caplan speaking at a green film fest podium
Rachel Caplan (Photo/Pamela Gentile)

Q&A: A green leader who believes film can inspire action

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Name: Rachel Caplan
Age: 41
City: San Francisco
Position: Founder and CEO, San Francisco Green Film Festival

J.: You were born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland. How did that shape you?

Rachel Caplan: Edinburgh is very hilly, and it’s on an estuary, so you can always see vistas beyond the city: the horizon, the ocean, the mountains, the coast. You have incredible access to nature. Growing up with that definitely helped form my passion for conservation as well as my affinity for the Bay Area. San Francisco is like Edinburgh with more sunshine.

What was it like growing up in the Jewish community of Edinburgh?

It’s a very close-knit community, of about 900 today, and we have many family friends who are a part of it. My father was a high court judge who became one of the first Scottish Jews on the Supreme Court. Judaism is part of my culture and heritage. And part of the Jewish heritage is respect for the earth.

What’s your immigration story?

I moved here to be with my then-boyfriend, who is also Scottish. I said I would come for a year; that was 13 years ago. He is now my husband, I am a permanent resident, and I hope to become an American citizen very soon. I think it’s so important to be fully engaged in our civic process.

You have a master’s degree in film from the British Film Institute, and you worked for the Edinburgh and London international film festivals, as well as Paramount and Universal film studios in London. How did your interests in film and the environment merge?

In 2009 I was at a screening of “The Age of Stupid” by the English filmmaker Franny Armstrong. It really got people fired up about climate change and I had an epiphany about the power of film to move people to action. San Francisco is at the forefront of environmental thinking and is also a city where audiences love independent film, so I thought film would be a great way to engage people in the cause. A year later we founded the San Francisco Green Film Festival.

Has seeing so many films over the past seven years impacted how you lead your personal life?

I was quite environmental even before launching the festival. I’m a vegetarian, I’ve never owned a car. I own a good pair of walking shoes and a Clipper card, which get me pretty much everywhere I need to go. I’ve always been mindful of treading lightly on the Earth.

There are so many environmental issues. How do you choose what to fight for?

I think you just have to find one thing you feel passionate about it, and hold onto it for dear life. My big passion has been this film festival. You can’t do everything, but you can do one thing well.

Is there a particular issue that is close to your heart?

Food is an issue I care very much about; it’s connected to justice, animal welfare, land use, labor, sustainability. It’s a main theme of the festival this year. We want people to question what’s on their plate and how it got there. Every plate of food has a story, and if it’s an empty plate, that’s a story as well.

This year’s festival has a certain political thrust with its First 100 Days program, a lead-up to the festival April 20-26. Is this a response to the Trump administration?

Our work with the Green Film Festival has always been to challenge our leaders, in business, in government and elsewhere, and to call them out on their environmental actions or lack thereof. This is just a continuation of that. But there are obviously great concerns right now, with the threats to the Paris Agreement, the Clean Power Plan, the EPA. So we created the Green Film Guide to spur the conversations. Each week since Jan. 21, we’ve been putting a different film online; if you watch them, you’ll be well-primed to understand what is happening with the new White House administration.

One thing the environmental movement has demonstrated is that solutions require global cooperation. Yet that concept is facing severe stresses right now, from wars, migrations and the growing trend of national protectionism. How is your work affected?

We’re part of the international Green Film Network and have members on every continent. We work with those partners to share ideas and information, and several of them will be traveling to San Francisco this year to present their films and serve on juries. It’s a very international, cross-cultural effort, and that will continue. Thankfully, cinema has no walls and no borders. It is truly universal.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.