Good day everyone!
As you have seen on our social media websites we have launched our Community Pilot Podcast! On the first episode we have Evgenia Emets to share her story. We decided to make a transcript of the whole episode as well. You can find it below, keep reading!
Sergey: Welcome to the Community Pilot Podcast, with me Sergey Generalov. On the show we invite community leaders to share their experience and reveal the insights of community building through their inspiring stories. Today Evgenia Emets is here to share her story. Evgenia is a multidisciplinary artist and poet who turned into community builder to solve the deforestation problem in Portugal. In this story she shares her dream of creating an international village set in nature. You will hear how art can help with community building and get to know about the power of networks. She talks about her experience of dealing with situations when your funding gets rejected and how to manage your community with a limited budget. Her goal is to “make the voices of common people heard” through a film and a series of panel discussions as a part of her Eternal Forest project where art made people act on their emotions. Evgenia, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show today! Thank you so much for joining me.
Evgenia: Thank you so much for the invitation. It’s a pleasure for me.
Sergey: I want to get started today by asking - how did you make your way from an artist in the USSR to a community builder in Portugal and founded the Eternal Forest project?
Evgenia: Thank you, Sergey, for the question. So I’ve been already living in London since 2007 and the reason why I moved to the UK is because I wanted to focus on my art and wanted to explore, and research, and experiment which I did. I spent over 10 years in London where I also met my future husband Victor and we made a decision to move to Portugal. There are many different reasons for this but one main reason is our common dream. The dream that we share together and this is the dream of creating a village which is creative, which is international, which is set in nature. And after doing some research we realized that Portugal is a really good place to go, it was also calling us. We already had some friends and some connections there and we visited a few times. And basically we didn’t really think too long, we already knew that we wanted to leave the big city, we were ready for that. And so we made our move after being for three years together. We arrived in the end of 2017 in Portugal. And then what happened is while we were going back and forth and we were meeting new people there was this moment that we started noticing that while driving across Portugal again and again we started noticing that there is this landscape that is very persistent, very vast, very big - the landscape of monocultures of eucalyptus. And we also attended one event which was called “Reflorestar” it’s a movement that is based in Portugal and it was the first meeting of “Reflorestar” with probably about 80 to 90 people in the same room spending three days together to think how they can through process of collaboration and cooperation tackle this issue. Because the the problem of monocultures in Portugal is associated with massive deforestation, a lot of pressure on the land and, of course, a lot of fires. Plus what they called a desertification, human desertification which is in other words exodus from the country and either to the coast, to the big cities or just people living abroad. And it’s a very, very complex problem. So when I was present at this meeting I was just an observer back then. It was about two years ago, and there was this World Cafe situation where people proposed some ideas to think about and somebody proposed to think how art and culture can help with this issue. And so I went to this group and we were sitting and thinking together and it was very emotional because a lot of people who were sitting in the circle either lost the land in the fires or their friends lost land, so I saw a man basically crying in the room. And of course, there was a lot of conversation about how we can start planting trees everywhere, we need to start doing something. And of course, planting trees is a great idea and there are a lot of people doing this here as much as around the world where there is a problem of deforestation. However, I started thinking so maybe it’s only part of the answer to this problem, only part of solution. And my idea was that I wanted to go and to hear the voice of the people who live in forests or next to the forests, who live with a land. So this is how Eternal Forest project started. It started with this simple motivation to make the voice of common people heard.
Sergey: So as I understand, Eternal Forest project is a film, right? It’s a movie about different people, you went to talk, take interviews from those people. And what inspired you to make a film about this I understand but how did you approach it? Where did you find the money, where did you get all the equipment to do this?
