Building Environmental Narratives with Kunal Khanna

First published on September 08, 2021

"A seed that is sown must be watered..."

In 2020, the maiden edition of the All Things Environmental Film Festival (ALT EFF) launched virtually, bringing 33 extraordinary Nature films from across the globe to an online audience of 4,500 people. Crisscrossing countries, habitats and issues, the films were complemented by a calendar of online events that explored these themes. Born in the lush cradle of Panchgani, ALT EFF has caught the eye of India’s conservation community. In the run-up to the second edition of the festival, Sanctuary’s Cara Tejpal converses with Kunal Khanna, founder, ALT EFF. 

Cara: Permaculturist, adrenaline junkie, economist, food enterpreneur… yet you chose to create a film festival. Why was ALT EFF born, and does it intersect at all with your other identities? 

Kunal: Film and moving image may be the very reason I have so many identities! Film is imbued with a unique emotive power - one that lets you see through another's eyes. It carries a certain intrigue and stokes the desire to experience the world in her many facets. 

Through attending films, film festivals and other arts events, I was introduced to new concepts and many new possibilities. I could then choose to explore topics that truly interest and inspire me.

Out of my many identities, it is that of an environmentalist that fuels me the most. This was largely shaped during my Master's degree in Environment from the University of Melbourne.

ALT EFF is the intersection of my identity as an environmentalist and my love of films and moving images. I am confident in the power of film to move mountains and make waves. 

You launched ALT EFF in 2020, a particularly difficult year as the world struggled to cope with the first wave of the pandemic. Did the state of affairs work in the festival’s favour or against it? What was the final viewership like?

The ALT EFF journey began in 2019 and was conceptualized as a physical festival, full of experiences, gatherings and a lively sustainability market. When the pandemic began, it was a shock for the team to navigate the uncertainities of the year. But we knew the ground was fertile for talking about the environment. We were inspired by the conversations happening during the initial lockdown - where many around the world stopped, slowed down, and had the opportunity to wonder. As the world once again observed the patterns of birds and the fermenting of vegetables, we knew the time was right to showcase content about the environment. That gave us the push to produce the inaugural festival within the pandemic year. 

The fact that the world went virtual really worked to our advantage as a film festival. The people we were able to engage with expanded greatly - we formed an international team of volunteers that worked together virtually across timezones, we engaged international industry leaders as jurors and advisors, and we attracted viewership from around the world. I am not sure if any of that would be possible if the world wasn’t forced into the virtual realm to connect. We also saved money. A virtual festival has far fewer overheads than a physical one, and we were able to run ALT EFF 2020 very lean. 

We had 4,500 people from around the world tune in for ALT EFF 2020 and are thrilled with the traction for this year.

Kunal and his wife, Laura at the farmer's market.

What are your top five film picks from last year’s festival and why? If they’re available to watch online please share a link.

The films I’ve listed below are some of those that I found most moving and inspiring at the festival in 2020. 

The idea is to get you to look at the world with an entirely new perspective. These films give one an understanding of important changes happening all around us, some of which we are oblivious to in our day-to-day lives. They do this wonderfully by immersing the viewer into unique places and lifestyles from which we can all learn. 

Kokoly by Matthew Judge 
Ever Slow Green by Christoph Pol (not available online) 
For the Stripes by Div Bhagia and Aayush Dudhiya (full film available on request)
Cries of our Ancestors by Rebecca Koromos and Kalyanee Mam 
Elephants in my Backyard by Rajiv Surendra 

I read somewhere that during your 13 years in Australia you worked on several film festivals. In what capacity was that, and how well did it prepare you to launch ALT EFF?

In my twenties, I volunteered extensively at film festivals and other arts festivals in Australia. I was often the ticketing guy, or the one ushering attendees to their seats and sometimes even running the bar. In that, I was able to understand the mechanics of how a festival works and how to gauge the intrigue and attention of an audience. It opened my eyes to how dreams can become tangible and real in a festival environment. The festival is a unique container buzzing with ideas, connections and creative fluidity. What became most evident to me is the power of the arts to inspire people and shape their perspectives. Festivals are also a confluence - an influx of people from many walks of life, coming together over a shared experience. The connections that spring from festivals are mycelial in nature and virtually unquantifiable. 

Practically speaking, working and volunteering at festivals established a network for me to reach out to when starting ALT EFF. It provided me with a frame of reference and a bit of a road map.

The festival has four founders, what does each one bring to the table? Are there any other key members of your core team that you’d like to mention?

My wife and I moved from Australia to India three years ago. I was very lucky that in Panchgani there is a world-class design studio, called NOCT, started by Neha Shrestha and Rudransh Mathur, who also happen to be filmmakers.

Panchgani is a small community and we became fast friends over our shared love of adventures in nature and passion for conservation and ecological justice. Having run a community arts festival themselves - the Karvi Festival in 2017 - I presented my idea to them and it was a perfect marriage. They are experts in all things aesthetic. The NOCT team has done all of the design, branding and website for ALT EFF. With the creative reigns held by Neha and Rudransh, I reached out to a dear friend and fellow CSL alumni, Marie Schega for help on the organizational side of the operation. She is a force to be reckoned with and gave ALT EFF the structure and tools for communication it needed. 

