SIFF DocFest: The Hidden Life of Trees and Becoming Cousteau

The outside of the Egyptian Theatre

Three of yesterday’s screenings at the Egyptian (out of four) had an environmental component to them, including the two movies under review here: The Hidden Life of Trees and Becoming Cousteau.

While both films had smaller attendance than the modestly full Flee, the mood seemed more alive (perhaps the spontaneous clapping and vocal reactions from the audience helped). Programming Manager Stan Shields was on hand once again to introduce both films, mentioning to members (and members-to-be) that their thank you bags were in the lobby, and a video recognizing the Coast Salish people once again played before the trailers (for the curious, McKenna Sweet Dorman, the Snoqualmie Tribe’s assistant director of governmental affairs and special projects, is the narrator).

The Hidden Life of Trees is based on the book of the same name (translated from German) and has the subtitle On the Road with Peter Wohlleben – Wohlleben being the author of the book. Each section begins by turning to a chapter in the book, which the narrator reads as beautifully photographed nature scenes – directly tying in with what is being described – play on the screen. Time-lapsed photography mixes with ambient music, interspersed with Wohlleben recording commentary on his phone or talking about the trees to others, either as a lecturer or a guide.

The chapters have names like “Love,” “Tree or Not Tree?”, and “In the Realm of Darkness.” Wohlleben makes two main points in the film: 1.) trees are sentient beings that help each other and others (like fungi) in order to live long lives, and 2.) every time we interfere with what trees do in the wild, it hurts the tree, it hurts the ecosystem, and it’ll end up hurting us. That’s not to say that we can’t cut down trees, for example, but we need to make sure that we’re doing so responsibly so that we aren’t damaging more than the trees we take down.

He points out that old trees nourish new trees through their roots with liquid sugar, all trees coordinate over thousands of miles to decide when they’ll bloom (being mindful of the animals that require sustenance from them), and fungi act as fiber optics for trees while removing heavy metals.

Examples of man’s folly include trying to speed up the growth of trees (trees that grow slower live longer), planting trees in the city where its roots can’t interact with other trees necessary to help it survive the harsh climate, and compacting the earth in forests under heavy equipment tires, which create pressure bulbs – the result being that the soil retains 95% less water.

The documentary starts in Germany, but Wohlleben also travels to Sweden to see Old Tjikko – the oldest spruce in the world at 9,550 years old (it’s called the oldest tree in the world, since the only two trees that are older are colony trees) – and Vancouver to talk to loggers about selective logging, which one of the loggers protests will cost too much, as well as attend a forum with biologist and environmentalist David Suzuki. He often comments on how other foresters are ruining the forests with their ideas, and points out that we don’t really know what a real forest looks like because most forests (in Germany, I’m assuming) were replanted in straight lines in the 1800s and adapted to that layout, which look much different than virgin forests. In a nice symmetrical touch, the first scene in the documentary, ending with a shot pointing through tree branches at the stars, is continued as the final scene in the movie.

Documentaries like this can suffer from information overload or from being too specialized for audiences to grasp. Thankfully, The Hidden Life of Trees is neither, and its pacing and handling of its subject matter make this a solid documentary, and an interesting one.

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I’m not saying that Becoming Cousteau is a better documentary than The Hidden Life of Trees because it made me cry, but it is a better documentary. Back in 2017, I saw The Odyssey at the Seattle International Film Festival (at the Egyptian, no less!), which was a biopic about Jacques-Yves Cousteau, but while the details are the same as what’s in this documentary, Becoming Cousteau is the deeper, better film.

One reason for this is that we have the actual subjects in front of us, instead of dramatizations that occasionally feel false. I don’t remember if I cried or not when Cousteau’s son Philippe died in The Odyssey (handled with an obligatory phone call reaction shot, if I remember correctly), but I certainly cried when I saw how broken Cousteau was over his son’s death in this film. The piano-themed melancholic melody that accompanied this scene helped. In fact, all the docs I’ve seen have had spot-on music to do the heavy emotional lifting, much of it ambient scoring as opposed to orchestral compositions.

Vincent Cassell reads Jacques Cousteau’s writings during the film (and kudos to the filmmakers for listing all the voices speaking off camera and their relationship to the film’s subjects each time they speak), though we are also treated to Cousteau himself speaking, either off-camera or from a clip from television or an event. In fact, the first image in the film is accompanied by a quote, as we see a still shot of him in swimming gear, which slowly zooms in on his face (staring out from behind goggles) as he describes being in the ocean, and then having to leave it: “It is as if you’ve been introduced to heaven and then forced back to earth.”

All the main parts of his biography are covered, including the injury that led him to take up spear-fishing with Philippe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas, who with him became known as The Three Diving Musketeers, to his development of the aqualung, to the accident that led to the death of Maurice Fargues. We hear about his marriage to Simone Melchior, who promised him children if he promised her the sea, his purchase of the ship he named “Calypso,” a minesweeper built in 1943, his work for the petroleum companies when his initial funds ran out (Abu Dhabi’s vast oil fortune is thanks to the Calypso), the films he made with Louis Malle (yes, that Louis Malle), including their first film The Silent World (1956), which won both the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for best documentary (though Cousteau preferred to call his films “adventures”), and his foray into television with The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. We hear of the death of Philippe (which aged him 10 years and after which he said, “I’m gonna work to the bitter end. That is my punishment.”), his late life affair with Francine Triplet, the death of his wife, and his marriage to Francine, with whom he’d already fathered two children. Finally, we hear of his work in preserving the ocean, in convincing world leaders not to plunder Antarctica for its natural resources for 50 years, and his presence at the first Earth Summit lending legitimacy and support for measures governments could take to help safeguard the earth for future generations.

We also have anecdotal stories, such as how Cousteau’s love of films began when he saw the 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which I saw and reviewed at my first Seattle International Film Festival), or how Pablo Picasso came to the premiere and Cousteau gave him a piece of black coral that would look more beautiful the more he rubbed it (when Picasso passed away, his wife called Cousteau and said that he’d been rubbing the coral when he died), or how he got his television deal because Tom Moore at ABC needed to bring someone to speak at the Explorer’s Club. We hear how Philippe (an explorer) was more like his father than Jean-Michel (an architect) and so was favored over him, and how Simone spent more time aboard the Calypso than her husband or their sons combined, and that when she was dying of cancer, she chose to tell no one, but went out on one final voyage, against her doctor’s orders (on the ship, the crew referred to her as The Shepherdess).

Besides crying at Cousteau’s reaction to his son’s death, I gasped when I saw images of icebergs from Cousteau’s trip between the tip of South America and Antarctica, and cheered at images of him leading the fight for environmental conservation at the Earth Summit.

And this is why Becoming Cousteau is a better documentary than The Hidden Life of Trees. The Hidden Life of Trees has gorgeous imagery, but its power comes from its ideas. Becoming Cousteau promotes wonderful ideas, but its power comes from its images.

Starting today, both films are available to stream on the SIFF Channel and are restricted to Washington State residents only (you can buy tickets and passes here). In-person viewings resume on Thursday with the Closing Night Film, the US Premiere of The Sanctity of Space at 6:30pm at the Egyptian Theatre, followed by a live virtual Q&A with one of the climbers/directors, Renan Ozturk, and won’t be available to stream as part of the festival.