It’s not every film festival that gets to point to an encyclical from the Pope as sort of an endorsement.

Not that Pope Francis plans to show up in Madison with a bucket of popcorn in hand at this year’s Tales from Planet Earth Environmental Film Festival. But he might like what the festival is doing, especially since the Pope issued an encyclical in June calling for an “ecological conversion” in the Catholic Church, touching on issues like water rights and climate change.

“Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” he wrote.

The Tales Film Festival, a biennial environmental film festival put on by the UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History and Environment, has been grappling with such issues for years. But this year’s theme of “belief” is especially timely.

“We joke about it, because we were planning this long before the Pope’s encyclical came out,” festival director Gregg Mitman said.

The festival takes place Friday through Sunday at several locations, including the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1208 W. Regent St., UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. For the first time, the festival is also partnering with Blackhawk Community Church to host events at its UpperHouse location, 365 Campus Mall. All events are free.

Mitman said the theme of belief grew out of a desire to broaden typical environmental debates.

“All of them have been largely framed through an economic or scientific or technological lens, and not really getting any traction,” Mitman said. “We don’t need any more data, for example, in terms of the reality of climate changes. One of the things that have been missing is the moral dimension.”

Mitman said there’s been an awakening in faiths across the globe about the need to engage with environmental issues, to becomes stewards of the planet rather than rulers. At the festival’s opening night roundtable (7 p.m. Friday, Marquee Theater) for example, the discussion will include Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist from Texas A&M who has become a leading spokesperson within the evangelical community; Godfrey Reggio, a former Roman Catholic clergyman turned filmmaker, and Mike Wiggins Jr., chairman of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Ojibwe. Hayhoe will also give the festival’s keynote speech at 7 p.m. Saturday at UpperHouse.

The festival includes films that touch on the Hindu, Christian and Buddhist traditions. One film, “Arctic Mosque” (7 p.m. Saturday, MMOCA) is a documentary about the northernmost mosque on the planet, while “Into Great Silence” (1:30 p.m. Saturday, Chazen Museum of Art) looks at monks in a French monastery.

But the theme of “belief” in the festival extends beyond just religion, Mitman said, as the film looks at belief derived from science and self-awareness as well.

Other films in the festival include:

Koyaanisqatsi” (1 p.m. Saturday, Marquee Theater), Reggio’s landmark film that mixes images of the natural world with images of modern industrialized society.

Toxic: Amazon” and “I Am Chut Wutty” (2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday, MMOCA) – Both of these documentaries look at environmental martyrs who died fighting for their causes. The directors will be in attendance for both films.

Walking the Camino” (3:30 p.m. Sunday, UW Cinematheque) – This poignant documentary looks at the pilgrims who have undertaken a famous 500-mile walk across Spain to a religious shrine.

Merchants of Doubt” (7:30 p.m., Sunday, Marquee Theater) – This documentary looks at the cottage industry of climate change denialists, often backed by corporate interests, who distort and obfuscate the facts in order to delay action.

While some environmental documentaries have been accused of “preaching to the choir,” Mitman said Tales has strived since its start in 2007 to appeal to a broader audience.

“When we curate, we’re trying to bring in audiences who wouldn’t necessarily think of themselves of coming to an environmental film festival,” Mitman said. “I think this one in particular should have a lot of appeal to a really wide range of people.”

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.