The Trees Around You Preview

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Jacob Wise, a documentarian and student at Ithaca College, recently came in to present and talk about his film, The Trees Around You, in our Cinema in Exhibition class. Below is the transcript of his post-screening discussion with us, with the questions being asked by various students and Brad Rappa, our professor.  


I really love the film first of all; I really enjoyed watching it. I think you had some really great cinematography in there. I was just wondering if you could tell us what the production was like, how you got involved, how long you shot for, things of that nature?

I was taking a class here called environmental sentinels, which is in the environmental studies program. You sort of go out in the woods for four hours a day and learn about medicinal plants, just like survival skills. And they talked about old-growth forests in that class.

I grew up near DisneyWorld so everything is totally concrete, and they said that there were trees that you could fit fifteen people around. I was like, “Damn! I want to go see that. Maybe I should go make a documentary.” And then pretty soon I went there and realized how in over my head I was.

You know, this film on the surface is about trees but there’s actually several films in this series, and it starts getting into relationships with nature and a lot of stuff dealing with colonization and how we treat and work with indigenous people.

So I ended up going out three times, I spent a total of 78 days there I think. I wanted to get it in different seasons to see how it changes; most of the time it’s raining. It rains for like 4/5 of the year so that was definitely a challenge filming. But I went out with a different close friend of mine each time during those three trips just to sort of see—I don’t know, like making movies depending on who’s on your crew it totally changes the vibe of the set and what sort of stuff you look for. But usually you have one person filming while someone else would go around looking for cool bugs and turning over leaves and flipping over sticks and just seeing what was crawling around.


What led you to want to make this film in the first place? I mean I understand that you said you see yourself as an environmental activist, but was there a certain point where you were like, “I really want to make this”?  

I feel like it had to do with when I first got here. Like I said, after growing up in Florida sort of near Disney, when I came to Ithaca it was my first time even realizing that there were forests, like kind of dumped in the backyard for the first time. And kind of walking around in the Natural Lands behind the school, it’s easy to just sort of see the forest but as you start moving around you realize how crazy-complex it really is and how much stuff is going on everywhere. And I thought that film would be a really good way to sort of communicate that feeling.

The way that you can move the camera in and show like the smallest thing or show the largest thing. Whatever I was feeling at the time I really wanted to like get out and share it, which I think the film did to a moderately successful degree. And after you finish any project there’s always things where you’re like, “Oh I wish I did that or I wish I didn’t do that.”


What are some things that you wish you had done differently, looking back? 

Like I mentioned, there’s a few films in the series about Vancouver Island. This one, after watching it about 2,00 times, because of the short length I feel like it oversimplifies an extremely, extremely complex issue that there’s so many different opposing—I mean it’s such a tangle of things going on with people, views, environmental groups, indigenous people, where it’s like everyone wants to be saving the woods but at the same time for different reasons and with different approaches.

And also in this film I didn’t really interview any of the logging companies or the B.C. government. I mean it’s an ongoing project; this is just one film in what I’ll probably be doing for a lot of my life.


How long has it been since you’ve been back out to British Columbia, what’s the next steps you’re taking now, and what are the focuses of the other films that you’re working on in this series?

Well I haven’t gone out to B.C. in about a year and a half now since finishing this. I was working on it for like three years straight and I just felt very sort of oversaturated with it.

The next thing I’d really like to do is in Chile there’s actually like the other huge section of oldest forest in the world, and they treat it very differently and I think the government there does it different. Relationships with it—aside from the colonial companies that kind of come in and start trying to take the forests from under the Chilean government, but I’d like to kind of do a counter-case in a way to sort of show like, “Here’s another area with this extremely important ecosystem, but it’s another approach that we can sort of take to keep it together.”

But I’d like to go back out to Vancouver Island. You know, a lot of these locations in the film actually don’t exist anymore; they’ve already been cut. There’s like a shot when it goes in on a sea urchin and then it like spirals down and the sun’s coming through the forest. That area’s just not there, it’s just browned out. And where the people talking in the beginning saying they wish they could save the land. So it’s something that’s happening very rapidly.

There’s a lot of other good people taking photographs out there. The guy who, in the beginning, is right next to the huge tree is a photographer for National Geographic who just focuses on photographing these areas. But there’s something about doing any documentary work, it’s all like happening so rapidly where it’s like, you’re either around it all the time or your missing everything. So… some time in the future.


Could you tell us about some of the people that you featured in the film, like how you got in contact with them?

The very first person we got in contact with who actually helped the most does not appear in this film though he’s in all the other ones a lot. His name is Torrance. We were actually putting out couch surfer requests like looking for people to stay with and this guy responded to us and he said, “Oh my roommate is like one of the biggest activists on Vancouver Island, you should talk to him.” So we met up with him, he kind of showed us around so we could get a sense of the planning schedule cause I knew I wanted to hit all these spots and he’s like, “If you want to do that you’re gonna be here for three years. Here’s a more manageable thing to be doing.”

And after we went out the first time and we wanted to go the second time it was so much easier. We were able to get in contact with the Tla-O-Qui-Aht nations, which is like a group of nine nations that got together as their numbers were dwindling, and that’s sort of the reservation that you see; the guy who’s talking with like the big wide shot of the ocean in the front lawn. So we met him on our second and third trip, and the more people we started meeting, seeing that our intentions were good and that we were producing work, the more people were willing to actually speak with us.