Evgenia: So my approach was very simple. There is such a thing that exists for artists, of course, you can always go and just do the research yourself but what I did in my case is I applied for an art residency. Art residences they exist all around the world and there are different types of art residences. But basically it’s a space which offers you time and studio and a community to think about the specific issue and to work on a specific project. And I was lucky because I managed to find an art residency which was based directly near Góis. It’s an area in central Portugal, it’s a small village. The art residence is “RAIZVANGUARDA”. It’s a really, really beautiful location, it’s based in the building of an old, probably a hundred year old primary school. And so I applied to this art residency with a proposal which had a few different aspects in mind that I wanted to explore. One of them was to connect with the local community and hold conversations with the people who live in the villages, in this particular village in this case. Then another one was by being inspired from these conversations to write a series of poetry which would then serve the basis for visual works. And the third aspect was to try to find a forest and a natural forest or something that we could actually call a forest. So when the application went through I did actually apply for some grants and for some funding. But unfortunately it was a very, very tight timeline and all the funding wasn’t successful. I just had to go and do it and I had only a couple of contacts when I went there. When I arrived I immediately started connecting with the local people, with the local community and it was just like Telegraph - so I connected with one person and he told me to go and talk to someone else and so it went. And in terms of the logistics and technical part basically Portugal is a really interesting place. It’s small enough that if you know just a few people then the community is already there for you. People are really open and they really want to help, especially when they see that you’re doing something interesting and they like your work. So I asked my teacher of Portuguese language who actually used to be based in that area and she left after the fires because it’s a difficult life. It’s very difficult to live in countryside where you have this ecological pressure, but also where it’s very difficult to find work. So I asked her if she knows somebody who can hold the camera. And she gave me a contact of her friend Fernando who made the film with me. And so I contacted him and Fernando told me the story how he lost everything in the fire. How he lost the house, he lost all his equipment. He is a visual anthropologist and he literally saw his house burn down and he managed to escape, and he managed to drive away with just one backpack with the tripod and the camera which we actually used to make this film. So this is how everything happened. It was only one and a half months when everything was done. It was the film, the interviews, the editing, the poetry, the studio work, artworks, artist book and finally we did an exhibition in Góis. So everything was squeezed into this one and a half months. But it felt like really rich time in terms of connection with people and experience and getting in touch with the local community and really getting to know people and culture and learning the language as well.
Sergey: I love this story. Basically you applied for funds, you got rejected and then you went ahead and found the people in the community and they helped you. And this is amazing! It’s just such a great lesson for everyone not to be afraid to do something and ask for help because people will help and you will find like-minded people who are trying to build something and they will be inspired by your idea. So as I understand the initial idea of the Eternal Forest project is a film, right? You went ahead, you made the movie and then what was next? What did you do next after making the movie? How did you show it? You had no money, right? How did you show it to people?
Evgenia: So when I wanted or when I decided to try to make a film, by the way it’s my first film!
Sergey: Oh, congratulations!
Evgenia: Thank you. I didn’t really think too much what I was going to do with it and I thought that the way it usually works in the art world - you make a project whether it’s an installation, exhibition, it’s a film, it’s a series of visual works you show it once where you produce it or let’s say in a museum art center that is associated with this area. And then if there is interest in this project somebody else will ask for it to be shown and it will be exhibited again. But what happened actually with the film particularly and it proved to be really the best medium to communicate the story and to communicate the message that was coming across through this project. When I showed that first time somebody just mentioned why don’t you go and show it somewhere else? Why don’t you go and ask a couple of associations in Portugal, maybe you can show some in Lisbon and in Coimbra and in some villages that I around. And that’s what I did. I basically emailed and messaged on Facebook through my connections and just to people who I didn’t know at all. Everyone who I could find I messaged, told the museum sites, I was sending emails all June and July and I’m still doing it now. However, now I’m being approached by people already without necessarily reaching out so much. So what happened was one after another there were associations, organizations, libraries which suddenly wanted to make a screening of the film. And what I realized for myself it was a great opportunity to actually build my own community because it was my first year in Portugal and I realized that it was just a door opening. I decided I was going to try to go to each of the screening. Some of the screening were in the center of Portugal, than some of them were in Lisbon, then I organised a few in the South in Algarve and then we went to Porto and did a few there. It was continuing and then we showed in the National Library and then we had a really beautiful screening in Cinemateca Portuguesa, this is like Museum of cinema in Lisbon. And now I’m talking to more serious organisations which can also support not just the screenings and discussion with audience but also panel discussions. So after I’ve been showing the film probably 30 or 40 times in different locations…
Evgenia: Yes some ideas came up because what I saw was that every screening was very different because it depends on the audience that sitting in front of you and of course people’s reactions to the film, because the film is very emotional, people’s reactions are quite emotional. And you need to go through the layer of immediate response which in many ways could be: “well… government is not really doing anything or you know there is a sense of abandonment here… who’s gonna help…” So once you go through this layer then you can have a constructive conversation with people. What I realized is that it would be nice to do panel discussions where I could invite some specialists from different areas and I wanted to hear what people had to say from anthropology, philosophy, ecology, art, economics, and so on. I started inviting people to this panel discussion so we’ve done two so far and we are organizing the third one at the moment in Porto and we’re hoping that they will continue. And I’m also thinking how I can take this film further. But what it allowed me really to do is to build a database of let’s say five hundred people who are personally connected with the project because they are personally connected with me. They’ve seen it, they know how it is developing and I’m continuing to have conversations with them through my post, through my mailing list, through my mail out, through blogging, through my website and so on. And it’s really inspiring because people always send some recommendations, they always send you “Oh why don’t you talk to this organization? They should show your film because they feel more people should see it!”
