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SCENE SETTER: Filmmaker takes tree-planting to the big screen

On Monday night, local residents can experience an authentic look at the rarely appreciated job of a tree-planter through Forest for the Trees
Rita Leistner is a world-travelling photojournalist, photographer and documentarian.

How often do you find yourself at the movie theatre, watching superheroes fight aliens, explosive car chases or shootouts and think “this looks and feels so real!”?

In a medium that thrives on spectacle, especially those in most blockbusting franchises, it isn’t difficult to get lost in the fiction. But how can we still enjoy a favourite pastime like going to the movies and still connect genuinely to a real story?

On Monday, Sept. 26, local residents have a chance to experience a visually stunning and authentic look at the little-known and rarely appreciated life of tree planters in Forest for the Trees.

Created by world-travelling photojournalist, photographer and documentarian Rita Leistner, Forest for the Trees offers an honest and moving look at the extreme conditions that are a tree-planter's reality.

I had the opportunity to ask Rita a few questions before the screening.

RV: Starting as a tree planter yourself in the '80s and '90s, what was it about the experience that made you want to document it in film?

RL: I planted my last tree as a professional tree planter in 1993, but I continued to have nightmares about tree-planting every few months for as long afterwards as I can remember. It's something that never left me. I wanted to make this film so that other people could get a feel for why so many tree-planters return year after year despite how hard the work is. I wanted folks to get a feel for why someone like me, who has had a long career as a documentarian since I planted my last tree in 1993, would be willing to go back and dedicate half a decade more of my life to tree-planting, a world I'd left behind so many years ago.

I hoped that returning would be a way of recovering some of the lessons I'd learned in my youth, and it absolutely did do that, and more. You could also say I wasn't done with planting, that I still needed to get it out of my system. I made the film, which was nominated for a 2022 Canadian Screen Award; I made a book that's just been announced as a finalist for the 2022 Banff Mountain Book Competition; the photographs are now in major art collections in Canada, including the National Gallery of Canada. I haven't had a tree-planting nightmare since, so I guess it worked!

RV: How long have you been working on Forest for the Trees and what has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned from the process?

RL: I'd been thinking about this project for over 20 years before I actually started working on it. And, of course, I'd been learning skills for decades that would enable me to create Forest for the Trees, which is my first feature-length film. I'd worked in film for years, and in documentary photography and journalism in very challenging places, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as logging camps in Quebec and British Columbia.

I'd photographed and interviewed people at the hardest moments of their lives. I know tree-planting, and without that knowledge I couldn't have done this, either. I also couldn't have done it if I hadn't been welcomed into the world of this new generation of tree-planters by my old tree-planting friend Garth Hadley, owner of Coast Range Contracting in British Columbia.

I've told the story often that in 1992, drunk in a bar in Prince George, Garth and I talked about making a film about tree-planting, but neither of us had any idea how to make a film. In the following two decades, I became a documentarian and Garth stayed in the tree-planting business. And it's a very tough business, I should add. I have a lot of respect for what he does and how he runs his business and, in particular, how much he cares about people, meaning the tree-planters themselves.

In October 2015, Garth and I just happened to be in New York City at the same time. I was there for an exhibition of my Afghanistan project, Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan, which had taken a lot out of me. I told Garth I needed to do something different and that I thought it was time we made that film we'd talked about 20 years before. He looked at me and smiled, "You're timing is perfect, because I've just bought the company." Coast Range Contracting, one of the companies we used to work for.

And that was that. We decided to start that spring, the spring of 2016. The first thing I did was buy a four-wheel-drive Jeep to navigate the rough terrain of the cut blocks. Now it's nearly seven years later and, as you can see, I am still deep in this project, now in the role of promoting it and getting it out into the wider world. It has its European premiere in Barcelona next month. The book was just announced as a finalist for the Banff Mountain Film Competition, so I really am still in the midst of things.

People ask me all the time, "what's next?" and I have a few ideas, but it's hard to think of the next thing when the last thing still demands so much of your energy.

Your next question is a lot harder. "What has been the biggest lesson I've learned during the process?" Seven years ago, when I started work on Forest for the Trees, which really was a massive undertaking, I believed that by the time I was finished I wouldn't even be the same person, and in a lot of ways that's true. I've learned countless skills and discovered I was capable of doing more than I imagined I could — which, by the way, is one of the big themes of the film: We are capable of things we think are impossible.

The process reinforced what I already knew: that to make an original work of art, you have to stick to your vision and not be derailed by doubters. So maybe I learned that lesson again. There will always be people waiting to put us down or tell us we can't do something or tell us no one cares about what we are doing. I mean, those people are always going to be out there.

But what I had reinforced throughout all of this process is that people are wrong all the time, even people in positions of authority, people with important titles, they are wrong all the time. So you need to trust yourself, and believe in yourself, and that may be a cliché, but it's a cliché because it's true.

RV: What is something that would surprise the average person about tree-planting in Canada?

RL: That an average tree-planter plants upwards of 2,000 trees per day and burns 8,000 calories in the process. This number was substantiated by Dr. Delia Roberts, a kinesiologist who worked for more than a decade for the Canadian Olympic team before becoming a university professor. She is the physiology consultant on my film. I asked Delia to give me a relatable metabolic equivalent for what it means for tree-planters to burn 8,000 calories and she told me, "It's like running two and a half marathons, every day."

RV: What do you hope people take away after seeing Forest For The Trees?

RL: From the outset, I wanted the film to be an immersive experience that takes the viewer on a journey into this world of tree-planting. The music, the visuals, all draw the audience in, and then the incredible candour and honesty of the subjects, these marvellous young tree planters, elicits emotional bonding with them. We are all undergoing this journey together, from the first tree planted in the first minute of the film to the last, one tree at a time.

I want someone who sees this film to walk out of the theatre feeling stronger and better able to face the next moment or challenge in their life than when they walked into the theatre. The film still has that effect on me, even after watching it as many times as I have — after all, I'm also a part of my intended audience.

RV: A quote from the trailer is, “You can’t plant a tree without believing in the future." What kind of future do you want to see actualized?

RL: I first heard the phrase "You can’t plant a tree without believing in the future" from Dr. Sandy Smith, the forestry consultant on my film. As Tara expands on in the film, "you have to believe there's going to be time for the tree to grow." In the most pared-down sense, this quote is about hope. When you wake up in the morning, if you don't think that anything you do will make a difference in the world, it's hard to even want to get out of bed.

It's very, very, easy to want to give up, in fact. What motivates us to do anything? I think we have to believe that there is some point to it. In the straightest sense, this is a film about not giving up. I don't know anyone who doesn't struggle sometimes with giving up.

Devastatingly, one of the tree-planters who was part of this project took his life a few months before the film premiered. The future I want to see actualized is simply one where fewer people suffer from despair, and certainly that is related to all of us living on a healthier planet. There are valid critiques of how tree-planting is done in Canada. Tree-planting is only in its second generation, whereas logging is as old as humanity.

But my film is also a metaphor, and I stand behind the metaphor of getting through life one day at a time, of making a film one picture at a time, nor planting a forest one tree at a time.

The book can be purchased in Canada through the University of Toronto Press, by clicking here.

Tickets to the one-night-only film screening on Sept. 26, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Cineplex Galaxy Cinemas on Commerce Park Drive in south-end Barrie, are available by clicking here.