Our world is crawling with parasites. They suck up oil and belch out carbon gases, wipe out ecosystems and destroy coral seas, turning Mighty Mother Earth into a little old lady on full-time oxygen support. The parasites continue to multiply, devouring resources with little consideration for the future. Now for the bad news: those parasites are us.

Thank goodness there’s reality TV to cheer us up. Why give a shit about environmental hot potatoes like handline fishing in Nova Scotia when we’re hooked on Dancing with the Stars? In fact, as 30 Days producer Morgan Spurlock recently posited, our supersized national diet of nonscripted shows might actually be good for the humble documentary, celebrated this weekend in a local festival with an ecological edge that substitutes global survival for Survivor. But just how much veracity can we handle in a half-week?

Heaps, according to Justin Nathanson, Executive Director of the city’s first festival devoted solely to the genre. The Charleston Documentary Film Festival’s frenetic four-day span will screen more than 40 films at three different locations: The Navy Yard at Noisette for a kick-off party, the American Theater for the bulk of the films, and Folly Beach for a grand finale.

Although Awendaw’s Sewee Center and Charleston County Public Library have found that there’s an audience for regular documentary screenings, Nathanson’s still taking a chance with the sheer number of films he’s screening. To help dispel the idea that environmental-issue movies are filled with tree-hugging preachiness, Nathanson has picked flicks with powerful visuals and some memorable characters; none of them beat viewers over the head with their message.

“There is no more powerful medium than film,” says Nathanson. “Once I plugged myself into the green scene it seemed like everyone was concerned with environmental and world issues, wanting to make a difference.”

Local independent producer Peter Wentworth approves of ChasDOC’s tight focus. “What’s exciting about this festival is that [Nathanson] has got a niche that really distinguishes it from the other regional festivals,” he says. “That, I think, is all important. There’s great benefits to carving out a unique niche that no one else is doing. He’s certainly got some very strong films for it.”

“I wasn’t prepared for all the work involved,” Nathanson says, “it’s been really challenging but very rewarding. It’s all about the audience experience and recapturing what I felt when I first saw the films.”

The docs that blew his mind include Sin Embargo, a look at Cuba’s incredible recycling efforts forced upon them by U.S. sanctions, and Chain. The film’s exploration of the increasing sameness of America, with chain stores swapping local color for box-shaped buildings, will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had to drive through the city of Orangeburg. “It’s not the feelgood movie of the year,” admits Nathanson, “but it is a beautiful film to watch, a eulogy of our land and how it’s been homogenized.”

Other juicy-looking films include The Meatrix (an animated look at industrialized food production and farming), Journey to Planet Earth (succulently photographed offerings from PBS, with narration by Matt Damon), the Oscar-winning Man Who Planted Trees (more animation exploring man’s relationship with nature), and Varmints (pictured above, about the delince of the prairie dog in the American West).

Other selections, like Clearcut, show how passionate people can get over their environment, and a battle between “beenyeah” workers and “comeyeah” sophisticates should strike a chord with Charlestonians. The phenomenal success of March of the Penguins also proved that there was a hunger for docs set in exotic places. Here, Indian Rain Harvesting, Lost Jewel of the Atlantic, and Oil on Ice should deliver the goods.

Nathanson’s already intent on a second fest next year with a loose theme of social issues. He plans to make it bigger, with more international entries, but he’ll continue to encourage local production as well. “I want to inspire South Carolina to make more movies,” he says. “Filmmakers here don’t have resources to work with like in surrounding states – for some reason this state seems to be lagging a bit. I’d love to be a part of the bigger picture, get a really flourishing and prospering industry here.” That would be great for producers like Nathanson, and not such a bad thing for us ignorant parasites, either. –Nick Smith

Charleston Documentary Film Festival • Oct. 5-8 • $6 per film, $45/festival pass • 277-0485 • www.ChasDOC.org