Sergey: If you just went and showed the PowerPoint slides or just gave a talk people would react not that emotionally, right? I guess, art plays a role where it brings, it shows, it forces people to show their emotions to react. You either love art or you hate it. You rarely stay neutral. Why do you think people reacted at your movie the way they did? Why do you think that as I understand a lot of people actually after the screening came to you and started to talk to you and ask you for either help or give you advice? Why do you think is that, is it related to your project specifically, the problem… What?
Evgenia: So I think there is something about people sharing their stories and the way perhaps people in the film were invited to share their stories. I think this is very important because I actually never really worked with storytelling specifically or intentionally, it just happened this way in this particular situation. And I always think about the other aspects of this project. For example, when I did the series of visual works with this visual poetry and poems, of course, they also touch people in a particular way but I think they’re less accessible than the film. Those interviews they’re very open, people speak from their hearts. They’re people from the villages and the way they speak is very interesting and the way they express themselves, they really speak the truth. I think that space that these people are given to speak their truth from the heart is very important and I think it’s quite rare that we have that in our media because our media is very mediated and everything goes through filters. Here there is really no filter, of course, there is filter of me editing 10 hours of footage into 40 minutes and, of course, it’s me trying to convey specific message. However, people are really giving space to express what they feel, what they think, what they dream of. And I think it touches other people who sit in the audience because the problem is there and the problem is much bigger than just Portugal. I think it transfers and it transpires across borders because I’ve shown the film to Russian people, to Spanish people, to people from Northern Europe and they all understand that they can all connect with it. Because a) they can connect with the humanity that is coming through and b) they can connect with the question of the film, you know, what is the relationship that we have for the forest because this is really one of the biggest and deepest connections we do have. We have connection between the human beings and then we have that link between human beings and nature and I am even starting to think that perhaps that connection that we think between human and nature it’s like an illusionary thing because of course there is connection because we are part of nature but because we separate ourselves from it we now need to reinvent this connection and to start thinking about it again and feeling through it.
Sergey: During your discussion right now you told me that you start to move this from Portugal, beyond Portugal, beyond the borders that the same problem exists in Portugal. It’s not just the movie anymore, right? So you’re doing the movie screenings, you’re doing the panel discussions with experts, people start to engage with you online as well. Like you are almost building the community around this movie right now. And what was this moment when you realized that it’s not just a movie anymore, it’s not just a panel discussion but you actually need to start building communities, helping people to find the solutions, create some projects? What was this moment when you realized that okay… it’s more than a film right now I need to do more?
Evgenia: Thank you for this question. It’s very hard to put my finger on the exact moment but I think probably from when I finished the project in June until about October, I think in October when I was at a specific screening in Monchique and then I gave an interview to the magazine Echo one two three also that are based in Monchique. They really supported the project. When I started noticing how other people are building local communities because without that it’s really impossible to resolve this situation and change, make a shift. So I started to ask myself how can I by doing what I’m doing, being an artist, continuing to work on Eternal Forest can help building that community, that it could be Portugal based communities, could be… I mean even the Portugal based community is very international now because the influx of international people who are coming here, who are settling, of course, at first in Lisbon and Porto but they’re also going to other areas in Portugal, they’re settling in villages and abandoned villages in the areas where they really want to have a different lifestyle but they also want to help. And I believe that film supports that because film allows people to see that there is already international community there, it is not just completely deserted area where everybody left. Because there is this idea, there is this illusion that comes also from the media that there is nothing, there is just the landscape, there is nothing that’s happening in the centre of Portugal. Then at some point I realised that Eternal Forest is not going to be finished this year, when okay, I’ve done 30-40 screenings… Where is, you know, where is the end of it? How long am I going to keep organising the screenings and how long will I be showing the film? And I realized that the whole process of showing the film again and again is transforming me and I’m trying to expand my thinking in terms of where I take this project further. And right now yes you’re totally right, it is about building the community but right now it’s more about building, bringing partners on board of this project so bringing organizations that work with art and ecology and this is number one. Organizations that work with ecosystem restoration with specific communities and which can help to look at this project from different perspectives, which can help me think about it and which I can help to perhaps facilitate and ignite some of the work that they do. Giving an example right now I’m thinking about creating a series of experiences in the forest and the local forests that are not far from where I am based. And this experiences I see as a possibility of bringing people into the forest but bringing them in a way that it won’t be a hike it won’t be just looking at the trees I would like them to really experience what it means being in silence and being with the forest and listening to their senses but also listening beyond their senses and internalizing this experience, to really feel what it means to be in a natural biodiverse forest and what is a real forest.
