Electric Dreams & Parenting at the RVA Environmental Film Festival


As I walked down the sunny sidewalk by the Carrilon in beautiful springtime after watching a 2-year-old NOVA special on electric airplanes at the RVA Environmental Film Festival, I couldn’t shake this vague feeling of being unsettled. You know that feeling you get after a college party where you might have overshared or had a strange experience that you regret the next day? It was like that, and I wished I could just be an amoeba squishmallow and suck up all the things I said. I mean, it’s not like it’s a real anxiety, right? Just some recreational anxiety that I can shelve and move on from, unlike the necessary anxieties about grades and success.

Well, there was some remnant of that in me as I walked away from the festival after parting ways with my son and his dad. We did a rare outing together which I know was great for all of us. And he was the only kid there, and the first two minutes of the movie were fires, smog and flattened cities and the repetition of the phrase “environmental emergency.” Am I putting unnecessary stress on my 8-year-old? The rest of the film was very uplifting (literally,) and exciting. Technological advancement vs. threat to humanity. Despite our self-inflicted threat to the ecosystem, progress, advancement, we still believe in our selves! It wasn’t so bad for a kid to hear, and really, when I was a kid, I loved watching these exciting specials with my family on Sunday evenings. This or the nature channel. Drama and survival. Plus cookies were served.

The age-appropriateness of the film wasn’t the main issue that troubled me as I left the cinema. And in all fairness, I knew what to expect, because, due to a conflict, we didn’t attend the “kid film” The Lorax, but I did choose carefully which topics I thought he would enjoy. We caught two films from the main event. Again, we were greeted with doom-tidings, fires, nuclear pollution and yet promises of hope from David Attenborough. And while I joked to myself that it was WAY too early in the morning for the emotional roller-coaster, my son and I had a rare outing, with the unplanned surprise of popcorn, soda and candy for breakfast.

And there was drama! We dropped one of our soda cans and had to go hunting in the aisles between the two flicks and we unexpectedly learned a little bit about bee sex — CRINGE! However, there was also a beautiful street of shopping, and we saw rosy people selling girl scout cookies and paintings on the street, despite the biting, windy weather. In short, we had a fun day out.

In reality, I had to drag us out there with my last bit of determined strength, and I even nodded off in my chair at the end of the movie. My son was tickled and took it upon himself to hit my shoulder and wake me up. I needed it.  

As I walked alone after the event, I found myself grappling with a parenting anxiety that I tend to approach with humor and irony these days. We had watched a film and participated in discussions that reminded me of the types of experiences I had with my family as a child. It made me wonder, was it appropriate? It took me back to my college years and the awkwardness of experiencing new situations with strangers. I remember being skeptical and unsure, but I also learned to find my way and become more secure in unfamiliar settings.

And having that experience with my son felt like a moment of growth for us. It was inspiring to be a part of a community of concerned and focused individuals discussing the anxieties surrounding the progress of the electric transportation industry. We asked ourselves if it was a wise investment, if it would be enough, and if it was even worth trying when it’s not a perfect solution. The discussion leader did a great job of facilitating a thoughtful conversation.

ed. note: The “Great Electric Airplane Race” was showing at the RVA Environmental Film Festival on Sunday, March 19, 2023, from 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond (MAP). This one-hour special from NOVA showcased a range of exciting new electric aircraft, including impressive prototypes that are already in the air with a Q&A session led by Charles Gerena and some light refreshments, like cookies!

As we tried to face our doubts as a collective group, we observed that capitalism and war seem to be stronger motivators for change than just “being green.” We didn’t discuss the bent of this special, The Great American Airplane Race — that the growing electric industry is a fresh start for a new generation to define themselves, that there is a positive environment and room for cultural advancements hallmarked by innovators who are people of color. After viewing, I found an article that discusses the importance of “stewardship of used EV batteries,” when current laws in place aid advancements in this field without mandating recycling. I like the word stewardship. I think it cuts through a lot of noise – it makes sense and applies well to batteries, environmentalism and life.

The state’s balk on producing a Ford EV Manufacturing plant only gives more constituents the opportunity to engage with discussions and decide the best route for our state to take in meeting the future of electric and automated transportation. A federal package passed in November will make sure EV technology is accessible in underserved areas, including tribal lands, and Space X transported the first Native American Astronaut to carry out research on the space station. With Spring approaching I have been counting the Teslas budding out, and at the film festival, I was so glad to hear from other community-members who are just as cautious and critically interested in the subject as me.  

As I made my way home, I decided to take the quieter route by crossing the Nickel Bridge and heading towards Powhite. During my ride, I found myself cruising alongside an e-bike, which eventually picked up its own dedicated bike lane. It was interesting how the lecture I had just attended seemed to be following me into my real world experience. The e-bike was able to maintain a speed of about 25-30mph, and the rider was effortlessly pedaling to help the bike up the hills. I noticed the license plate on the bike said something about “loving to fly”. It was different from the e-bikes I had imagined, which usually look like mopeds with small wheels and a low center of gravity, often found on countryside tours or sidewalks. This one was smaller, nimble-looking, and quieter than a motorcycle, but still had to navigate the gritty roadway and car exhaust as we rode over the coal train tracks.

Although e-biking has become a popular mode of transportation, it may not be a feasible option for those who need to commute to work with a suit. Despite losing the sparkle, e-bikers are still susceptible to various potential road and weather hazards. At the film festival, safety concerns were raised about the low noise level of electric cars and bikes, which no longer signal their presence to other vehicles. While the installation of bike lanes has improved safety and efficiency for the cycling community, intersections without such infrastructure hinder progress, forcing riders to exercise extreme caution by pausing and looking both ways.

In the airplane movie, my son and his father were most fascinated by a “Mad-Max” wind-stress test conducted on an electric battery engine mounted on a mac truck cab in the middle of a desert flatland. Will all experiments be successful? Will small electric planes be a part of our future? Do the small contributions of each of these varied unique models add up to anything? The film provides a comprehensive perspective and illustrates how incremental advancements in the industry, ranging from failures to outlandish flying “coffins,” as well as progress in mapping technology, all contribute to the industry’s overall progress. As I walked home, I reminded myself that this progress is not achieved through magic, but rather through these small but significant efforts.

During the festival discussion, I discovered that solar power now fuels the Richmond City power grid more than coal. However, as I drove over the Nickel Bridge, I saw a long line of coal train cars on a track along the riverbank, which was a familiar sight. While we all strive for a perfect solution to our problems, it’s important to come together for discussions and participate in solution and policy-making. Even acknowledging things that I don’t think about every day, such as the toxic impact of airplanes landing near communities, can lead to fruitful discussions. The discussion felt like a continuation of my education and the beginning of my son’s education. Despite feeling exhausted due to parenting and spring allergies, I attended the lecture and participated. I realized that I could still go, listen, and learn, and I am grateful for the experience.

Congratulations to Brandon Davis and his documentary, Coal Blooded, which won at the Environmental Film Festival in Richmond this year. The film sheds light on the negative impact of coal on community health in Newport News, and Davis created it out of his passion for service work. Thanks again for a great festival!

Follow The RVA Environmental Film Festival @rvaeff

Kieran Cleary

Kieran Cleary

Kieran Cleary: works at a Taekwondo school in Midlothian. Co-writes a music blog, All Apologies. Graduated from The College of William & Mary, BA English, 2014. Volunteers for the RVA Environmental Film Festival. Likes to play bike polo and go on long walks and adventures.

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