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Huntington Beach Film Festival documentary looks into challenges of maintaining the host city’s parks

Huntington Beach resident Matt Hanlon, 26, debuts his 20-minute documentary “Saving Green” at the Huntington Beach Film Festival, Saturday, Feb. 24. (Photo courtesy Matt Hanlon)Jean Nagy, founder of the Huntington Beach Tree Society, is profiled in “Saving Green,” a documentary about volunteers who have fought to keep up city parks for 20 years. The movie debuts Saturday, Feb. 24 at the Huntington Beach Film Festival. (Photo courtesy Matt Hanlon)A former journalist, Matt Hanlon incorporated news information, such as a graph detailing spending on parks to illustrate the plight of Huntington Beach Parks in his documentary film, “Saving Green,” debuting at the Huntington Beach Film Festival, Saturday, Feb. 24. (Photo courtesy Matt Hanlon)Homelessness in Huntington Beach parks is among the topics addressed in a new documnetary, “Saving Green,” a film by Matt Hanlon that debuts at the Huntington Beach Film Festival, Feb, 24. (Photo courtesy Matt Hanlon)Leslie Gilson, aka the “Butterfly Lady,” is among the hearty group of volunteers who have helped bring back a number of neglected park areas, including Norma Gibbs Park. She is among a group of volunteers profiled in “Saving Green,” a documentary film by Matt Hanlon about saving and maintaining park in Huntington Beach in a time of declining budgets, which debuts Saturday, February 24 in Huntington Beach. (Photo courtesy Matt Hanlon)Cheryl Johnson, is among the volunteers in “Saving Green,” a documentary by Matt Hanlon, about efforts by volunteer groups, to save and maintain parks in Huntington Beach. The film debuts at the three-day Huntington Beach Film Festival, Saturday, Feb. 24. (Photo courtesy Matt Hanlon)Central Park in Huntington Beach, thanks in part to a group of volunteers with HB Trees, remains a sanctuary for runners and walkers, and is featured in the documentary “Saving Green,” by Matt Hanlon, and debuts at the Hungtington Beach Film Festival, Saturday, Feb. 24 at the Central Library Theater. (Photo courtesy Matt Hanlon)Show Caption of Expand
One of the benefits of small independent film festivals is their ability to let local people tell local stories.
In that way, filmmaker Matt Hanlon and his 20-minute documentary “Saving Green: The Story of a City’s Parks,” are perfect examples. Hanlon, 26, debuts his film, Saturday, Feb. 24 at the three-day Huntington Beach Film Festival.
Not only is the storyteller local, but the documentary is, in Hanlon’s words “hyper-local,” telling the story of the volunteers of the HB Tree Society, most of whom are seniors, and their long-term efforts to clean up and keep up Central Park and the city’s more than 70 parks and 753 acres of park land.
It is also about their resolve in making City Hall listen to their pleas to assist them in their efforts.
In this sense, Hanlon said of the movie, “It was a refreshing reminder of what politics can be,” referring to the society’s doggedness in being heard and noticed by leadership.
Since Hanlon wrapped his film in December, the city has agreed to embark on an assessment of park equipment in the wake of a Clean Our Parks petition which drew 1,000 signatures. A subcommittee has been created allowing volunteers and park supporters to speak with Community Services and Public Works about park issues.
They also have the ear of Councilwoman Barbara DelGleize, who made parks a focus of her year-long tenure as mayor in 2017.
“We’ve fought tooth and nail to be heard, for parks to be heard,” says Shari Engel, a volunteer with the group, about dealing with city government.
Over the years, the Tree Society has succeeded in rescuing places like the Shipley Nature Center, the Secret Garden in Central Park and Gibbs Park from overgrown weed patches and transformed them into bucolic gems. They have done it with little financial help from the city, although they have succeeded in creating awareness about their work.
A former reporter with the Orange County Register, Hanlon brings his journalist’s eye to his project, from the history of the parks in the city, through the governmental structures that oversee it.
His film notes that while the city has more parkland than any other city in Orange County, Huntington Beach ranks 10th in overall spending in the county on parks and 25th in per capita spending.
According to DelGleize, Irvine, which has similar acres of parkland, spends more than seven times what Huntington Beach budgets. She says she plans to work with Mari Knight, the incoming director of Community Services, to find dedicated annual funding for park upkeep.
In 2001-02, Huntington Beach spent more than $150 per capita, or more than triple the state average. The city slipped to half the state average in 2013-14, according to the documentary. During budget cuts, the city staff dedicated to parks was eliminated. Maintenance was taken over by public works which must contend with pressing concerns such as street repairs and degradation of playground equipment. Private contractors, so-called “mow and blowers,” keep up the park but according to advocates do not provide the upkeep such as weeding that has fallen to volunteers.
DelGleize, who took on advocacy of parks as a major focus during her stint as mayor, says cleaning and maintaining parks are a “passion” for her and have been for many years, ever since she tried to run through a weed-clogged Shipley Nature Center, before Jean Nagy, who started the Tree Society in 1998, and others cleaned it up.
Hanlon spent seven to eight months doing interviews and public records’ searches for “Saving Green,” while working at his full-time job at Threaded Films, a boutique studio in Ladera Ranch.
“I always associated the beach with Huntington Beach’s open space,” said Hanlon, a native of Petaluma and a 2013 graduate of the University of Oregon. “It was cool to dive into where I live and see what makes it the way it is.”
In addition to providing much information, like the best documentaries “Saving Green” is a story about people.
It is about Nagy, aka “The Tree Lady,” and about Leslie Gilson, the “Butterfly Lady” and caretaker of Gibbs Park, a noted haven for monarch butterflies and other flutterers.
It is about volunteers like Juana Mueller, Cheryl Johnson and Dave and Shari Engel, who helped resurrect the Secret Garden.
The park supporters have been successful recruiting civic and youth groups to help with clean-ups and many Boy Scouts have earned Eagle badges working on the park. But it is a neverending process.
Although volunteers and supporters of the parks have made great strides, they wonder what happens when the feisty senior leadership steps aside.
“Total effort throughout Central Park needs to continue,” Shari Engel says in the film. “That’s the part I worry about — how do we make sure that happens — and I’m not sure I have the answer to that one.”

If you go
What: Huntington Beach Film Festival
When: Thursday, Feb. 22-Saturday, Feb, 24 (“Saving Green: The Story of a City’s Parks” is part of a block of seven local shorts starting at 4 p.m. Feb. 24)
Tickets: $2:50-$50
Source: Oc Register

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