A film by Silent River Films
Candice Louisa Daquin
The indie film, The Tree, is a challenge to review. Kalpna Singh-Chitnis is a formidable, devoted filmmaker, actor and screenwriter as well as writer/publisher and poet. Her resume is impressive, as is her searing talented mark on the creative world, uncompromising and deeply felt. In this, I am already impressed that she has gone further and created films to add to her list of achievements.
This said, what truly constitutes a film? A 7-minute short can certainly be a 7-minute short, though it may not be considered a film, in the same way, a short story is not a novel. That doesn’t mean it has less value, it is simply that in the creative world it is often hard to describe the difference between say; installation art versus portraiture, abstract versus neo modernism. Sometimes you just have to witness it for yourself, so ultimately this is the case with The Tree.
It is an experience before it is a film, a social cry, before it anything else and a precise combination of an indescribably well written poem set against imagery. Were this film asking us to review it on the basis of a ‘film review’ only, we may say things like: More of a videoed social statement with a voice-over. Because a film it is not, in the purest sense. That said, part of how we define a film versus a video someone has recorded, is that it has intentionality, script (or deliberately non scripted) actors or some form of consciousness beyond depiction. A film can be a cartoon, a monologue or a kaleidoscope but if we say, film dancers dancing, is that a film or a filmed depiction of dancers dancing? The same question has been posited with highly realistic art. Is it a mimicry of reality or something more?
In this I find The Tree falls more into the latter category. It is a filming of the forest, with people, but what really distinguishes it is the poem we hear – read by the film maker herself. If the poem and subject were not about a tree and the greater environmental story, then we might be inclined to say this was a video of a poem being read replete with images. That may sound harsh, because what we’re then saying, is the only reason the film could be called a film is because it holds political intentionality and that makes it an activist piece, and in the art world we would not dare dismiss such value.
But it’s not harsh for this reason. Much of what we deem ‘art’ or creativity is a combination of factors at work. It is not enough to say a woman lying on the floor naked is ‘art’ but if she is painted, then she could be a form of art, and if the artist then reads a poem whilst he films her, that could be called a film of a performance piece of (art). Because there is no neat definition of art (or film really, when in the art realm). Then it’s impossible to say what factors come together to create art or a film – but what we do know is there is more than one factor that eventually added up, causes us to define something as art or film.
In this context then, Kalpna Singh Chitnis has made a film: The Tree and it is both a film and poetry. If the film were not an activist film, or if she did not read a poem over the film, I would argue it is not on its own without those things, a film. But many times, there are filmed things that whilst they don’t fit the label of being a ‘film’ hold equal value to what we would define (a film). In that sense, a film has an identity beyond itself.
Most importantly is the act of creation. Whatever we want to call ‘it,’ for the sake of clarification and to ensure it is paid attention to, we must label it. This film is a short on the life of a tree (and its death). If I turned off the soundtrack (voiceover) it would not sit powerfully with me, because it doesn’t distinguish itself by relying on visuals alone. Again, this may seem harsh but consider how many of the most famous films of all time, rely upon soundtrack or actor. Without sound there is no film unless it is a silent movie, and this is where film became an artform, when it had to have value before sound was invented. Nowadays we don’t hold films to that same standard, so a film may not be able to stand up without sound of some kind, but that doesn’t devalue the creation, it simply means we have moved on, with sound, and thus, sound has become an integral part of (what constitutes most films).
Chitnis has filmed the forest to depict the poem she wrote. The poem is truly the strength if we are being brutal, because the poem is quite simply excellent. And what makes this successful is when you read the poem on paper, you are struck deeply and you are impressed, but when you hear the poem read aloud by Chitnis and it is set with the visual, then the effect is amplified a thousand-fold. Thus, the visual alone would not hold much worth, whilst the poem alone does, but combined, they create something new. The effect is – a film. For what a film can do that a painting or dance or song cannot do, is combine all and showcase all simultaneously; creating something new.
Whether we think a 7-minute short is a true film or not, we know films succeed when they provoke certain responses from their audience. It is that response that we recall when we talk about the film many years later. Just like standing in front of a painting isn’t an isolated experience. We take into account other factors such as (we are standing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we are wet because it was raining, the lights are bright, there is a man with a red beard sitting nearby) all those factors play into what we take away from the experience (of art).
Likewise, when we watch a film, it is both the external world that influences us (our mood, the day in question) in other words what we bring with us, and also the interior world of the film and what the film maker brings out of their vision and offers us. In many ways the French expression often used in film called mis-en-scene is both untranslatable and accurate, it is that secret connection for the viewer and film maker that binds them together in this journey of film making. For film making may not involve actual celluloid any longer but it remains a mysterious process far exceeding script and actor. The Director conceives of something impossible to share, until the film is born, and then, that vision becomes something separate to the Director, much like having a child does.
If I watched Chitnis’ film without soundtrack, I think I would not be as moved. When I hear her read her poem, very slowly, as the camera creeps through the varied forest shots, I find the experience is whole and powerful, and resonates with activism (the heart of the story being an environmental warning) and emotion (the pain of feeling, even for a moment, what the tree might feel). On one level it has the beauty of a Jane Campion film, with its devotion to nature. It reminds me of a book I read, The Hidden Life Of Trees (Peter Wohlleben) where the author talks of what other trees feel when one tree is felled. Of the entirety of the forest, the hidden microcosm and how no tree is isolated or unaffected by the plight of its neighbors. When we fell a tree, we murder a member of a village.
Chitnis has some deeply moving lines in her excellent poem, including:
“I am the tree and the one who kills it.”
The way she reads is hypnotic, evocative and passionate. You can’t help but climb inside the trees experience as she narrates.
