Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai

The latest in a spate of films about strong African females and their impact on the political landscape, Lisa Merton and Alan Dater's Kenyan "Taking Root," like Ginny Reticker's "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," attests to the seismic changes wrought by women of different religions and ethnicities working together.

Cast:
With: Wangari Maathai, Lilian Wanjiru Njehu, Kamoji Wachiira, Veristine Mbaya, Ngorongo Makanga. (English, Swahili dialogue)

The latest in a spate of films about strong African females and their impact on the political landscape, Lisa Merton and Alan Dater’s Kenyan “Taking Root,” like Ginny Reticker’s “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” attests to the seismic changes wrought by women of different religions and ethnicities working together. Docu bears witness as indomitable Nobel Peace Prize-winner Wangari Maathai reverses a century of ecological, cultural and social devastation by simply planting trees, giving grassroots activism new meaning. Lucid, lovingly crafted pic, which won the audience award at Hot Docs, has a shot at niche play before flourishing in ancillary.

Maathai — a potent, holistic blend of folkloric lyricism and scientific cogency — traces Africa’s problems back to specific colonial practices (continued by corrupt post-colonial rulers) that systematically impoverished the continent. Graphic archival clips chronicle widespread deforestation to harvest timber, clear land for coffee and tea plantations, and finally, in a tidal wave of vegetative slaughter, to drive out the Mau Mau, depicted here not as a bloodthirsty tribal menace but as an indigenous liberation army.

Deforestation leads to soil erosion and the drying up of rivers, while the scarcity of wood leads to the forsaking of traditional foodstuffs, which, in turn, leads to malnutrition, particularly given the colonial-enforced abandonment of subsistence farming for cash crops. This illustrated reading of Kenya’s recent history is granted credibility by the speed with which Maathai’s Green Belt Movement — which encouraged the nation’s women to plant millions of trees — was able to turn around much of the ecological damage.

Additionally, Maathai’s vast network of green is shown to be easily mobilized against government abuses. As seen in newsreel coverage of the Green Belt Movement’s incursion into the political arena, via hunger strikes and protests by mothers of jailed political prisoners, the dissidents hold fast despite violent surges of repression. When President Moi, Kenya’s longtime dictator, sought to destroy Nairobi’s sole city park to build a luxury high-rise fronted by a giant statue of himself (filmmakers provide clips of a glistening mock-up), Maathai’s letters to Western leaders induced them to withdraw financial support, weakening Moi’s already tenuous hold on power.

Docu’s inspirational focus precludes delving into many ongoing problems still plaguing the nation. Yet Maathai’s vision of thousands of seedlings grown into new forests, and of vibrant, healthy people reconnected to their culture and their land, proves no utopian dream, as Merton and Dater’s verdant footage amply illustrates.

Impressive tech credits present a startling contrast between stock footage of wasteful exploitation and the lyrical beauty of a flourishing ecosystem.

Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai

Production: A Marlboro production. Produced, directed by Lisa Merton, Alan Dater.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Dater; editors, Mary Lampson, Hom Haneke, Jim Klein, Dater; music, Samite; sound, Tyler Gibbons, Eddah Kirhji, Gichuru Ngoima, Roshika Dater-Merton; sound designer, Deborah Wallach. Reviewed at Hamptons Film Festival (Films of Conflict and Resolution), Oct. 17, 2008. (Also in Hot Docs, Toronto; Mill Valley Film Festival, Mill Valley, Calif.) Running time: 80 MIN.

With: With: Wangari Maathai, Lilian Wanjiru Njehu, Kamoji Wachiira, Veristine Mbaya, Ngorongo Makanga. (English, Swahili dialogue)

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