I want to mention Naihan Nath, Chakshu Sharma and Ratish Srivastava. All of whom volunteered with ALT EFF last year and are now the backbone of ALT EFF 2021. They lead the communications, the programming, the events and the several partnerships. 

ALT EFF describes itself as a platform that inspires and mobilises communities to take action towards creating a sustainable future, locally and at large. Were you able to discern any such impact from the last edition, or is this a long-term vision?

This is, indeed, a long-term vision. It takes time for the mind to change and evolve. A seed that is sown must be watered. We see ALT EFF as a steady platform from which the environmental movement in India can continue to grow, and real change will become tangible. 

ALT EFF, while an annual festival, keeps working year-round to bring our audience relevant stories on the environment that are outside mainstream media. Through sponsors and community partnerships, we are conceptualizing and executing environmental impact projects around water, resources and filmmaking. There’s lots more to come from ALT EFF! We are just getting started. 

What should we expect from the festival this year? Can we get a sneak preview of films and panels to watch out for?

This year we will hear a lot of new voices at the festival. We will explore issues around sustainable food and we will learn about how communities are being impacted by climate change right now. We have films showing how food production can actually be part of the solution to the climate crisis. We show the dichotomy of humanity’s potential for destruction and our hopeful ingenuity. 

I am really excited about a film on teenagers and youth standing up for the environment and their right to the future against the US government in a court of law. Another one I love follows a man who walks the entire length of the river Ganges, and tells the stories of the riparian communities who live there. 

I’ve always been obsessed with the concept of waste. You know, ‘it’s not waste until you waste it.’ ALT EFF 2021 will cover the realities of the waste we create and that there is no real ‘away’ for our rubbish.  We kickstarted a student award category this year to spotlight youth voices too. There are films about pangolins; our interactions with animals; conservation stories; and the unheard community voices that are standing up for the environment. 

In our free events, we will talk about sustainable mobility with Uber and regenerative agriculture with Indian-based Two Brothers Organic Farms. We will run a workshop on science communication, to condense scientific research into a digestible visual format. We will have an activist symposium and launch a kids coloring book in partnership with Harper-Collins, Avid Learning and Coral Woman, an award-winning film at ALT EFF 2020.

We partnered with Sanctuary to highlight incredible work done at the grassroots level by inspiring individuals. In partnership with Rare India, we will host a discussion on sustainable wildlife tourism. We have a total program of 44 films and many free programmes and workshops for everyone! 

Environmental filmmaking can be a difficult and emotional process. Why should filmmakers look to engage with ALT EFF? 

ALT EFF is a festival that brings together people from all walks of life. We are an accessible platform where diverse stories can be shared with a wide range of audiences to create real ripples in our daily life and in the environmental movement. A filmmaker would engage with us at ALT EFF if they want to see the subject of their film inspire on-ground work and be part of a growing community of folks thinking differently. 

Kunal has embarked on several camping and mountaineering trips, including the Routeburn trek in New Zealand (left). On a trail through Panchgani's wilds, he finds a branch of wild mushroom (right).

I’m going to go a little off-topic, and ask about your own most memorable or cathartic experiences in Nature?

It’s actually quite difficult to pick one experience. Scuba diving as a PADI divemaster and soaring in the skies as a certified paraglider are places where I feel intimately part of the elements. Simultaneously being connected to the oneness of the elements, yet exposed to their rawness provides for a unique realization of who we are as human beings. On many camping and mountaineering trips in numerous terrains, there is a loud and resonant realization, which is that thinking of ourselves different from or above nature is indeed where a lot of our problems lie. We are nature and we are all part of the same socio-ecological systems. We need to be thinking of it as a whole, to prevent system collapse. 

I think it would be nice to wrap this up with a vote of thanks of sorts. Who has inspired and shaped you when it comes to your environmental conscience, lifestyle and activism?

My environmental consciousness really started to take shape during my Master's studies. Writings by Wendell Berry influenced me to lean into exploring food and how we look at landscapes to produce the most important life force we rely on and the exploitation of the same.

Noam Chomsky and his writings encouraged me to question the economic paradigm I was doctrined into during my Bachelor’s degree. Vandana Shiva, a true force of nature, really cemented how most systems we currently live in are inherently flawed. Dr. Dominique Hes at the University of Melbourne inspired me to look at design as an effective tool to solve many problems.

The writings and research on resilience by Brian Walker and David Salt have led to some of my big breakthrough moments too. Joost Baker, another inspiring Australian, is consistently pushing boundaries and limitations to show that true sustainability in all forms and industries is indeed possible. Bill Mollison, and his permaculture teachings govern the way I live my life at the moment. 

Some of my favourite books are Cradle to Cradle and The Upcycle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Waste: UnCovering the Global Food Scandal, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe and Nehru: The Making of India.

I have drawn inspiration from friends such as Desh Balasubramaniam through whom I vicariously learned the intricacies of running an arts organization, Andrew George who continues to lead protests and non-violent disruption with the Extinction Rebellion movement in Melbourne; and Tyson Savannah my partner-in-crime influenced me to realize the difference between need and want!

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