[Note: This review of "Taking Root," including the Q & A with the director, appeared in the Nevada City Advocate newspaper as part of a set of reviews for the 8th Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival.]
Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Wangari Maathai. Maybe you don’t know Wangari Maathai, but it is a fair introduction to mention her name on such a list. The film "Taking Root" tells Maathai's inspiring story and lavishes you with her iconic personality. She has brought truth to power, big time. It is especially fitting that this film be shown at the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival. Maathai was the first environmentalist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This documentary unfolds her early life in Africa, her college education in the United States, and her decades of activism after returning to Kenya. One might summarize her accomplishments by saying that more than 35 million trees have been planted because of her Green Belt Movement, but far more has taken root because of her leadership. The colonization and exploitation of Kenya and its people accentuated a fate that Maathai was instrumental in improving. The modernizing developers of Kenya, as in so many countries, deforested the landscape to make way for monolithic crops such as tea and coffee. Her activist epiphany came with the realization that planting trees meant access to wood for fuel, lumber for buildings, and an environment where the water cycles as it always had, to assure life. Her work gave women something to do, something that could empower them as individuals, family members, and grass-root citizens of their native culture and their larger world. Living under a corrupt and dictatorial regime, Maathai could hardly keep such activism and practical results from getting political. Proud assertions of rights and nonviolent protests resulted in beatings and jailings, decades of struggle. International visibility catalyzed a democratic turnover of government, to a government with more than one political party. As inspiring as the story is, just seeing Maathai on screen is enough reason to see the film. Typical of such a charismatic leader, you feel transfixed by the richness of humanity and possibility in her face. It is a face of soulful complexion that radiates transcendent smiles as effectively as it emits stern conviction. Maathai typically dresses in flamboyantly appropriate clothing. She knows that an aura like hers is never out of fashion.
= = = = = Q and A with "Taking Root" director Lisa Merton = = = = =
Chuck Jaffee: You’ve made this film about Wangari Maathai and spent so much time with this dynamic and effective activist.Is there one anecdote that you might share that stands out working face to face with her?
Lisa Merton: We were filming in Aberdare Forest, a degraded forest, clear cut.Community groups, local groups were there to plant 7000 trees. It was a hot summer day and there was no water.I had some water in our vanand offered her some.She said, “Do you have enough for everybody?” We didn’t.She wouldn’t take any water.
CJ: There’s something so profoundly simple about planting trees as the cornerstone of Maathai’s activism.Do you know what she thinks about how her life and effect might have been different if her activism employed a less inspired practical focus.
LM: Wangari once said I could have chosen something else but I chose the tree.It all came together.It was a confluence of energy.She grew up growing everything she ate.In colonial Africa, her family, her people wereserfs. Her courage is astounding. She knows the truth;She’s funny. She can make you roll on the floor.Humor becomes something very important for her people, who live so close to life and death, close to the earth, close to each other.
CJ: Besides making documentaries, what do you do on a personal level to cope with how monumentally out-of-whack the human world is?
LM: I go into the woods, where all I can see are trees and a brook.I go to my garden.I go to nature. Documentaries are important to me to bring people stories that aren’t corporate stories, that aren’t from CNN or Turner Broadcasting or even PBS.