“When a tree dies before other trees, how do they feel?”
“It knows the meaning of the red dart on its chest.”
She adroitly compares the trees experience with both that of humans and other living beings, as well as a larger picture, when she then relates the trees (death) to her own life:
“My desk is the bare chest of a fallen tree … Laying my head that I can hear its heart beat”
It is not unfair to say the poem is so much stronger than judging this as a film, but the poem is enhanced by the film and together they form an experience, which if you are thinking in activist terms, is exactly what you want to produce. I saw this film as more of an activist piece, much like you might see an environmental group produce, but it is also art because of the poem and how a poem is more than a statement even of activism, it is also an art form. To combine activism with art, is surely a genre in its own right, and has such enduring value as to be irrefutable. Moreover, when people seek to educate others about the plight of the natural world, they earn special respect, because if more people cared even a tenth as much, we’d not be in this position to begin with.
Two aspects I did not think worked especially well, was the use of models or young attractive, rather bland faced people walking in nice clothes or turning the pages of a book. I understood why Chitnis did this and yet, I felt it distracted from the purpose and message she was sharing. It reminded me more of a model shoot in a forest and that wasn’t the aim. This didn’t ruin the overall impression at all and wasn’t a deal-breaker, but being candid, I also didn’t feel it added or was necessary. Sometimes film makers worry that people will grow bored of being treated to visuals without humans, but I think it is subject-dependent and it is likely the forest can speak for itself without the need for human accompaniment.
Secondly, I would have far rather HEARD the forest, than been given a musical soundtrack – which was a nice musical soundtrack but when talking of the tree and forest so viscerally I felt the way to pull the audience closer, was to let them hear the forest, as the film maker would have, as she walked through the forest. I would have used the intentionality of the camera to pull the audience in closer, using every sense available as well as closer, more intimate shots, to really feel the experience and bring the audience to their knees with this unbarred intimacy. By this I refer to the tactile experience of film making which is the heart of a memorable filmatic experience, and one that holds more enduring value.
Further proof of this is; Chitnis reads with such flavor and intensity, we are enraptured by her voice, her act, her truth, and the words of her poems that stand as testimony to that truth. Accompanied by the sound of the forest, would leave us walking alongside her, listening to her, rather like friends walking in the forest, and when you take that immediacy and add music and models, I think you lose the authenticity of the artist (Chitnis) and her work, to a more crafted approach. This approach is executed and edited tightly and professionally, but wouldn’t the audience have gained even more had they been privy to the direct experience of nature that Chitnis was, when she walked through this canopy?
Ultimately, it’s challenging to honestly critique a film (but it would equally be unfair to give a pat, safe review without truth) because we are not taking into account the impetus that led someone to make the film whilst we simply consume the film from our armchairs. That passivity on the part of the viewer compared to the deliberate intentional action of the film maker, necessarily gives creative license to any film someone has taken the effort to put together. Their vision (unless it’s a grossly exploitative film) has value beyond even an audience, but of course, as with any artform, it exists more boldly when others perceive it. Much like the old adage, if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, has it happened? Our awareness is what matters in equal measure.
Thus, our awareness of what it has taken to put any film together, no small feat when we consider the task of editing and combining music and voice-over with film. Having done this myself, I know how time-consuming it is, and the devotion a film maker must have to her subject. This alone deserves recognition, and if you then include the desire to educate, elucidate and make aware of, environmental subjects of great importance such as deforestation, then we must add this value to any existing aesthetic value. A film is not just a film, it’s a montage of considerations, not least in The Tree, a desire on the part of the Director to impart valuable awareness of deforestation. How many of us even talk about this, let alone DO something?
I recommend this activist film short as reminding us of the life of a tree, its relationship to the forest and all of us, and the brutality of humankind in relation to nature. I deeply admire a film maker whose conscience turns to the environment, and there is a perfect marriage between this and the poetic artform. The poem is one of the strongest environmental poems I have ever read and Kalpna Singh Chitnis does a sublime job of reading it with all the evocative power of a true activist who wishes to see change. For all these reasons, this is a film we should all witness and share.
Director’s Bio – Kalpna Singh-Chitnis is an award winning Indian-American filmmaker, actor and screenwriter based in Greater Los Angeles. She studied Film Directing at the New York Film Academy at Universal Studios in Hollywood, from where she graduated in 2004. She is known for her award-winning short films “The Tree,” “Girl With An Accent” and feature film “Goodbye My Friend.’ She is also the founder and director of Silent River and the Silent River Film Festival
ABOUT “THE TREE” FILM:
According to the “Nature” journal, about 15 billion trees are cut every year throughout the world.
Inspired by a true event, “The Tree” is an environmental short film written and directed by Kalpna Singh-Chitnis. The film is based on a work of poetry which tells the stories of millions of trees and endangered forests through the story of one tree, which inspired the film. The movie meditates on the life and purpose of a tree and draws attention toward environmental concerns such as deforestation, climate change and its effects on wildlife and our ecosystem. “The Tree” won the “Best Experimental Short Film Award” at the 2022 North Dakota Environmental Rights Film Festival, and has been officially selected to screen at several international film festivals across the globe, including the “Cinema e Ambiente Avezzano” Film Festival in Italy, supported by the Italian Ministry of Culture.
LINK: The Trailer of the Tree
21st June 2022
CANDICE LOUISA DAQUIN is an Egyptian/French Sephardi immigrant to America, working as a Psychotherapist and Editor. Daquin co-edited The Kail Project and SMITTEN, two award-winning poetry anthologies from Indian women poets and lesbian poets respectively. She worked in publishing for many years in Europe. Her latest book Tainted by the Same Counterfeit is due out September 2022 by Finishing Line Press. www.thefeatheredsleep.com