Forest Networks

Green has two singular successes that are unusual in natural history film. First, it manages to portray the stillness and tranquility of nature. Its opening shots are calm and quiet, showing minor activities and action, with no musical accompaniment. This is the sort of material which commentators like Derek Bousé (2000) and Greg Mitman (1999) both noted was missing from the action packed, sex and violence fare, that fills so much natural history. It is material which, as another producer at the BBC observed, would normally end up on the cutting room floor, or which might not even be filmed in the first place.

Second, it depicts the complex webs that connect viewers and consumers with destroyed forests and dying orangutans. It does so without dialogue but by following the felled trees and palm fruit through factories, processing and eventually into the shops, cars (and bins) that surround us. It explores three such commodity chains thus (timber, paper and palm oil) and after the first two neatly returns back to the orangutan sanctuary where timber and paper commodities are also being consumed. It does not allow the sanctuary to be somehow above, or removed from those commodity chains.

We need however to examine both successes carefully. For there are two ways in which both the otherness of the wild Green depicts, and the complexity of the networks destroying it, involve unsatisfactory simplifications. The social, political and economic networks within the forests, and those without, cannot be clarified as easily as Green suggests. What we can learn from Green would be enhanced by appreciating them.

The first is that the stillness and quiet of the early footage in the film portrays a nature devoid of people. It sets up a wild in which people apparently have no place or role, and in which tranquility and harmony can be found. The only place of humanity in such a setting is as the direct or indirect destroyers of the land, or as those trying to tidy up what little that can be salvaged from the carnage.

This is unsatisfactory because the idea of wilderness as devoid of people is very much a human creation, and the history of its creation is more so. Some of the national parks that are celebrated now were originally inhabited and were cleared of their residents to make them wild. The early sequences in Green were filmed in national parks. These may well (I do not know) have had some form of human presence in their past.

There is also an imbalance in the empathy invited in the film. It demands empathy with the Green and her kind. But, as Ken MacDonald pointed out at Nature Inc!, it is silent about the empathy possible with forest workers, the employees of furniture makers or palm oil factories who are caught up in conditions and structures they have not chosen, and whose responses to those circumstances are constrained.

The second is that, in the list of companies and entities that are engaged or implicated in forest destruction, there are some important organisations who are missing. Green pursues extended networks of companies harvesting, processing, importing or selling particular products from Indonesian forests. It does not however mention any of the conservation organisations who can work extremely closely with these companies, which can provide them with green seals of approval but which may be doing so inappropriately in ways which do not, ultimately, reduce forest destruction. (I differ here from John Blewitt’s post in that I think the links with conservation organisations could be made clearer than the film does).

I mention this not because I think that conservation organisations should not be talking with big business. I can see no alternative to that. Rather my point is that there are likely to have been occasions when this has been mishandled. The wrong companies will have been endorsed or conservation organisations have sold themselves too cheaply, failing to extract sufficient concessions from the alliances resulting, or these alliances are themselves built on further commodity creation and consumption which simply serves to reproduce and reinforce the very systems which create the destruction Green portrays. Where this has happened so should these organisations be listed as in part responsible for ongoing forest destruction.

Green therefore imagines a nature in which people have no place. This is conceptually unsatisfactory, and may well be historically inaccurate. Furthermore this old dualism is perpetrated by naming only the most obvious of guilty parties for their role in forest destruction. It refuses to implicate organisations which may be failing adequately to protect the forests despite claiming to do so. We are thus left with a very clear divide between forest destroyers, and, by implication, forest saviours.

These issues do not diminish my respect for the film. It powerfully portrays something which it would be good for more people to be angry about. It does, however, make more it difficult to imagine alternatives to the current state of affairs, and more difficult critically to analyse how we got here and why we are finding it so hard to escape. If viewers, driven by the film, can think outside of the categories it presents (and thus eschew the classic audience passivity the film decries) then this would be an encouraging result.