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Inspiring Sustainability Through Storytelling

Do you ever catch yourself binge-watching a TV show, wanting to snuggle in bed and watch movies on a mindless day off?  Entertainment is valued in our society because it evokes imagination and allows us to decompress from the daily grind. However, Ethereal Films is flipping the script on the way we pass time, providing enriching documentaries to help people understand pertinent environmental problems. Ethereal Films’ founder, Elijah Yetter-Bowman, tries to identify critical stories that connect the dots between environmental factors and disease, with the intention that the showcased information will inspire change.

“A story is as valuable as what it does for people. We want to be able to measure the outcome in a meaningful way, and that’s what differentiates us from other storytelling companies.”

— Elijah Yetter-Bowman

The roots

Yetter-Bowman became passionate about public health crises and also storytelling through his studies at the University of North CarolinaYetter-Bowman recognized the need for accessible stories that shed light on common issues that often go unnoticed by general society. While a chemist and pre-med student, he became a visual storyteller because he understood science, he now maintains connections with video artists, audio technicians, producers, and scientists from previous work.

For example, one issue that has greatly affected his own community is the forever chemicals called PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) which contaminate our water sources and are nearly impossible to break down. These chemicals are infused in water resources all over the world, including Yetter-Bowman’s local area. The Cape Fear River, from which 20% of North Carolinians source their water, is saturated in PFAS.  Growing up in the Cape Fear River Basin,  he was passionate about water quality issues, understood the affected communities, and felt he could communicate the problem  in a compelling way. He spoke to researchers and professors who might be knowledgeable about this issue and drawing on his previous workin media, he strived to convey the information in an intellectual yet personal way that lands for all viewers.   With his passions, skills, and academic background combined, Yetter-Bowman began the production of GenX: The Saga of Forever Chemicals. But start-up costs weighed heavily, and Yetter-Bowman was working three jobs to fund his dream. Through pitching his idea, he found a retired physician who believed in his works and donated an unexpected sum of seed money to get the film rolling. This premier film shares insights about what may be one of the worst environmental crisis in history.  It is still in the works and is planned for release next year.

Meanwhile, , Yetter-Bowman has produced the documentaries Angel of Alabama and Burned in addition to the mini-docuseries, “Living in a Pandemic.” Making Ethereal Films a legitimate hybrid space for the arts and sciences.

Community impact

Ethereal Films’ goal is to go beyond a good story and to effect change and behavior, making a  systemic iimpact. Five years ago, when Ethereal Films was just starting out, Yetter-Bowman was pleading to get people to listen to the stories about environmental problems and injustices. Now, people are pleading to hear the stories and are craving more enriching content than mindless entertainment. Yetter-Bowman hopes his viewers are prompted to ask the question: “How can I interface with another discipline or field of work?” Philosophical conversations are sprouted about what it means to learn from others and work together toward a solution, promoting collective wisdom. Through working together in community, we find that every person has more in common than their differences, and the common denominator is that we all share this planet. This style of storytelling requires understanding of people’s motivations and moral parameters for doing things with the goal to evoke action.

Beyond its own film productions, Ethereal Films collaborates on community events for engagement. Recently, the company enrolled local businesses to donate raffle prizes to the 2022 National PFAS Conference hosted in Wilmington, North Carolina, USA to bring a sense of excitement to the event. Yetter-Bowman also donated footage of key speakers at the podium, offering content to those who could not attend in person.           

Etherial Films are currently offered as screenings in high schools and universities to support professors who teach public health and environmental science courses. Students who gain exposure to the content are influenced to understand the consequences of climate change and environmental crises.

Regarding community impact, Ethereal Films prioritizes supporting the communities that are featured in their films based on an environmental equity model. Yetter-Bowman expresses that it is imperative to compensate their featured stars for reliving their trauma caused by environmental threats, as his company did with with Brenda Hampton, whose story was told in  Angel of Alabama.

Combining science and social impact

Yetter-Bowman’s passion for public health and serving the community through science is the core of the  social impact elicited through his works. While scientists sometimes struggle to communicate to stakeholders, Ethereal Films helps to convey their research through a clear message to the community, government officials, and politicians.

Going beyond the spotlighting problems, the films offer possible solutions which have the potential to be addressed through legislation. In many cases, people in positions of power are simply ignorant of the gravity of environmental issues, so the films provide both a primer of a threat and a foundation for action.  One hope is that the proof of negative impacts told through these stories will inspire decision makers to strengthen environmental and public health policy, 

In GenX: The Saga of Forever Chemicals, attorney Rob Bilott is featured in his fight against major corporations, including Dupont, to take responsibility for their reckless  disposal of chemicals, contaminating  ground and surface waters.

Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) board members have partnered with Ethereal Films as investors in major productions since the messages delivered are directly in alignment with the cases their organization is fighting. Ethereal Films’ documentaries encourage municipalities to take action and create laws for public health that will protect future generations from environmental threats.

Behind the scenes

A common model for media groups is to produce movies that will make a lot of money. Yetter-Bowman’s business model is to partner with nonprofit organizations and foundations that have common goals based on the nexus between public health and the environmental , working with the resources that these institutions offer such as grants and funding partnerships.

However, it is vital that social issue stories maintain integrity, so Ethereal Films “keeps the lights on” with institutional events, educational features, and screenings for museums and schools. Yetter-Bowman is also contracted as a freelance firm by individual organizations to do one-off projects from which the profits help to fund Ethereal Film’s major productions.

One particularly exciting moment in the evolution of Etherial Films was when they worked  with Ray Ellis, founder of Footpath Pictures, who brought decades of experience as a cinematographer to the collaboration. Ellis generously signed on entirely pro bono to take the production of GenX: The Saga of Forever Chemicals to a level that money couldn’t buy.

While Yetter-Bowman has proven himself as an innovative environmental entrepreneur, his work would not have come to fruition in the way that it has without the contributions from others, and he gratefully acknowledges the gifts of time, expertise, and/or money of notable collaborators and partners who have helped validate the importance of the work of Ethereal Films, including   

Rob Balatz; Dr. Linda Burnbomb, NIIHS scientist; Josh Stein, NC Attorney General;  and Kemp Burdette and Dana Sargeant, Cape Fear River Keeper and Executive Director, respectively. 

Get a sneak peek of the production stills,  get updates, and watch the trailer for GenX: The Saga of Forever Chemicals, here.

For more information about what Ethereal Films has in the works, visit https://etherealfilms.org/.

All images sourced from https://etherealfilms.org/

Heather Hough
Author: Heather Hough

I am a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in Environmental Studies - Sustainability Track with a minor in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. My passions include leading communities to understand their environmental impact and contributing to a healed world through innovative ideas. With an entrepreneurial mindset, I am keen on taking initiative and exploring all possibilities for innovation to lead to a better world.

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