“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” wrote English artist and writer William Blake. Trees have long held a special place in the art world – from Hokusai’s woodblock prints to John Nash’s WWI paintings that depict devastated forest landscapes. More recently, artists such as Ai Wei Wei and Phoebe Boswell have used it as a basis for sculpture and installation works in their pieces Tree (2010) and A Tree Says [In These Boughs The World Rustles] (2023). Dead wood, branches and stumps are repurposed in bold and immersive spaces, inviting viewers to look at topics of life, death and renewal. But what about the trees of the everyday? How do we think of the structures that surround our homes, signposting our way to work, providing a canopy over our favourite parks? Katy McGahan observes this personal attachment in her documentary film, The Happy Man Tree (2023). Over a period of nine months, she filmed a group of Hackney locals who sought to save a 150-year-old street tree from being felled. The film, as part of Aesthetica Film Festival 2023’s Official Selection, is a touching tribute to the community, protest and strength that exists in our green spaces. The film has also initiated a larger intervention-style project, where, after each individual screening, local audiences are invited to bring their own experiences of how trees are important to them. Here, Aesthetica catches up with director Katy McGahan and lead curator Lorie Jo Trainor Buckingham to learn more about the work.
A: What does the Happy Man Tree mean to you?
KM: The Happy Man Tree became a huge part of my life when I started filming the campaign to save it back in 2020. When I heard that a campaign to save this 150-year-old Plane tree had been initiated by a group of local people in Hackney, I cycled over to find out more. The tree towered over all the other ones in the area – and many of the buildings – and the fact that it had a name was pretty amazing. It was located on a busy street next to a dual-carriageway so it was obvious that this majestic, green, carbon-consuming landmark was a vital presence in this polluted corner of north London. Furthermore, it was on a public pavement, not a building site. Scores of mature trees had already been routinely felled as part of the re-development and people were starting to wonder when would it stop; would their streets end up being completely denuded of mature trees?
On a wider level, the story of the Happy Man Tree speaks to the ongoing climate crisis and the erosion of nature at the hands of profit mongers. This and other similar campaigns demonstrate how much people care about the existing nature in their local areas and how they aren’t willing to stand by and watch it being destroyed. We don’t always notice the nature around us, especially in cities, but when people start to take it away from us, then we start to pay attention. Encountering the Happy Man Tree was like meeting a well-loved Woodberry Down elder who has a wealth of stories and exudes love, wisdom and generosity of spirit.
A: How did you come to make The Happy Man Tree film?
KM: Back in 2020 I was doing a Master of Fine Art (MFA) and had decided to make a film about a natural landmark not far from where I grew up in Cheshire. However, lockdown put paid to that idea. I was thinking of leaving the course when one of my tutors told me that a group of people had started a campaign to try to save a tree on her street, a few minutes cycle from where I live. The protestors had just received a tip-off from the Council that the tree was going to be felled the following weekend so there was a real sense of urgency. I immediately started filming. I ended up spending nine months filming the campaign and getting to know the protestors, many of whom have become good friends.
A: Why is documentary film so important? Why did you choose it as a medium?
KM: My previous films have been more impressionistic than narrative-led and have been shown in galleries and online spaces as opposed to cinemas, but in making this project, my remit was to do justice to the community. I documented the campaign as it played out, staying close to the campaigners and tried to capture the ups and downs of it as best I could. For most people it was the first time they had been involved in a protest. I wanted to expose how unfairly they were treated for standing up for what they believed in.
I used to be a documentary film curator at the BFI and I have learnt so much about the world from documentaries. I love how documentary screenings often attract people who wouldn’t normally attend film festivals but attend because they’re interested in the subject of the film. For instance, a few years ago I co-curated a programme of archival films on the theme of housing for Sheffield International Documentary Festival. I was thrilled when hundreds of local people came to the screening and shared their recollections of living in the iconic Park Hill Estate and / or working in the steel industry in the post-film discussion. Documentary festivals are different to the red carpet vibe of the feature film world – and I love that.
A: We’re seeing more and more exhibitions take up a specific focus on the environment, whether it be Wakehurst’s Rooted that drew attention to the power of plants and fungi, or Vitra Design Museum’s Garden Futures, that focused on how green spaces can better our futures. Why do you think it’s important to highlight our relationship with the environment right now?
KM: I applaud anyone who does anything to help draw attention to the ever-worsening climate crisis. Contemplating the extent of the devastation we’re facing can be overwhelming and it’s difficult to feel that you have any agency to change the trajectory. It’s a real privilege to work in the arts and for this reason I think it is incumbent on those with a voice to use it for good – in whatever way they can. I really admire the Picture House-led Green Screen initiative which was set up by Flick Beckett of PH to screen more films that address environmental issues. I’ve just seen the brilliant RE/SISTERS: A Lens on Gender and Ecology exhibition at the Barbican – it includes some really interesting films.
A: There’s a real sense of community behind this project. Even when you couldn’t film the campaign yourself other campaigners captured the action with their mobile phones or devices. What do you think the power of collaboration is in the creative world?
LTB: This project was very collaborative. In fact, most documentary films are. If you’re filming someone you’re collaborating with each other. When I couldn’t be there to cover some action around the tree, I’d put a call out to the group and someone would always forward a clip to me. These clips were vital to the telling of the story. I edited a rough cut of the film to submit at the end of my course and my intention was to then try to raise the funds to hire an experienced editor to do the fine cut. The quotes I got were too expensive and so in the end I did the fine cut myself. Whilst this was a very steep learning curve for me, I think the resulting grassroots style, probably better reflects the grassroots (or should I say treeroots!) subject matter. A more polished, slicker style of editing might have been at odds with the theme. I feel deep gratitude to anyone who allows me to film them. In doing so they are giving you the gift of their trust.
A: There’s a quiet beauty behind the images in the film – shadows of leaves, a woman dressed in a bright red, silk and cloth suspended from branches. Can you talk about the choice of shots that were taken?
KM: I think the beauty comes from the people who appear in the film. It’s their passion for the cause and their connectedness that it is beautiful. When I was editing the project I was aware that the fast-paced turn of events afforded the film a sense of urgency, so I decided to offset this by including some slower moments to allow time for reflection. Sometimes we’re in such a rush that we forget to slow down and notice the world around us. One of the motifs of the campaign was the “Look Up” slogan that campaigners chalked on the ground next to the tree. Since making this film I definitely notice nature more – even when I’m rushing around I’ll stop and look up at a tree’s canopy and just take a breather. The various artefacts that protestors made for the campaign – from children’s drawings to appliqued banners – are wonderful. I made sure that they featured in the film. We’ve kept as many as we could rescue and hope to exhibit them.
A: What does The Happy Man exhibition entail?
KM: The film is touring as part of a wider #Noticethistree set of interventions across the UK, starting at Finsbury Park Picturehouse on 30th November. We’re inviting people to take part in #Noticethistree which is brought by the people who campaigned to save the Happy Man Tree. The events will create space for people to come together and tell their own stories of trees and efforts to save them. Some people are walking from a particular tree of their choice, which might be under threat, to the cinema. Each intervention will feature a cinema screening of the film. After the screening there will be an invitation to reflect and ask questions about the impact of protest and loss, upon ourselves and the world. We’re creating an audio piece and a ‘mycelial’ banner that will be added to each #Noticethistree intervention. There is a month’s gap between each #Noticethistree intervention, giving us time to connect and collaborate in advance with people in different cities who are interested in similar issues to us.
The Happy Man Tree | noticethistree.org
Stills: Courtesy of Katy McGahan