“Impact film” was the phrase du jour at the 2024 Colorado Environmental Film Festival (CEFF), which hosted 66 film screenings from 38 countries during its weekend run (February 22 through 25) in Golden. The buzzword describes a film that includes a compelling call-to-action for its audience. This year’s annual gathering of cinematic talent, including professional, independent, student, and youth filmmakers, unfolded in a new venue: the Colorado School of Mines’ Green Center, which increased capacity for audiences to experience these films created to inspire action and encourage change.

Although the festival has wrapped, interested viewers can still stream this year’s lineup on demand by purchasing a digital encore pass through March 3. Browse the film guide and choose an all-access online pass ($60) or a virtual collection ($12 for up to six films ranging from feature-length documentaries to one-minute shorts). All films are open- or closed-captioned or English subtitled. (Note: Once you’ve purchased your online pass (again: by March 3), you have seven days from clicking “unlock” to stream your selections.)

Below, three films from the festival worth a movie night in. Plus, a chat with the local filmmaker behind one of our other top picks.

4 Must-Watch Films From the Colorado Environmental Film Festival

1. Groundwork – A Family Journey into Regenerative Cotton (16 min)

Photo courtesy of Groundwork – A Family Journey into Regenerative Cotton

Presented by the North Face, this contemplative film (CEFF’s “Best Short” winner) explores the transformation of the sixth-generation Kahle farm from its status-quo reliance on pesticides and herbicides to progressive regenerative techniques (think: earthworm breeding, cover cropping, and composting). Not only does this shift in practice nurture the soil, but also the health of the crops and humans that harvest them.

The line that stuck with us: “We’re gonna fail forward.”

2. American West Memorial (1 min)

Photo courtesy of American West Memorial

At just a minute long, this graduate-student produced film is an evocative visual manifestation of the grief and crushing acknowledgement of a world (literally) on fire—a feeling Front Rangers who were around for the Marshall Fire will likely find intimately relatable.

The line that stuck with us: “I remember it raining ash. Just flakes of towns nearby. It feels like we’re all just kindling.”

3. Flyways: The Untold Journey of Migratory Shorebirds (85 min)

Photo courtesy of Flyways: The Untold Journey of Migratory Shorebirds

A stirring cinematic adventure (and “Best of the Fest” winner), this flick chronicles the incredible migration patterns of shorebirds that follow ancient routes across the globe for the survival of their species. Through sophisticated global tracking technology via the International Space Station, scientists can trace these “flyways” and examine the ways that human development and the resulting climate crisis are threatening what the film calls “the world’s greatest endurance athletes.”

The line that stuck with us: “A vision of grace amidst the degradation of their flyway.”

4. Fracking the System: Colorado’s Oil and Gas Wars

Fracking protestors featured in “Fracking the System: Colorado’s Oil and Gas Wars.” Photo courtesy of Brian Hedden

If you watch one film, check out Fracking the System: Colorado’s Oil and Gas Wars, an exposé that earned CEFF’s “Spirit of Activism” award for its impassioned look at the Coloradans fighting an uphill battle to slow the insidious proliferation of fracking across the state—especially near schools and residential neighborhoods. Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a process where oil and gas firms inject a highly pressurized chemical cocktail into the dense rock beneath the ground’s surface to create fissures that allow oil and gas to seep out to the surface for collection. Side effects include contaminated groundwater, exposure to and chronic illness from high levels of carcinogens like benzene near the fracking site, possible birth defects and sickness in pregnant women, and massive safety concerns about drilling where Coloradans live, play, and attend school.

Filmmaker Brian Hedden got a crash course in documenting a controversial battle fraught with ethical and legal tensions (yes, he got sued in the process) when he began chronicling the David-and-Goliath efforts of the nonprofit Colorado Rising (an advocacy organization working to protect Coloradans from the harmful impacts of oil and gas development) to implement larger fracking setbacks or ban fracking outright. Hedden follows along as the group notches important victories, only to be thwarted time and again by legislative and political hurdles and the devious tactics of a Denver-based oil and gas firm. The film focuses on municipalities like Erie, Longmont, Greeley, and Broomfield that exist in the intimidating shadows of ever-multiplying drilling rigs.

