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The Forest For The Trees

THE FOREST FOR THE TREES is an intimate look at an unlikely team of young activists and old civil rights workers who come together to battle the U.S. government.

Filmmaker Bernadine Mellis is the daughter of 68-year-old civil rights lawyer Dennis Cunningham. Dennis started out his career representing the Black Panthers and the Weathermen.

Judi Bari was an Earth First! leader who was one of the first to place as much importance on timber workers' lives and families as she did on the legacy and future of the trees. But that strategic relationship was too much of a threat. Her car was bombed in 1990, and three hours later, she was arrested as a terrorist -- charges that were later dropped. Convinced it was a ploy by the FBI to discredit her and Earth First!, Judi decided to sue.

Cunningham took on Judi's case and after 12 years, Judi Bari v. the FBI finally gets a court date. Knowing this is one of her father's most important cases, Mellis is there at strategy meetings, at breakfast, driving to and from the court, documenting her morally driven, very tired dad. Not your typical 'Take your daughter to work day,' THE FOREST FOR THE TREES offers access into a unique father-daughter relationship, the painfully short yet extraordinary life of Judi Bari, and a piece of U.S. history that everyday grows increasingly resonant as once again the lines between dissent and terrorism are being intentionally blurred.

Note : This is a completely reworked version of the award-winning 2004 film of the same name. See the filmmaker's note below.

'I completed a version of THE FOREST FOR THE TREES as my master's thesis from Temple University in 2004. While that film was the same length as the final cut, and essentially followed the same story, it was quite a different film. It was my first documentary, and I was producer, director, shooter and editor, learning everything about the process as I did it. I submitted the film to festivals, and it showed at several (as listed here). Soon after finishing it, in early 2005, I went to the Working Films/MASS MoCA Documentary Residency, designed to help filmmakers develop outreach strategies for social justice films. There, I was encouraged to re-open the film by Judith Helfand (BLUE VINYL), who later became one of the Executive Producers of THE FOREST, along with Julia Parker Benello. Judith felt that if I brought in an editor, I could bring the film to a new level.
Then, in the summer of 2005, Chicken and Egg Pictures was founded by Judith Helfand, Julia Parker Benello, and Wendy Ettinger in order to support emerging and veteran women filmmakers. Chicken and Egg provided the support to hire an editor, Susan Korda. Working closely with Judith, Susan and I spent several months re-editing the film. The old cut was divided into two parts: The first half was about Judi Bari, her organizing work in the Redwoods, the bombing of her car, and the FBI and Oakland Police's arrest of her and Darryl Cherney. The second half followed Judi's civil case against the FBI, and the legal team who fought that battle, which included my father, Dennis Cunningham, as lead attorney. What Judith Helfand pushed me to do was to integrate those two stories, and to foreground my father's role a bit more, teasing out some of the richness of the father-daughter element of the film.
Making the first cut was a personal victory for me (there were times I was not at all convinced I would be able to finish it), and it was a hugely important step in the process. Ultimately, the new film, enabled by the awesome support of the women of Chicken and Egg, feels like the true realization of my initial vision, the vision that drove me to begin shooting in the first place.' Bernadine Mellis

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