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by DANIEL WALTERS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & awk's-eye view. The camera soars past a jutting snow-capped mountain, dives down to whip past a forest of ancient trees, above a river frothing with roiling rapids -- it suddenly pauses, just in time to show a wild salmon leaping out of the river, scales flashing in the midday sun.





This is a place where the sky holds stars instead of streetlights, billowing clouds instead of billowing smoke.





This is the outdoors, a mysterious place where "sweeping vista" refers to a stunning panoramic view instead of debugging your operating system. This is poetry without a word, music without a single note.





This, ladies and gentlemen, is your feature presentation: A movie where the setting is the star.





Starting Friday, the curtain at the Magic Lantern will be lifted for three days for the Patagonia Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival, featuring 18 environmental films. Some are a mere two minutes, others as long as an episode of Nova.





Hosted by the Lands Council, the film festival is visiting Spokane for the second time in as many years. With last year's viewers providing word-of-mouth advertising, Lands Council Executive Director Mike Peterson expects to exceed last year's average audience of about 90 people a night.





The festival began thanks to a single river, the South Yuba, which meanders through the Sierra Nevada foothills. The South Yuba River Citizens league (SYRCL) formed in 1983 to defend the river, and by 1999, 30 miles of the river had been given "Wild and Scenic" status, an official protective designation by Congress. In 2003, SYRCL decided to celebrate the Wild and Scenic status with a little film festival. They'd show a few films. Maybe invite a speaker a two.





But in the next seven years, the Nevada City, Calif., festival absolutely exploded. Festival tour manager Susie Sutphin says that this year, the three-day festival showed more than 125 films, accompanied by 80 guest speakers and an audience of more than 5,000 people.





Such a popular event -- "the next Sundance," according to filmmaker Christopher Beaver -- couldn't be contained by a small town in California, so three years ago, the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival went on tour. This year, Spokane joins 75 other cities in showing films from the festival, says the Lands Council's Kristi Fountain.





As more people see these films, the number of voters and activists aware of environmental issues increases, Sutphin says. "Our ultimate goal is to bring the film festival to as many venues as possible," Sutphin says. "In doing so, we will increase that groundswell, find more activists."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he festival's success has partly mirrored the success of the documentary in general. Spurred by irreverent filmmakers Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, the documentary has become quite the profitable medium. Films like Spellbound, Fahrenheit 9-11 and Winged Migration have marched into mainstream theaters, pleased audiences and critics, and walked away with a tidy sum of box-office profits. The 2006 climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth grossed almost $50 million worldwide, despite having Al Gore as its biggest "star."





Other environmental documentaries were quickly pumped out and sent down the pipeline. As such, SYRCL had plenty of films to sift through -- it pared 250 submitted entries down to 120. The Lands Council, meanwhile, aided by a grant from Patagonia, combed through that list of 120, and eventually settled on 19.





Peterson said they were looking for "films that are aesthetically pleasing, good visuals, interesting stories."





Fountain praises the diversity of selection. "Some of them are lighthearted and fun," she says. "Others really have a call to action."





Fitting in both categories is Oil + Water Project, which Sutphin calls "hands down, the most popular film on the tour." Oil tracks two best friends, both kayakers, on a 21,000-mile road trip. The twist? Their engine doesn't use gasoline. Instead, they use a modified Japanese fire truck, jury-rigged by Sandpoint, Idaho, resident Tom Brunner to run on vegetable oil instead of petroleum. From Alaska to Argentina, the two kayakers drive, paddle, joke and spread the gospel of alternative fuels.





Sutphin says Oil is popular because "it's an adventure film, it's a short film, it has an environmental message, it's funny... and they tell a good story."





One of Fountain's favorite films in the festival is For the Price of a Cup of Coffee, which follows the life and times of an ordinary paper cup, tracking its adventures through manufacture, distribution and disposal. Fountain also recommends Papalotzin: Flight of the Monarch Butterfly, where an ultralight aircraft follows the massive red-orange clouds of butterflies as 50 million of them migrate from Canada to Mexico. Fountain recommends that kids attend the festival on Sunday, when the movies are shorter and have titles like Water Loving Doggies.





While last year's festival centered on rivers, Fountain says this year the Lands Council searched for movies focused on "forests, trees and conservation." A Forest Returns examines the resurrection of a clear-cut forest in Ohio; Trees, Water, People explores how firewood shortages are razing forests in Third World nations; and Guardians of Selva Maya points its lens toward the trees of the South Yucatan.





As the Lands Council shows films about other forests, it hopes to protect the forests of Washington -- the evergreens of the Evergreen State.





"We have kind of a treasure here: some of the most wild areas and some of the most intact wildlife," Peterson says. "It's the only place in the lower 48 states that has all of its original species. You can actually go out and see this wildlife in their natural states.





"People come to this area not because it's a clear-cut forest, but because they can go on nice long hikes, see beautiful scenery, float the rivers here," Peterson says. "They can fish. They can go hunting."





They can also go to movies.





The Patagonia Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival runs Friday-Saturday, Aug. 15-16, at 4 pm and 8 pm, and Sunday, Aug. 17, at 1:30 pm and 6 pm, at the Magic Lantern, 25 W. Main Ave. Tickets: $15; $8, children; $30, three-day pass. Call 838-7122.

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