Sergey: It basically goes back to your point that you said earlier that we are a part of nature and we kind of right now separated from nature, we separate ourselves from nature but we are actually nature, a part of it. And you help people with this experience to feel this and to understand that we are not separated from nature we are in it, we are the same. Is it right?
Evgenia: Yes, because on the one hand we depend, we incredibly dependent on the whole ecosystem. And if the ecosystem goes out of balance because we are part of the ecosystem and we are literally breathing it and feeding from it, we of course are going to suffer. But then on the other hand being part of ecosystem also means that we are in charge not in the way that we on top of that system like the old school, kind of idea of human being on top of the whole chain and basically being like the king of the world. Not in this sense but in the sense that by being part of it and been in charge of it we have responsibility and we actually have this idea that we can approach it in a different way and we can transform our relationship with it. Which means that we can also transform the crisis that we are currently in. And this crisis is not just about the physical expressions which are concerned with water cycle, deforestation and what’s happening with the land but it is about how we perceive everything that surrounds us and everything that we literally standing on and everything that we are breathing. Because it feels like we’re a little bit at war with everything around but everything is part of us. So we cannot be at war because otherwise we basically at war with ourselves. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do this and this is going to be the first experience probably in April or May when it gets a little bit warmer but I would like to bring people into the forest and to let them undergo it and undergo this experience and see what happens.
Sergey: So basically as I understand you made a movie then you made a few panel discussions and you still continue to bring experts to this discussion and connect experts with local people, by the way, we will need to talk about that as well, and you’re also right now trying to find solutions around the problems of deforestation how to solve this. And this is one of the solution that you have just described. As I understand, you made 30-40 screenings this is because there is a diverse set of small communities around Portugal in rural areas in different neighborhoods, but you are alone, how do you make sure that your solutions get spread? How do you help people to adopt your solutions? What kind of work community builder, community leader can do?
Evgenia: I did think a lot about that in the end of last year and I wanted to apply for a specific fund in Portugal for sustainability and I had an idea of making a model for a workshop that then can be spread all around Portugal. And the model would be very simple. It would be facilitated, it would be held by people who understand circle work, and who understand community building, and who understand non-hierarchical principles of working together with different agents, let’s say, community members but also companies and municipality on board. And I really, really thought about it very well, I spoke to a lot of people who are now my friends, who I trust and everybody loved the idea. And then I stepped back and I decided “Oh no, I’m an artist I really need to do my work as opposed to become somebody who I am not”. So what I’m doing right now is I’m talking to a few people who might be interested in this kind of work solution driven. To activate communities to actually find the solutions by themselves while I am building the community. Because this is one of the biggest problems when we go to certain villages, there are places in Portugal where, yes, communities do exist and a lot of this due to the to the fact that there are also influx of international people who are going there and they’re trying to activate this community. However, there are a lot of places where the young generation left and the people who stay there they’re much older generations, for them it’s much more difficult to do specific work. They don’t have motivation anymore to get in the same room together and to start being active. My idea is that there will be people here who would be interested in taking this idea and taking this model of a workshop on board and I would be then helping them from a purely artistic point of view to create certain visual elements that will go with to perhaps see how we can communicate, decide the outcomes of this workshops better. But of course, this is a very long-term project , this is why when I think about Eternal Forest for me it’s really eternal because for me this is going to go as long as my life and this is why I am not so much in a rush to say “well this stage is over let’s jump to the next one”. For me it’s very important to understand how these things can be done better so that the long-term perspective is there, it’s accounted for. So when we draw the timeline of this project or let’s say the bigger project of reforestation all across Europe, we can say “can we think about thousand years?” and then thinking about thousand years “how can we put this idea inside communities so they can start thinking about two, three, four hundred years, about what the great-grandchildren are going to see?” And this is incredibly difficult to do because the problem is that people have been conditioned to think about what comes today and what comes tomorrow, what they’re gonna eat, which car they’re gonna drive and how many properties they’re going to have and which school their children will go to. But this is really a short-term thinking we need to start thinking in three, four or five hundred years at least. Because this is the lifetime of a small forest, a young forest. So if you want to do a big reforestation project which starts from the grassroots and then could blossom in specific places, could be some good examples and then people will pick it out because I hope it’s contagious, I hope that good ideas and realization of this ideas is contagious. And then ultimately the government will step in because the people I believe need to step up first and then the government will catch up.
