This is the story of an incredible partnership that almost didn’t happen: How one serendipitous decision made it possible for the Brazilian movie company Duo2 to connect with Rainforest Partnership at SXSW 2017, a powerful partnership that reached a new pinnacle this week with the release of the new documentary Forest People.    

Plans. In life, we’re constantly advised to make and use them. Have a plan for your education, your career, your finances, your future. Run a business? Develop a business plan, a financial plan, a strategic plan, a project plan, game plan. Plans are a part of our lives and thinking.

This is what can happen when you let life get in the way of a perfectly good plan:

When you register for SXSW, it’s only natural to apply that “make a plan, work the plan” mindset. It’s a multi-topic, hyper-experiential, sensory overloading, networking, technology, multimedia, news-breaking and news making, experience that literally creates its own mini-city and redraws the map of part of downtown Austin around the clock constantly for almost 2 weeks. Trying to navigate this immersive installation to find the “best” sessions, experiences, people, and swag demands maps, apps, and plans.

Or does it?

I’m a strategic planner, wired to create order out of chaos, design plans that set goals and help achieve them. SXSW should be the textbook case for setting objectives for knowledge and connections and building the detailed plan to make it happen. Because if you don’t, you might get distracted by the pop-up installation with a fully working carnival, or a session with the cast of Silicon Valley, or the zoomy dance moves of a 20+ foot tall robot with incredible eyelashes, or by the amazing people you’ll stand next to in line for a taco, and not make it to all the sessions and happy hours you mapped out. You risk not being able to post #SXSWgoals.

But I’m here to tell you–to promise you–that if you adhere rigidly to the plan, you’re going to miss out on the amazing power of SXSW to make and accelerate connections, relationships and understanding that can get you further than you expected. 

This is what can happen when you’re open to the power of the unexpected.

It’s the story of how Rainforest Partnership went to SXSW 2017 and came away with an amazing connection to Brazilian movie producers Duo2: to two filmmakers who are now part of our extended family, and a partnership for a film making its North American debut at Climate Week NYC 2020 on September 26th.

Travel back with me now to March 2017: Rainforest Partnership is in full blown prep mode for SXSW 2017. It is days before the debut community screening of Films for the Forest, Rainforest Partnership’s international film challenge. SXSW is a long time partner whose Community Screenings provide an amazing platform for our participating filmmakers, and for Rainforest Partnership by access to this unique nexus-creating event. 

This was my second SXSW, and I was working on my plan. I’d done my first one with no notice, no idea what I was getting into, the wrong shoes, the wrong clothes, and trailed CEO Niyanta Spelman through the week. I left with the fixed idea that next year I would conquer the SXSW experience better and solo by planning. I had the right shoes (absolutely essential), better clothes (for Austin’s March temperature swings!), and now I’d build my plan. 

I’d downloaded the SXSW Go app, and avidly browsed sessions. Keynote here. Panel there. This happy hour. That open house. Starring this one. Blowing past that one. I quickly had the days populated, with room left for going to a few installations. I was on the path to structured and planned SXSW success.

That’s when I ran up against a pivotal question: whether or not to fill out my profile. Social media and I aren’t a thing, and I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about filling out the profile details.  Ultimately, I filled it out and made it public to the community of SXSW attendees. It was the most important SXSW decision I ever made. (Yes, even more important than visiting the world’s largest cheese board. Twice.)

It wasn’t long before I got a message through SXSW Social that someone wanted to connect. Someone named Rafa Calil, from Brazil, a filmmaker who wanted to meet with Rainforest Partnership to talk about a documentary he and his production company were producing. A couple of messages later, Niyanta and I were scheduled to meet with him and his partner at the BeBrasil pavilion at the SXSW Trade Show.  

Shock. Amazement. Disequilibria. Tension. Excitement.   

This wasn’t planned. Screw the plan. It was time to let the flow of SXSW take over. 

It’s like those meet-cutes in rom-coms:  When Rainforest Partnership met Duo2

Meeting day: We navigate the bustling exhibition floor to the BeBrasil space, and check in for the meeting. I’m wrapped in nervous anticipation, because I have no idea what’s coming next. 

And then Rafa and his partner Tito Sabatini arrive, with smiles as radiant as the sun in Sao Paulo and with that, the entire vibe changes. We’ve never met, but there’s a connection.   

Rafa Calil.

We’re led to a meeting room not much larger than a coat closet, with four stools and a small table. We’ve got less than an hour before we lose the room, and a lot to cover. We make quick work of introductions, and move to the heart of the conversation: an overview of their film that honors the life and legacy of renowned rainforest activist Chico Mendes through the ongoing activist narratives of his rainforest community almost 30 years since his assassination. 

They whip out a laptop and one set of ear phones–Niyanta and I share them as Rafa runs a trailer for us on the laptop. Halfway through this short piece, we look at each other, blown away by what we’ve seen. Without words, we both know we want to be connected to this incredible yet-unfinished visual storytelling. 

This film is about Chico Mendes, and the glorious rainforest he lived and died to protect. The storytelling is both compelling and enticing. They’re weaving in technology in ways that enhance the storytelling–innovating to upgrade the quality of decades old archival newsreel footage by projecting it onto the forest and capturing that imagery in high definition. Most importantly, this film is about today’s Forest People: those who still call it home and who take on the challenge of protecting it day in and day out as they have for the decades since Chico’s death.

They’re looking for an NGO doing meaningful work in the Amazon rainforest to partner with them on this film. They found us. They want us to be that partner.  And if that wasn’t enough, they offer additional enticements: fresh Brazil nuts. They’re delicious.  And they’re precious, because they’re from that rainforest community.

We’re hooked. On the Brazil nuts. On the movie. On Rafa and Tito. And we agree to partner, and to figure out the rest of the details in the days to come. I cannot recall a time before or since that we agreed to partner as quickly. 3 ½ years later, we are still so glad we did.

The power of the serendipitous decision revealed

Among my questions in that first conversation: how did you find us? And the answer was:  through your profile on SXSW Social. Then they looked us up, found out more about us before messaging me. But if not for that decision to fill out my profile and to make it public, we would not have connected.  

Since then, Rafa and Tito made return trips to the community to expand and refine the stories, made more important by changes in Brazil’s government, and the devastating impacts from their rainforest policies and action. For our part, we’ve worked together to raise the profile of the film, showcasing it through Films for the Forest, on a panel at SXSW, a video interview, and more. We’ve offered feedback on rough cuts of the film, as we’ve been privileged to see it evolve.   

Over the years, we’ve deepened our relationship with Rafa and Tito. Dinners at Niyanta’s house; dancing at the BeBrasil house; emails and WhatsApps about life, family and cachaca. The film is important, the friendships forever.

And now, the film has debuted in Brazil, and is about to make it’s North American Premiere as Rainforest Partnership’s final event at Climate Week NYC 2020.  It’s been an amazing journey, one that isn’t over, simply moving to a new phase. And we will stay connected to Rafa, Tito and the Duo2 team going forward, not only because there is so much rich potential ahead in the work we can do together, but because we look forward to the joy of being together when we meet next for dinner, caphirinas and dancing.  

SXSW made this possible. Being open to the unexpected made this possible. Make room in your plans for the power of serendipity. And join us at the North American premiere of Forest People, tomorrow night at 7 pm Eastern Time.”