SIFF DocFest 2021: The Hidden Life of Trees – The Root of Collectivism

There’s science in the trees. They are interconnected and require each other for sustenance. German forester Peter Wohlleben wrote a best-selling book about the solidarity of trees. This film follows his continued advocacy for better forestry under the guise of pseudo science. Like the book, the film centers itself around the mixed deciduous-coniferous trees of Wohlleben’s native forests. It is inherently nice to spend time with someone who has put a lot of thought into the matter of conservation, although the author has not adjusted to consistent criticism of his spurious science and evades easy answers about exactly what we might do, pragmatically, to solve the issue of harmful deforestation.

The most emblematic moment of all the frustrations around the author’s work is summed up succinctly in one scene. He is in the forest, confronting a lady who is working at taking down trees. He offers his end-all-be-all suggestion: cut them down more smartly and with greater precision for exactly what trees need to be cut and how they should be cut. “Eeek!,” she yelps in stunned disbelief; their budget is already maximized, with no margin for error. Well, Wohlleben suggests, they just ought to figure it out somehow.

Which brings us to the core of the book’s problems, too. There is a moment in the documentary where trees plotted in urban centers are compared to “street children,” which highlights the banal way that the author thinks about trees. They are all interconnected, yes, we’re following. But then he uses literary devices, anthropomorphizing the trees, trying to make them more palatable to a broad non-scientific audience. Fine, it sells books. It does not represent genuine scientific thinking. The film, based loosely around the chapters of the book, tries harder to stay on the course.

Is it a serious problem? The most popular and read book about forestry is also one that favors popular writing over facts and proper methods of science. There is a great merit to having the book and then making a documentary about it, anyway. It has gotten enough people interested that expononetially more people are likely having contact with the forest and then finding out how trees actually work after the fact. Yet, it has all caused no small amount of confusion among science writers, who are always embattled with the idea of how to grow interest in their works and how to present popular science in a way that honors the fundamental truth and reasons they have chosen that field. It has also resulted in amusingly-titled papers to be written in response. In America, this method sold books. In Germany, it was a call for an amusingly titled petition from two forest scientists: “Even in the forest, facts instead of fairy tales, science instead of Wohlleben”.

That is a lot of pressure, then, under which to make a documentary which wants to offer a rudimentary vision of a popular, but questioned book. Perhaps because of the intervention of director Jörg Adolph, it wisely dodges so many of the same issues, which are accounted for in numerous studies of the work online and academically. It’s built with a little more tact. There is still a little silliness, about the trees talking to each other, what the author and now the director imagine they are saying, and wanting, by doing that. But ultimately, it steers the ship toward a more viable port: trees are the root of communal living.

Director Jörg Adolph has to do little in the woods. They are already enchanting and perfect for the camera. It could simply be a showcase of what virginal woodlands — that is, those that are natural or saved by conservation — look like, and it would be a splendid showcase, already. There is still enough learning that can happen here. Especially if you’ve never met a tree. Some of it may be incredibly obvious if you’ve ever thought about a tree and how it works or have studied one in classes geared toward environmentalism. But the broad view remains enriching. You will care more about trees than before you began, no matter what your walk of life.

The nature documentary is capable of so many things. Perhaps the best it can do is move an audience toward conservation. Jörg Adolph’s work about Wohlleben and his trees is a good first step. It remains a populist work, designed to spur our emotions into action. That may simply be proficient advocacy. It may not hold up to great scientific study, but would you watch the documentary that did, and simply laid out the facts of the trees? There must be some reason for the engagement of an audience, that goes beyond those already either invested in forestry and conservation. The Hidden Life of Trees hits that sweet spot, better than the book, and just enough to send you out into the woods, if the romance of it all does the trick.


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