Sergey: That’s a great note to wrap up our podcast, I think. I just love this story, I think that you’re doing an amazing job and I love that you just stopped and said that “I’m an artist, I need to start delegating, I need to bring more people to help me”. I think that’s a lesson for everyone. And now let me finish up with some questions. So I will just ask you one question and you give me a short answer, like 30 seconds or less. Are you ready?
Evgenia: Yes, okay.
Sergey: What book would you recommend me to read next?
Evgenia: In my mind there is a whole library of books that I’ve recently read. Okay, so can I choose two books?
Sergey: Of course, you can name as many as you like.
Evgenia: Okay, so the first book is I think if I’m not mistaken is by Peter Wohlleben “The hidden life of trees”. That’s my favorite book of the last year. And my favorite writer of this year and I have already read one book and I’m reading second one and picking the third one, is basically pick any book by Timothy Morton. He writes about our approach to ecology, environment and art as well. It’s absolutely fascinating. And the way he writes a lot of things it’s very interesting and he doesn’t take anything for granted. So the first book is about this new research that’s coming out, about really how the forest is and how the trees are and there is a fantastic film that goes with it. And the second one is very critical, so it’s about thinking how we think about things, how we see things.
Sergey: Great, I always want to try new books and probably put it in a list. It’s always helpful to read something that is out of your domain that just brings so many ideas in my head. Let me ask the next question - if somebody sees a problem like in their community in their country or in other country what would you say the first thing they need to do if they want to solve it? If they don’t know what to do. Somebody like me. I see the problem I don’t know what to do. What did lesson you learn that helped you and what would you recommend somebody to do in your situation if you were to do it again?
Evgenia: I think there could be different approaches but if it was me again and if I saw something in a specific country or a specific location I would really go and spend some time with people who live there. And ideally talk to people of different generations because they will have very different perspectives. The older people will have memory and will have the stories - oral tradition, which the younger generation maybe doesn’t have access to anymore, they don’t want to know, they reject for some reason. So you always need to try to tap into this collective memory and collective present and then ask people about their dream and that could be very problematic thing for people to talk about which was in my case, actually. But yes talk to the local community, spent some time with people in it. That would be my answer.
Sergey: I love that! Ask people about their problems, ask people about their dreams. It’s just amazing! And in your experience what is one or two most powerful tools that you used in your journey to build communities to talk to people, to organize them, to help them facilitate discussions.
Evgenia: Well in my particular case in the case with Eternal Forest I brought people to the forest because I was lucky - I found a very beautiful place which was abandoned as agricultural, old agricultural place and it became a forest. I just brought the whole community that I could gather into that forest and we had a really beautiful experience with them. And I think all of us will remember it, of course. And the second part is celebration which again was that particular moment because I think if you work with a community on a specific project during a specific period of time you have to have this moments where you get together and you just celebrate whatever it is. And you can, of course, co-create the whole celebration and in our case it was a wonderful picnic, everybody brought food, it was a wonderful day it was outside. We had both sensory, spiritual experience where I took people down to the river inside this wonderful magical place. But also people had a gathering and it was very special for them because they don’t do it anymore, they used to do a lot of that themselves but a lot of them told me that they stopped doing it. For them I think it was it was beautiful and for me of course it was a way of acknowledging their presence and their own work and acknowledging the community as it is.
Sergey: Evgenia, it was such a pleasure to have you on the show, you inspired me I will go this weekend to the forest, will spend a day there. It’s just amazing to hear your story and your journey! I hope to hear you on the next episodes.
Evgenia: Thank you so much, thank you!
Sergey: Thank you for listening to Community Pilot Podcast. You can also find upcoming episodes on YouTube, iTunes or SoundCloud. Please, subscribe there and stay tuned!
🌳 Show your support to Evgenia’s project! You can help Eternal Forest Project in the following ways:
➡️ Contribute to the gofundme campaign - to help raise funds to take the film to various locations across Portugal and help edit an extended version of the film https://www.gofundme.com/eternal-fore... and share the link with your friends.
➡️ Organize your own screening by contacting Evgenia firstname.lastname@example.org or suggest an organization where a screening could be held: a museum, an art gallery, a cinema, a community space.
➡️ Share the trailer online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H65Iy...
Evgenia Emets - https://www.facebook.com/evgenia.emets