The Making Of

Co-producers and directors Alan Dater and Lisa Merton reflect on the ways that Americans can learn from the Green Belt Movement, the challenges of filming in a “de-developed world” and how Wangari Maathai has inspired them.

What led you to make TAKING ROOT: The Vision of Wangari Maathai?

We were asked to make a short film about Wangari Maathai. We went to interview her at the Yale School of Forestry, where she was teaching during the spring semester in 2002. We were deeply moved by Maathai's presence and her story.

Alan knew immediately that Wangari was a cinematographer's dream. She was charismatic, humorous, a consummate storyteller and had a delight in life and a positive outlook that filled her with a luminous presence.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

Once Professor Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize she was in great demand and has been ever since. Luckily, we had started the film before she won the prize, and we had established a good relationship with her and also with her daughter, Wanjira, who became her international liaison.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

As documentary filmmakers we are part of a dance with our subjects. We are not flies on the wall looking on. We try to be completely focused and in the moment when we are filming. I think one of our strengths as filmmakers is our ability to listen. People can sense very quickly if you are “there” with them. We truly felt at home with the Green Belt women who care for the tree nurseries. Our daughter, who was about six years old when we started filming, was with us on location in Kenya. We weren’t just another film crew coming to get some footage; we were a family.

We both grew up in the country. Alan was a farm kid who grew up on a dairy farm in the hills of Western Massachusetts and Lisa spent her formative years in Vermont. We share common values and attitudes with Wangari, who also grew up on the land.

What can Americans learn from The Green Belt Movement?

For The Green Belt Movement (GBM), the connection between healthy communities and a healthy environment is central to their work. Maathai recognized that the daily problems of poor, rural women were directly connected to their degraded environment. In the United States, it is African Americans, Latinos, indigenous people and low-income populations who will be disproportionately affected by climate change. These groups typically live in highly polluted areas (near coal plants, chemical plants, oil refineries, garbage dumps and mountain-top removal sites), without trees and parks and the resources to change their situation.

In the U.S., the environmental movement needs to diversify to embrace and listen to those who are most affected by environmental destruction because, as GBM recognizes, the links between environmental, economic and social justice are at the core.

How has Wangari Maathai personally inspired you?

Lisa Merton: I have been greatly inspired by Professor Maathai. Her deep love for her country, the land and all its inhabitants—people, flora and fauna—is at the root of everything she has done. I admire her commitment, persistence and patience over the years to follow the connections from poverty and a degraded environment to sustainable development, good governance and peace.

I am in awe of her ability to see the glass half full. She holds no bitterness, despite what she has been through. She does not speak badly of those who have mistreated her or have even tried to kill her. She is respectful even of her enemies.

What would you have liked to include in TAKING ROOT that didn’t make the cut?

We would have liked to include some amazing scenes of Professor Maathai in the indigenous forest, talking about the miracles of the forest ecosystem and about nature and God. She also spoke about how her parents (and their parents) used the forest in a sustainable way. They were deeply respectful of what it gave them and knew that they therefore needed to respect it and take only that which they truly needed. Luckily these pieces will be in the DVD extras!

Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?

Aside from the difficulties of shooting in a “de-developed world,” we had to deal with changing aspect ratios. We started filming in the 4x3 format and then switched to the 16x9 wide-screen format. This meant that in the final 16x9 version we had to blow up the 4x3 shots to cover the wider screen. One interview is a bit too tight for me, but most people will probably not be aware of it.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

There has been a great response from audiences. People cry and laugh. They are deeply moved and inspired by the film.

The people in the film have not seen it yet. We are in the process of organizing screenings in Kenya. We would like Professor Maathai to be there for these screenings, and of course we want to be there too, so it takes some time to get it all organized.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

Alan: I am beyond having to be motivated. It is just what I do. Just keep going and make the films that you are passionate about. There is always some way to get them made and seen.

Lisa: I am motivated by all the people we meet in the world who are doing work to make the world a better place for all to inhabit. There are so many people out there who are living interesting lives, and yet the media tend to focus on what is not working. We like to document what is working and why so that our films can serve as inspiration and give hope.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

We chose to present our film on PBS because it is a venue that is open to independent points of view by independent filmmakers. It is vitally important in a democracy to hear voices that are not influenced by corporate media. Viewers need to be exposed to many points of view.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

Lisa: I didn't get to spend as much time with our young daughter as I'd have liked. Because we are a filmmaking couple, and we're always working on the same project together, work life flows into home life and we find ourselves talking about “the film” at dinner, at breakfast and in between. That can be tiring for a young child who wants to hear about something else now and then! We lived and breathed this film for a long time and we still are now that it is out in the world.

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