B.C. filmmaker explores the big tree picture
VANCOUVER - He's been thinking and writing about the multi-faceted relationship between people and trees since 1985, when a stint at the Williams Lake Tribune introduced him to logging communities and their unique place in the B.C. economy.
But ask playwright, filmmaker and all-purpose scribe Mark Leiren-Young what trees mean to him, personally, and he looks at the square wooden coffee table in front of him with a seeking expression.
"I'll have to think about that one for a bit," he says. "It's not a simple question... everything about trees can be read in so many different ways, and raise different questions. It can get emotional very fast."
For a dramatist, any issue that can raise emotions and political fervor in the same breath is a boon, which is why Leiren-Young first contemplated the idea for The Green Chain - his new feature film which screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival this week - more than 20 years ago in the womb of a resource-based economy.
"As a person who'd been living in Vancouver, I sort of felt like Greenpeace was in my blood," says Leiren-Young, longtime creative collaborator with the late Vancouver theatre luminary, John Juliani.
"When I first arrived in Williams Lake, my first assignment was talking to people who cut down trees. It was the first time I actually heard the logger's perspective and it became very clear to me at that point that no one in the whole forestry debate was listening to each other."
Leiren-Young says a chance meeting with John Wiggers, the former chair of the Forest Stewardship Council of Canada, confirmed his interpretation of the big tree picture and that's when everything came together.
"It was so weird, because here I'd been looking for this guy - and I ended up sitting next to him on a plane. I never talk to people on the plane, and for some reason, I started talking to the man next to me - and it was the man I'd been looking for."
Realizing fate was cooperating with the creative venture, which was originally conceived as a radio or TV script that Leiren-Young and Juliani could produce on a limited budget, the next step was finding the right structure and approach.
"It was important for me that we explored the issue in as many dimensions as possible," he says. "There were so many voices that needed to be heard, and so that's where I started: I wanted to let those voices speak for themselves, so originally, I had six characters who all spoke about how much they love trees."
The six characters eventually grew into seven, once Leiren-Young realized he had no First Nations voice, and The Green Chain moved ever closer to camera.
"When I worked on Articles of Faith (a play about the Anglican Church's blessing of same sex unions) with John (Juliani) he stopped a performance of the play half way through and asked the audience if they thought the play was skewed in a particular direction. Only two people - one from each side - felt the play was biased. Everyone else in the audience thought it was fair," he says.
"I wanted to find the same balance for Green Chain... and that all came down to the voices. I figured if I got the voices right, I'd be able to explore the issue in a way that felt honest. I felt everyone deserved to be represented."
The result is a movie that features seven monologues from a variety of tree-loving types - including a logger and an environmental activist.
Leiren-Young says he's happy with the finished product - not just because it brings a fresh perspective to a rather stale and monotonous debate about the pros and cons of the forestry industry, and not just because it gives equal time to all sides.
"The one thing working with John (Juliani) taught me was to face fear. He always said do something you are afraid of and I think that's what Green Chain means to me now," he says, sitting back, staring at that four-legged wood product laden with magazines before him.
"You know, I used to be afraid of heights and when we shot this movie, one scene involved being high in a cedar... and so I decided I should get up there. The tree was on a cliff, so on one side, if you looked down, it was like a 150-foot drop," he says, with a hint of giddy laughter.
"But I did it, and now I'm nowhere near as afraid of heights as I used to be."
With any luck, Leiren-Young says Green Chain could have a similar effect on the logging debate.
"I think we need to listen to each other if we're going to find a solution, and maybe this movie can defuse the fear and paranoia surrounding the business of trees. There's something mystical about them, something magical.
They define us as British Columbians and if we can get a handle on what they mean to each of us, I think we stand a good chance of finding solutions to the problems in a way that respects everyone."
© CanWest News Service