The Story Behind Stories Happen in Forests

Stories Happen in Forests is a short documentary that Dogwood Alliance produced and I directed. It features 12 people in the woods telling their stories. These stories range from a professional mountain biker to a 5th grader learning science. From a wilderness guide recovering from addiction to a mushroom forager. From a forester who combines the ethics of forestry and hip hop to a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author who listens to the songs of trees…and so, so many more beautiful stories.

Stories Happen in Forests is now an internationally recognized and award-winning documentary, but it definitely didn’t start out that way.

It started out as two women on a shoestring budget trekking all over the forests of the South and beyond to capture unique and interesting stories. Videographer Andrea Desky of Call to Action Creative and I had a mission: to show the world the deeply personal and deeply human connection people have with the woods.

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Behind the scenes filming with Andrea Desky and Alison Czeczuga

It was all a pretty organic process. We’d meet our interview subject in a forest, either a place nearby them or one that held special significance for them. Then we’d just talk. Some folx had nerves about the camera or what they were going to say, but, in the end, it was just a conversation. They’d share their experiences, and I’d ask questions to help them open up more or to deepen my understanding.

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“In the forest, there’s this beautiful diversity. There’s this community. There’s this family. There isn’t such a thing as homophobia or racism or these things we make up in our human mind.” – Cortina Jenelle Caldwell

When it came time to edit the interviews, we didn’t use any flashy graphics or fancy techniques to manipulate the footage. I had no desire and no business doing that. In fact, I was so honored and humbled that people shared such intimate pieces of themselves that I had a responsibility to treat their interviews with honesty and integrity. Instead it was more about weaving the heart of their words together, distilling their essence into 2-3 minute vignettes.

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“In the forest, I’m a human being versus a human doing.” – Indy Srinath

I stood back and let our Stories Happen in Forests interview subjects speak for themselves.

The stories we ultimately shared have a simplicity and an authenticity that really speak to people. I knew the stories were heartbreakingly beautiful, but I was still surprised that my first film, a documentary with so few bells and whistles, would get so much praise and recognition. Maybe the film reminds people of their own experiences of the forest. Or maybe it shows people a way that others connect to nature that they’d never imagined before.

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“Hip hop is a teacher, just like the forest is a teacher. It teaches me. It reaches me. I feel safe.” – Dr. Thomas RaShad Easley

Why did I think it was important to make this documentary?

Because we often think about how forests clean our air and water, are homes for biodiversity, protect us from storms and flooding, and store carbon, which protects us from climate change. All that is true and vital. But sometimes we lose those human stories when we reduce forests to acres, habitat, and ecosystem services. We forget that the history and lives of people and forests have always been entwined. We forget that forests can be places where people honor their ancestors, commune with their creator, and find medicine, acceptance, and healing.

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“People in recovery talk about a higher power. The woods, the oak trees, the sun coming through the leaves; that was my first grasp of what a higher power was.” – Noah Davis

So what’s next for Stories Happen in Forests?

Festivals are still screening the documentary, but on September 26th, Stories Happen in Forests will have its very first in-person premiere at Dogwood Alliance’s 25th Anniversary event in Asheville, NC. Stay tuned for more details on that event!

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