The Seventh Annual Wild and Scenic Film Festival returns to Ventura

by Michael Aushenker

Paddle up! It’s nature meets the digital world when Ventura Hillside Conservancy presents the Wild and Scenic Film Festival next Thursday and Friday. For its seventh consecutive year, the event returns to Ventura, a satellite of the original version held in Northern California since 2002. “Now it’s the largest environmental-themed festival [in the nation],” according to festival organizer Gary Bednorz of Ventura Hillside Conservancy.

A favorite of Bednorz from this year’s crop of movies is Martin’s Boat. Martin Litton, who died two years ago at 97, was the first person to go down the Grand Canyon in a wooden boat. “It’s a powerful, great film,” Bednorz says. “When you watch that film, you’re in that boat, going down that river with Martin!”

Another offering, Joe, profiles National Geographic photographer Joe Riis. There’s also Black Bears, about Yosemite National Park’s ursine population steadily encroaching on resident humans (or more likely, vice versa). Avaatara follows David Lama’s first ascent up the Baatara Gorge in Lebanon while Mile for Mile chronicles three runners’ jaunt through 106 miles of Patagonia Park in Chile, and Rabbit Island depicts a fight to protect said land mass in Lake Superior. Comes With Baggage covers Big Sur, Santa Cruz and Monterey by bike.

The environmental film festival’s seeds were planted by the South Yuba River Citizens League, which launched Wild and Scenic 14 years ago in Nevada City, just north of Sacramento. Seven years ago, then-Conservancy President Bednorz and Steve Sveet (since relocated to Santa Cruz) launched this local version. This year’s film series, Bednorz said, is the most accessible batch yet.

“We view somewhere between 40 and 50 films [available to Nevada City],” Bednorz says. “Some of them are way too message-y.” It’s important to Bednorz and his colleagues to select viewing that transcends preaching to the choir of diehard environmentalists and assorted nature-lovers, of which the city of Ventura has plenty. “People love the great outdoors,” Bednorz said. “We’re a city with a beach, not a beach city. I always call Ventura a river city.”

A longtime Ventura resident with a big, friendly Southern accent echoing an itinerant upbringing around Arizona, Arkansas, Texas and New Mexico, Bednorz loves his adopted town. “When you’re in Ventura, you get this feeling: ‘Hey, I am in a special space!’ I’ve been in Ventura since 1981. I can’t imagine going anywhere else and I’ve been all over the world.” The key message Bednorz would like to transmit through the festival’s lineup is: “The great outdoors are great, go play!”

All this, of course, is for a good cause. Proceeds from Wild and Scenic support Ventura Hillside Conservancy, responsible for a recent area planting of 500 trees and currently acquiring open space around Ventura to make it accessible for public use: hiking, biking and so on.

With the Santa Clara on one side and the Ventura River on the other, Bednorz notes how blessed we Venturans are. “We’ve got the rivers, we’ve got the ocean. We’re working on access to the hills,” he says. Aside from the Botanical Gardens, good hiking is “ultra limited. The majority of the land that is north is privately held.”

Ventura Hillside Conservancy also wants to create a parkway along the Ventura River to allow folks to walk and bike all the way to Ojai. “It’s pizza, one slice at a time,” he says of progress made across his seven years with the environmental group, which used to approach individuals to donate their property toward the public good. Today, landowners come to the conservancy to earmark real estate.

The Sierra Club and Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation will be among the organizations educating visitors at Wild and Scenic between screenings. Ventura County Credit Union, a huge supporter in the past seven years, joins Whole Foods, local breweries Two Trees and Poseidon, and Castoro Wine as sponsors of this year’s event. Bednorz also initiated Can the Cup, urging attendees to bring or buy their own beer mug or wine glass. “Zero waste is one of our big themes,” he says.

Ultimately, though, Bednorz doesn’t want the night’s informational aspect to overwhelm its celebratory side. “It’s a fun—raiser,” Bednorz concludes. “We want people to come out and have fun!” 

The Seventh Annual Wild and Scenic Film Festival will be held March 4 and 5 at Poinsettia Pavilion, 3451 Foothill Rd., Ventura. For more information and a film schedule, visit