Rachael Gleason, Andrew Norman, Sarah Coefield, Haley Walker, Alice Rossignol, Elisabeth Pernicone, Emma Ogutu, Yang Zhang and the EJ staff.

The Knight Center was one of the first units on campus to receive “green certification” from the Office of Campus Sustainability earlier this year. This means our students, faculty and staff have taken concrete actions to reduce their environmental footprint through increased recycling, reduced energy usage and other efforts. The Knight Center will be recognized by President Lou Anna Simon for this achievement.

Jim Detjen is a professor and director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.


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