Freeland Film Fest at the touch of your hands

Freeland Director Steve Galster discusses COVID-19’s link to wildlife trafficking during a global webinar in April that Freeland co-hosted with Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand in Bangkok.

by Joe Schulz

This September, cars were set to line Green Lake streets as people walked between the Thrasher Opera House, Town Square and the American Legion Hall for films and panels offered as part of the Freeland Film Festival.

THRASHER OPERA HOUSE is packed for the Freeland Film Festival’s opening night last year. That won’t be the case this year as the event is going virtual. submitted photo

However, festival-goers will be watching from home because the festival will be offered digitally to avoid bringing large groups together amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Event organizers hope that the virtual film festival, which runs Friday, Sept. 11 to Sunday, Sept. 13, can introduce Green Lake to a wider audience, while promoting Freeland’s mission.

“It’s not just the Freeland Film Festival. Right now, almost 100% of film festivals are going virtual,” Event Coordinator Evelyn Galster said. “We have to respect our venues, what they can occupy and what makes sense.”

Festival Executive Producer Richard Christian noted the digital event will support the Freeland Foundation’s goal of ending wildlife and human trafficking.

The festival will continue to feature movies and panels that aim to raise awareness for wildlife and trafficking, ecosystems and various other issues.

Christian believes Freeland’s mission has only become more relevant in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the virus is zoonotic, meaning it originated in animals and transferred to humans.

Specifically, many health experts believe the virus originated in a bat that was sold in a wet market in Wuhan, China. Freeland has been going to live animal markets around the globe to identify vulnerable areas and raise awareness for global wildlife trafficking.

Freeland Foundation founder and Green Lake native Steve Galster recently took a CBS News reporter to an illegal wildlife market in Bangkok, Thailand, on an episode of “60 Minutes.”

“They’ve all been pulled from their natural environment and brought thousands of miles all the way here in contaminated conditions, bringing with them God knows what,” Steve Galster said of the animals at the market. “With thousands of people here today, it’s a perfect storm for the Wuhan thing to happen again right here.”

This year’s film festival will showcase that undercover work and explain the connection between infectious diseases and wildlife trafficking.

“It’s about cultural education, talking about the dangers of wildlife trafficking, tied to habitat loss and tied to viruses,” Christian noted.

While the film festival will honor Freeland’s mission, the move to a virtual event poses unique challenges.

Organizers have been working to find the right digital platform to host the festival. Christian noted the platform will give audience members the ability to interact with panelists and each other.

“Our current plan, at least with the panels, is to be able to receive chat messages [from the audience] during the panels and use those in a Q&A toward the end of the presentation portion of the panel,” Christian said. “We’re still working on how Q&A could be done with movies, and it becomes a question of our own resources.”

He added festival attendees will have the option to either watch a film live or to watch it later after it’s been aired.

“I think this is going to be a great opportunity for our audience to experience the film festival in a new way,” Christian said.

Evelyn Galster hopes the move to an online venue will open the festival to viewers who can’t come to the Green Lake area.

“We’re excited,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to see what the numbers look like.”

While the festival aims to introduce Green Lake to a broader audience, Christian acknowledged that moving online will impact the local economy, as people won’t be flocking to Mill Street for the festival.

“Our festival has been important to businesses for the last two years, and there is going to be an economic impact, just as there are so many huge economic impacts across the world right now,” he said.

Event organizers are still optimistic that the event will continue to grow and that the virtual event will make the festival even stronger.

“Doing it virtually means anybody from anywhere can come,” Evelyn Galster said. “It still puts Green Lake on the map. It still is bringing people here virtually.”