It was really hard to access at first, especially dealing with the reservations. They don’t really need more white people walking around and filming them, especially because so much is exploitative. But it definitely changed my life, getting to know people and getting to know the island a little more. But it’s difficult because it’s so far away. It’s actually the west-most point on the continent.


So, talking with these people and getting the exposure to these sort of viewpoints, what do you feel the reach of the film has been? You say that this stuff is still advancing at an incredibly fast rate and it’s huge; has this gotten out anywhere, has this been distributed, has this been seen by the people you interviewed? Especially because it’s the Canadian-American media border almost, how has that reach affected the area itself?

That’s a good question. It’s been difficult to sort of disseminate. It’s in a few online international film festivals, which I figured would be best. I haven’t done as much of a push to put it in big documentary festivals, it’s definitely a good way to go but it seemed like there were more effective ways as a pace of activism to actually be working with it, making it go through the internet more virally, which it has to a moderately successful degree.

It’s like we put out art that raises awareness and yet the forces and the money behind this stuff is so strong that watching a movie it’s like, “Oh great I’ve seen the movie now I know a little bit more.” Which is a more cynical way to look at it but at the same like, any more awareness. You know it’s one idea to go out and say, “I want to change the whole world,” but the actual more effective way to do that is to do it individually, and as you have individuals changing then the actual world starts changing itself. So that’s sort of the approach I was taking to it.

At first it was like, a lot of potential with making sure it really affected everything, but that just sort of makes it less effective I think, or at least I was finding. We can also only operate on whatever level we’re operating on, which is usually sort of invisible to see.

It’s definitely sort of nebulous. It’s not like you release the film and then this huge news announcement that everything’s totally changed all of the sudden. It’s never really like that, especially because change happens but it happens so slowly that it’s not really even discernible as change. It’s just like one day you’re there and it’s different. Especially with environmental stuff—I mean with anything, but you never really know if you’re quite saying the right thing or quite saying it the right way, but it’s gonna be the right way for somebody it’s gonna be the wrong way for someone else. Especially with like new media or web stuff it’s really good when you keep updating or just like say it in different ways


To that effect do you feel like it’s been effectual? Do you feel like you’ve achieved a lot? Are you happy with it? Is it something that’s inspired you to go do more? Or has it felt like it’s something you’ve had to push through as a challenge?

It depends on the moment. It’s definitely, definitely inspired me to do more, especially seeing how it’s reacting with people. With work like this it’s almost like they need to continually be pushed, even though the areas aren’t still there anymore there are still messages in the film that I think actually transcend the subject matter itself. Which is difficult I think in pieces of activism; it’s like you’re always sort of working on levels that you don’t really realize you’re working on until way after the fact, but it just sort of naturally comes up in the subject material.


To me it’s very profound that you take a class here, you get to spend four hours in the forest looking at plants and learning about survival, and then it sort of sparks in your mind this idea that, “Hey I’ve learned about these trees and I need to go see them and I’m gonna make a documentary about them.” That’s pretty incredible. I mean can you talk about the financing of it? Can you talk about that whole journey from that original moment to making this piece to spending those three years there?

I mean it definitely changed throughout those three years that I was working on it. The more I got into it the more I realized I didn’t know, and the very first thing was just like basic Google searches, at first just looking for old growth forests, just seeing where they were and the first result was the area where that huge tree was that had just been cut down, that made the news. And so I just started contacting the people that made that article, but the more I sort of got into it, it was just sort of overwhelming like how much was actually going on and how complex it really, really was.

Especially as a documentarian it’s like—I got to a point in this project where I actually stopped for a month or two because you watch a documentary and there’s this sense of omniscience to it, like voice of God, like “This is the truth, let it go into your brain,” which really, really turned me off. I didn’t like that sort of subtle manipulation of it, but at the same time I found that I couldn’t really get away from it. You know even if I don’t do voiceover in the film, even if I just let these people talk and I don’t even say who’s talking, I still have to edit the film, I still have to choose how it comes together, and the subjectivity was totally unavoidable. And so in a way I was overwhelmed by the amount of information about the issue, and I realized that the only way to actually make the film was to—the film is really about, “What are these people from Ithaca, New York who come from all over, what do you see going to a place that’s totally different, and what can you bring back to people about it?” It’s like not really setting out to be everything about old growth forests on Vancouver Island, but just this point of view, which is really all any documentary is when it sort of comes down to it but it can take a broader scope or a finer scope.

Each trip we took we did Indiegogo or Kickstarter and applied to some grants through the school in the environmental department. We ended up raising about $6,500 total for both projects, which funded each trip successfully, but you know, we ate a lot of PB&J’s, we couch surfed. The most expensive part was usually renting a car, cause you would need a car that wasn’t too small to get lost on the logging roads when you were like thirty miles out without service, which did happen once and it was pretty scary. We got back safely.

But I don’t know, it’s always sort of changing and you need to find the right angle for financing, like “What do people want to hear? Who do people want to see?” It’s always easy to have an idea that’s really interesting to you but then to convince other people that it’s interesting to them is super hard.


What are your favorite environmental documentaries that you’ve seen?

Two that come to mind. There’s a movie called Encounters at the End of the Earth by Werner Herzog. It’s about this research base in Antarctica; it’s super cool. And then there’s a movie called Baraka and a movie called Samsara. They’re non-verbal documentaries, so there’s no talking throughout them, but each one’s filmed in forty different countries around the world over a period of four to five years, and it just sort of seeks to show what’s going on in different cultures and different religions and militaries and environments. Both of them just really try to show the interconnectedness of everything.


Watch The Trees Around You at:
Watch some of Jacob’s other films at: