The Rosendale Theatre is a valuable cultural resource for our region in many ways, but one that deserves a sharper spotlight is the fact that it’s a regular presenter for the Science on Screen program – one of only 42 such venues nationwide. Of the four of them that are in New York State, the other three are in New York City and Long Island, so that makes the Little Cinema that Could in our backyard something extra-special.
Science on Screen is an initiative of the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts, mainly funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Each year the program distributes small grants to arthouse cinemas that are committed to hosting screenings of films with themes related to scientific issues of contemporary interest, paired with live presentations and audience discussions. The Rosendale Theatre Collective (RTC) has been awarded funds for such programming for four years now.
In its early involvement in the program, RTC had to present the films and discussions virtually, but now they’re being shown in the Theatre itself. In 2022 there were three programs, one each in March, April and May, and 2023 will expand the series to four. Last year featured a screening of Arrival featuring local professors of astronomy and linguistics; A Birder’s Guide to Everything with two biology professors plus Pulse of the Planet host Jim Metzner; and a four-film Mushroom Festival that included The Truffle Hunters, Now, Forager, Attack of the Mushroom People and the much-loved documentary Fantastic Fungi. The latter event offered the option of signing up for amushroommeal prepared by the Theatre’s immediate neighbor, The Big Cheese.
Now Science on Screen is back for another springtime series in Rosendale. It kicked off on March 18 with In the Garden of Sounds, a documentary about Wolfgang Fasser, a blind Swiss educator who uses music and sounds to work with severely disabled children. Metzner returned to the Theatre to moderate a discussion with psychotherapist SarahRose Hogan of Giving Tree Counseling in Kingston.
Last Wednesday, March 29, the series featured a pair of environmental documentaries by the Stone Ridge-based international kayak explorer-turned-photojournalist Jon Bowermaster. He’s an enthusiastic supporter of the Rosendale Theatre and has used it in the past to beta-test new releases by his production company, Oceans 8 Films. His anti-fracking opus Dear President Obama had its “unofficial premiere” in Rosendale in 2016.
Since then, Bowermaster has been turning his lens on issues close to home, releasing a series of mini-documentaries on subjects such as PCBs, “bomb trains” and the Indian Point nuclear plant site called The Hudson: A River at Risk. He followed up those rather grim calls to action with Hudson River Stories: Hope on the Hudson, a more upbeat series of profiles of citizen activists who are making positive impacts on environmental concerns in the Hudson Valley.
Two of Bowermaster’s newest releases were screened in last week’s Rosendale Theatre program: One Dam at a Time and Windshipped. Matt Kovner, a member of the Town of Olive Environmental Conservation Commission who organizes Ulster County’s Third Thursday Environmental Series of Zoom seminars, served as moderator for a live discussion featuring both Bowermaster himself and Dr. George Jackman, senior habitat restoration manager at Riverkeeper and “star” of One Dam at a Time.
Filmed locally, One Dam at a Time (2023) highlights Riverkeeper’s efforts to demolish old, unused dams on creeks and streams running into the Hudson River, including footage of such efforts underway in places like Quassaick Creek in Newburgh and Furnace Brook in Westchester. The intent of removing these dams is to restore these waterways to easy passage by the aquatic life that depends on them, and the film makes an eloquent case for how such streams can be thus transformed. While Riverkeeper’s official count cites the number of dams on tributaries in the Hudson watershed at about 1,600, Dr. Jackman said that his personal estimate runs closer to 3,000 – and that if he lived long enough, he’d eliminate them all.
A retired New York City police lieutenant who went on to get a PhD in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, Jackman approaches the subject of dam removal with evangelical fervor (God’s will literally got mentioned several times). Asked about the potential of dams for generating electricity, for example, he focused on Hydro-Québec’s proposals to build a series of huge new dams and a massive corridor of transmission towers through New England. He made no mention of the alternative energy entrepreneurs who are reviving old, small-scale generating facilities to bring hydroelectricity to Hudson Valley towns via Community Choice Aggregation programs. “Hydropower is not clean or green,” he stated categorically. Jackman also summarily rejected any arguments by local historical societies that old dams may have value as industrial archaeology: “Just because something is historic doesn’t mean it’s good… There’s nothing more historic than the fish that live in these rivers.”
If mini-festivals of environmentally themed films have an inherent flaw, it’s that they tend to be preaching to the choir, and this one was no exception. The discussion period would have been more dynamic and interesting if Jackman had received a little pushback on the rigidity of some of his positions. No one turned up from the Save Tillson Lake organization in Gardiner, for example – a group that has locked horns with Jackman in the past for his public statements that the rights of lifeforms in the Palmaghatt Kill supersede the rights of humans who value the existing lake “by evolutionary fiat.” No one mentioned the fact (acknowledged by sister environmental organization Clearwater) that even if the Tillson Lake Dam were removed, fish from the Hudson couldn’t get upstream to spawn there, because the much-larger hydropower dam at Sturgeon Pool in Rifton blocks their passage.
In response to a single “softball” question about the Tillson Lake controversy, Jackman characterized the existing leaky dam as “high-hazard,” adding, “I’ve snorkeled that creek from top to bottom. It’s murky, filled with algae and has no oxygen below ten feet. It’s a ‘bloom and bust’ system. The water is tea-stained and warmer downstream from the dam… I can tell you that dam on Tillson Lake really impacts the water quality there.”
The second film in the program, Windshipped (2022), carried no such locally controversial baggage. It documents the retrofitting and relaunch of the Apollonia, a 64-foot steel-bottom schooner built in the 1940s, to serve as a cargo sailing ship on the Hudson River. Using wind and solar power almost exclusively, Apollonia transports goods from the mid-Hudson area through regional ports, including Kingston and Poughkeepsie, to New York City and returns with cargo from downstate.
While so far it’s the only one of its kind, and the ship’s cargo capacity is too small to replace much of the CO2-intensive truck traffic that bears most of the traffic of consumer goods to and from the Hudson Valley, it’s a test case for how our River and others like it – and the winds that blow through them at no cost – might be reestablished as corridors for commercial shipping that doesn’t burn any fossil fuels. Apollonia’s charismatic restorer/captain Sam Merrett and his small, enthusiastic crew are compelling ambassadors for the concept that such an approach could become economically viable in the future. “We’re going to need a bigger boat, and more boats,” said Bowermaster. “I think it’s coming.”
What’s next in the Science on Screen program at the Rosendale Theatre? After Yang (2022), a science fiction movie about the ethical issues raised by artificial intelligence, will screen at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 15. The post-film discussion will feature Dr. Kenneth Livingston, professor of Cognitive Science, and Dr. Marc Smith, chair of the Computer Science Department, both from Vassar College. And although no date has yet been announced, we are promised a second annual Mushroom Festival sometime in May. This topic has already proven highly popular with local audiences, and the current buzz around the HBO TV series The Last of Us, with its terrifying zombies whose brains are infected by an aggressive species of the Cordyceps fungus, should heighten interest even more.
For more info on Science on Screen and other program offerings at the Rosendale Theatre, visit rosendaletheatre.org.