Fracking the System had its world premiere at CEFF and will continue to screen around the state and beyond in the coming months. If your organization is interested in hosting a screening, visit frackingthesystem.com. In the meantime, we caught up with Hedden to discuss lawsuits, fickle politicians, and our love affair with hope when it comes to the environment.

Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Filmmaker Brian Hedden. Photo courtesy of Brian Hedden

5280: You began this project in 2017. What pushed you into this seven-year labor of love?
Brian Hedden: What really made me commit was the lawsuit. That was on the eighth day of filming. At that point, I was just kind of showing up to stuff, thinking, Oh, this is about fracking? I’m gonna go. So, I got a call from [an activist] who said he was going to chain himself to this bulldozer and asked if I wanted to film it. Well, of course. But I had not committed to any documentary. I was just very curious. And it sounded like a great scene, if you will. Once it led to the lawsuit, that’s when I knew: Either I’ve really got to do something or I’ve got to walk away with my tail between my legs. So, I decided to do something.

It’s also a bit of a departure from your usual filmmaking style.
It took me a long time to come to terms with that. At the outset, to be frank, I just saw myself as an artist with a camera. But once I was getting sued and had to get lawyers I realized, Oh, I’m a journalist. At film school at NYU, they didn’t teach journalism. They taught art, which is fair and valid. But they had this more modernist view of documentary filmmaking. The only rule is: Don’t be boring. I had to teach myself what journalism is as I’m getting sued for being a journalist. And that’s actually what got me connected to my pro-bono First Amendment lawyers. It was a huge growth experience for me as an artist. Documentaries live in this weird in-between of needing to be visually stunning, emotionally relevant, but also factually accurate. It’s a bizarre art form to take the truth of the history and make it entertaining in 90 minutes.

What did you find the most upsetting as you were documenting this issue?
The thing that really gets me still is that Democrats are playing both sides. They pretend to be environmentalists, but they’re bought out by the oil and gas industry. Even the current sitting Democratic senate president from Boulder, Steve Fenberg, accepted a loophole in Senate Bill 181 that severely weakened it. The bill said: Local governments can create new laws around fracking [to protect public health, welfare, and safety]. The industry wanted to add three words to specify “new laws that are necessary and reasonable.” Those words aren’t defined, but they’re in there now. And it led to a whole lot of arguments because what is “necessary and reasonable?” It’s very hard for me to trust any politician for any reason until I really see them taking bold action on climate and the environment.

At the conclusion of your film, how did you feel? Hopeful? Frustrated?
I feel like we’re addicted to hope. How do we function in the world without hope? But hope is not what drives me. I’m determined. I’m committed. We need to have resilience despite hope. Maybe despair is OK because it’s more rational. Maybe we can persist and do what’s right without hope. Everyone is jonesing for hope, and we’re overemphasizing it. But I’m here to fight. I didn’t want to make a film that was depressing and despairing because I’ve had the experience of watching something about climate activism, being depressed for weeks and very resentful of the filmmaker for leaving me in that state. So I did a lot of work to make the end of this film a balance.

What’s on the horizon for you in the film world?
My next project is starting an eco-village that attempts to explore sustainable culture. What do we mean when we say sustainable? What is sustainable? I’ve been passionate about that for a long time, and I’ll finally explore what it means to be off the grid, self-reliant, and locally trading. When people live closer to earth—kind of like long-term camping or how the Native Americans lived—there is a way to be sustainable. People think all we need to do is switch to electric cars and buy a few solar panels, and then we’ll be good. They have a hard time with reality. Of course, there will be media around this; it could be a YouTube series. That’s the icing on the cake. I’m working on the cake right now.

Catch Fracking the System: Colorado’s Oil and Gas Wars and other films from the 2024 Colorado Environmental Film Festival on demand by purchasing a digital encore pass through March 3. Choose an all-access online pass ($60) or a virtual collection ($12 for up to six films ranging from feature-length documentaries to one-minute shorts).