Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Taking Root" has roots in Yellow Springs

Timing is everything. From the right person at the right time who can inspire a national movement to the careful editing of compelling footage in a documentary about that movement, timing is a powerful catalyst.

The documentary, Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, is a tribute to timing on many levels. A special preview screening will be presented at the Little Art Theatre, Saturday, March 21, at 4 p.m. Admission is free.

“The filmmakers [Vermont residents Lisa Merton and Alan Dater] started on this movie about six years ago,” said local film editor Jim Klein, one of four editors who worked on the film. “They were working on it because they care about the environment and international politics and all the things Wangari Maathai is involved in. They went to Kenya to work on the film with very little money. Nobody else had any interest in this subject whatsoever.”

That all changed when Maathai, a member of the Kikuyu, Kenya’s most economically successful ethnic group, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.

“All of a sudden,” Klein explained, “there were thousands of crews from all over the world that wanted to make films about her.” Maathai refused them all. According to Klein, she recognized that the film team from Vermont understood and valued the work she was doing before she received the prestigious award. Maathai agreed to do other interviews only after the Merton/Dater film was completed.

With the stakes significantly higher, the filmmakers turned to their long-time friend, the “film doctor.”

“Most films I’ve worked on, I haven’t really worked on from the beginning,” said Klein. “People get into trouble and they come to me.”

Since its premiere last year, Taking Root has been winning awards in documentary film festivals around the world. The film traces Africa’s problems back to colonial practices and post-colonial corruption that resulted in widespread deforestation, soil erosion, and other forms of environmental degradation.

In the film, Maathai describes her childhood in Kenya and her early relationship to what was then a fertile earth. After being chosen in 1960 as one of 600 Kenyan students to go to college in the U.S., she returned six years later to see the beloved creek from her childhood dried up, denuded forests, and malnourished villagers. What began in 1976 with the simple idea to encourage women to plant trees gradually developed into a broad-based, grassroots organization that fought against corruption, greed, and outdated social conventions. The Green Belt Movement, founded by Maathai, is now a source of ethnic pride, an expression of women’s rights, and a symbol of self-sufficiency.

“I was totally entranced by Wangari Maathai,” said Klein. “I think she’s a great role model and heroine of our times. Here was this woman who had amazing environmental expertise, who learned to be a community organizer and motivate and activate thousands, maybe millions, of people in Kenya.” Klein was also moved by Maathai’s courage, “her ability to put her life on the line again and again,” and the timely connection to Yellow Springs’ own greenbelt preservation efforts.

“The same sorts of battles are being fought here in Yellow Springs, whether it’s over toxic waste burning at the cement plant or saving Whitehall Farm,” said Klein. “Right now it’s the issue of budgeting enough village funds for greenbelt preservation. What Wangari is talking about is that real democracy and real community and a real sense of culture comes out of a respect for the land and work to preserve that land. I think this is very much a Yellow Springs film.”

An independent filmmaker since 1969, Klein’s first three films were in collaboration with another local filmmaker ― Julia Reichert. The two met at Antioch College.

“While in college, Julia and I made Growing Up Female,” said Klein. “It was her senior project and the first film of the feminist movement.” The film also marked the beginning of a long-time partnership, both personally and professionally, and the founding of New Day Films, the premiere, member-owned distribution cooperative for social issue media by independent filmmakers. The two continue to collaborate on films as well as co-teach film and video production at Wright State University.

According to Klein, the Miami Valley is fertile ground for the filmmaking industry. In addition to the large number of local independent filmmakers, Wright State’s film production program, and the support of the Little Art Theatre to showcase local work, Central State University also plays a key role in bringing socially responsible films to Yellow Springs.

Independent Television Service (ITVS) and The Black Oak Project at CSU are sponsoring the preview screening of Taking Root before its national broadcast on the PBS series “Independent Lens” beginning in April. According to Deborah E. Stokes, associate professor of English and founder and director of The Black Oak Project, the group receives half a dozen films each year from ITVS to preview and selects the ones that best address African-American concerns to present to neighboring communities and universities. The collaboration showcases films that specifically foster community activism.

As it happens, not only does it take a community to enact social change, it takes a community to edit a film.

“That’s why you have screenings,” said Klein of the film editor’s need to constantly review and reevaluate their work with “fresh eyes.” Throughout the typical filmmaking process, test screenings with an audience of 6 to 60 people will be conducted with the film director and editor present.

“There’s a chemistry that happens, an ESP. Along with audience feedback, I truly believe there is communication that goes on that we don’t scientifically understand and yet everybody that’s worked in this business absolutely agrees. It’s one of the great devices for seeing clearly through other people’s eyes.”

When Klein is editing a project in a public space, people will often stop by to chat and inquire about his progress. The simple act of watching a short scene together will immediately alert him to six or seven areas that need to be tweaked.

“I’ll ask them, ‘You wanna see a little bit?’ and they think I’m being the nicest guy in the world. But actually,” he said with a grin, “I’m robbing their souls!”

Originally published in the Yellow Springs News.

Susan Gartner is a freelance writer and photographer for the News.