WOW FILM FESTIVAL: THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES | REVIEW
Dir: Jörg Adolph (2020, U, 96 mins)
You’d be forgiven if you put Peter Wohlleben in the same category as people who appear on morning talkshows claiming to communicate with fairies or gnomes, or speak to the dead through their collection of dolls. Hate to disappoint, but Wohlleben doesn’t talk to trees, nor they to him – at least not directly, although he takes an anthropomorphic view of them, citing distinct personalities and the ability to make decisions. The Hidden Life Of Trees, a documentary inspired by Wohlleben’s 2015 book of the same title, suggests our leafy friends have been taking care of themselves way before humans arrived on the scene – 300,000 years earlier.
Wohlleben, once a German forester, quit that job after 20 years because he opposed cutting down swathes of trees to encourage new growth and the planting of just one type of species. He views himself as a “guardian of the forest”; we observe him on his book tour, lectures, demonstrations, walks and TV/radio interviews, spreading that belief. In the Hambacher Forest, he protests against deforestation and the introduction of a coal mine.
The documentary is filled with fascinating science. Trees can intertwine with each other and make space for their canopies, help to feed younger trees, or even stumps which for all purposes look like they’re dead. They coordinate within their own species when they bloom, even over hundreds of miles – fungi work like fibre-optic cables transmitting signals (the “wood-wide web”, as Wohlleben calls this). When insects and animals start chipping and eating away at trees, they register pain, producing pain-inhibiting substances and fighting back. There’s a whole system of how often and when trees produce food, and how it affects animals and their offspring.
The photography is amazing: timelapsed shots of acorns and leaves falling from boughs, snow melting to reveal growth beneath, aerial footage of trees changing over the seasons, birds, wild deer and boar in and about German woodlands and forests. Some of the tree and plant sprouts coming up through the ground, slowly unfurling and growing, made me recall the famous dinner scene in Alien, and a mechanicalized tree feller looks monstrous taking down its victims too.
Wohlleben branches out, visiting Sweden and hiking to Old Tjikko: at almost 10,000 years, the world’s oldest tree, though now looking like a stiff breeze would snap it in half. Bialowieza National Park in Poland harbours one of the last and largest remaining parts of a primeval forest; in Canada, he chats with loggers among others.
A little less PR (perhaps a response from the forestry industry, too) and more quiet moments hanging out with the royalty of the woods might have made a fine film even better. The Hidden Life Of Trees isn’t the first documentary on the hidden life of trees, and its protagonist – who says we shouldn’t humanise trees too much – isn’t the first to come out with much of its science, but he’s charismatic, down to earth and someone you’d want on your side of the bark.
The Hidden Life Of Trees was showing as part of the 2021 edition of WOW Film Festival. Info: www.wowfilmfestival.com
words RHONDA LEE REALI