Last year, Stephanie Flack ’92 decided to leave a job that she says she could have stayed in forever. For the previous 18 years, Flack had worked with the Nature Conservancy, a major environmental group, during which time she spearheaded a landmark effort to preserve the biologically rich Potomac River watershed.
“It was a great place to be — it never got boring, and I was proud to be part of this big, successful organization,” she said. But she’d also felt she’d “gotten into the weeds” during a lengthy technical project, so when the opportunity arose to lead the Washington, D.C., Environmental Film Festival, she took it.
The festival — which at 23 years is the longest-running environmental film festival in the United States — will be held between March 17 and March 29 and is scheduled to include more than 160 films from 31 countries. Many of them are premieres, and many will be shown along with presentations by the filmmaker or other expert speakers. Last year’s festival attracted 33,000 people to films at dozens of venues, many of them free to the public. “It’s not a niche festival,” Flack said. “Everybody should care about these topics.”
At Princeton, Flack studied ecology and evolutionary biology and earned a certificate from the Woodrow Wilson School. Her studies with the late biology professor Alison Jolly, a leading specialist in primates, proved pivotal. “I thought I’d become a primatologist,” she said. “Primates are charismatic species. They can be a ‘gateway drug.’ They were for me.”
Eventually, though, Flack decided to pursue graduate studies at Yale’s school of forestry, hoping to gain a greater appreciation for entire ecosystems. “If you care about these animals, you have to care about the habitat they live in,” she said. “I wanted to do more with conservation.”
After earning a master’s degree, Flack worked for two years at the World Bank before joining the Nature Conservancy. Her proudest achievement at the conservancy was to help forge a partnership with the National Park Service to preserve the Potomac River gorge, a slice of Washington, D.C., with a surprisingly wild, even unruly ecosystem.
“It’s one of the most biologically rich areas in the eastern United States, but it was controlled by different entities with little thought of it as a unified whole,” said Flack, who lives with her husband and three children in the Washington area.
During her time in Washington, Flack had attended many showings at the film festival, and she was involved in one film that was shown there two years ago. So when the executive directorship came open, she was intrigued by the position. She was chosen for the job and started working there in July 2014. The 2015 festival is the first one under her direction.
Flack has hired a recent Princeton grad, Chelsea Parker ’14, as her intern. She’s also pleased to be able to feature a notable film about a favorite Princeton topic — Tiger Tiger, a documentary by George Butler, who came to prominence with a film about bodybuilding in the 1970s, Pumping Iron. Tiger Tiger documents Alan Rabinowitz and his work on tiger conservation in the largest mangrove swamp complex in the world, located India and Pakistan.
“There’s an ambivalence” in the movie, Flack says. “They both love the tiger and fear the tiger.” She saw echoes in the movie of the conservation challenges she addressed in her senior thesis on mountain gorillas. After almost a quarter of a century in the environmental field, she said, “things from college are still very much in the headlines.”
Louis Jacobson is deputy editor of PolitiFact in Washington, D.C., and a frequent PAW contributor.