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‘Shored Up’ and the Hilton Worldwide LightStay Sustainability Fund & Award

January 22, 2014

(Kathryn Pyle is a documentary filmmaker and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. To view her latest effort, a short doc titled Apple Forecast: Immigration Reform, click here.)

Shored_up_posterShored Up, a documentary about rising sea levels, received the Hilton Worldwide LightStay Sustainability Fund & Award for feature documentary this week at the Sundance Film Festival. Philadelphia-based director Ben Kalina accepted the award, which was established in 2011 as part of a three-year agreement between Hilton Worldwide and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, at a ceremony in Park City, Utah, the festival site.

The award includes a $25,000 grant for creative marketing and audience-building. Finished in May 2013, Shored Up won in the completed documentary category; one other feature film in production received the same level of support, while three shorter films received $5,000 each. The winning films will be offered on Hilton Worldwide's in-room channels at 3,800 hotels in 88 countries, as well as on the hotel chain’s various Web properties.

Shored Up is the first feature-length film to explore the impact of rising sea levels on coastal communities in the U.S. – The Island President, a documentary on the same theme set in the Maldives, won the award in 2012 -- and as such is an important contribution to policy debates about this critical  issue. The project also is a model of how foundations can advance their priorities through social issue documentaries and partnerships with community groups.

Prior to making Shored Up, Kalina, who became interested in human efforts to engineer dynamic, natural systems after reading John McPhee's The Control of Nature, worked as associate producer on two films about the environmental impact of current development and economic policies: Two Square Miles and A Sea Change, the latter based on Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2006 New Yorker article "The Darkening Sea," which explored the impact of rising global carbon emissions on ocean chemistry.

"I thought of the barrier islands: a pile of sand in the ocean that we're trying to hold in place," says Kalina. "This film deals with adaptation to climate change as opposed to how do we stop climate change. It lends itself to people talking about things that are local and regional, places where people can actually create change – in local land use decisions, development policies and environmental regulations."

Shot before and after Superstorm Sandy, Shored Up features two barrier island communities – Long Beach Island, New Jersey, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina – as they struggle to address beach erosion. The arguments advanced in favor of beach preservation are thrown into sharp relief when the film crew returns to LBI after Sandy to explore the devastating impact of the 2012 storm on the Jersey Shore.

Through interviews with scientists, politicians, surfers, environmental advocacy groups, small business owners, and residents, Shored Up explores the complexity and consequences of climate change, and in the process makes the call to action more human and immediate.

"The film shows climate change in the here and now, not what's going to happen a couple of generations from now or halfway around the world," says Kalina.

A first-time feature-length film director, Kalina embarked on the project thinking it would be impossible to raise money from traditional media funders, a highly competitive arena where only a small number of proposals in any given year garner support. Instead, he approached foundations which seemed to prioritize the issues, interest, and geographic regions featured in the film. Still, securing funding for the project was a challenge.

"The title of Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, explains it," says Kalina. "These are not convenient things to talk about, climate change in particular. There are no easy answers, there are no pat solutions, it's complicated. It can seem far in the future. You have to spend a lot of time thinking and then applying these policy questions as they relate to your community, your family, your business."

As Kalina researched and interviewed people for his film, he learned about potential funders and followed up with proposals. The project received distribution and audience engagement support from the Park Foundation, which has a special interest in North Carolina and environmental issues, and the New York City-based Norcross Wildlife Foundation, for outreach activities in New Jersey.

"By the distribution phase," Kalina notes, "foundations can see a finished product, so that's easier than asking non-media funders to invest in a film. But they still have to understand and appreciate the power of film to move people."

An important information resource during the early production stages of the film was the Surfrider Foundation, which has a unique perspective on the world's oceans and beaches and became a key partner for the finished film, organizing local screenings and discussions. (Surfers contributed a third of money raised for the film via Kickstarter.) Other partners for the audience engagement piece include the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Littoral Society, the North Carolina Coastal Federation, and the North Carolina Conservation Network.

The film has screened at more than a hundred community events and film festivals to date. It's also been shown at professional meetings like the Greenbuild International Conference & Expo last year in Philadelphia, and the project team has developed an interactive Web site to promote it.

Reports from the screenings are positive. Local officials often attend, and at least one town paired the film with a forum on sea-level rise. "People are really using it as a way to generate dialogue and conversation," says Kalina, "That's amazing. That's what I wanted to do when I set out."

As a recent New York Times article about the problems posed by encroaching seawater in Norfolk, Virginia, notes: "Much of the population and economy of the country is concentrated on the East Coast, which the accumulating scientific evidence suggests will be a global hot spot for a rising sea level over the coming century."

Shored Up suggests a number of ways to address the problem, and the film's early success is an invitation for more documentary filmmakers to tackle other aspects of this critical issue.

-- Kathryn Smith Pyle

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