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Making natural connections — on film and in the classroom

Carolina professor and filmmaker Julia Haslett, whose latest documentary tells the story of conservationists restoring rhododendrons to their native China, brings the natural world to the screen and to her classroom.

From left to right, the movie poster for “Pushed up the Mountain,” filmmaker and Carolina faculty member Julia Haslett and a close-up of a rhododendron bloom.
From left to right, the movie poster for “Pushed up the Mountain,” filmmaker and Carolina faculty member Julia Haslett and a close-up of a rhododendron bloom.

We may take for granted the plants in our front yards. However, Carolina faculty member and filmmaker Julia Haslett wants us to think about how these everyday shrubs might have unique, even dramatic, stories of their own.

In 2015, Haslett, who was born in England, was in her godfather’s garden in Scotland, working on a short film about a group of rhododendron enthusiasts. Through conversations with them, Haslett learned that rhododendrons — part of a genus of more than 1,000 woody plants in the heath family — were brought from China to the United Kingdom over 100 years ago by “colonial-era plant hunters” and are now endangered in China. The story inspired Haslett to expand her short film into a feature-length documentary, “Pushed up the Mountain,” that follows the efforts of tireless conservation biologists and botanists who care deeply about preserving rhododendrons in the face of a changing natural environment.

Haslett, an assistant professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ communication department since 2014, teaches classes about documentary filmmaking and film production to students across disciplines. Her first feature-length documentary, a personal essay film about French philosopher and activist Simone Weil, was released in 2010. “Pushed up the Mountain” premiered at the 2020 Conference of the University Film and Video Association, where it received the Silver Award for feature documentary. It also screened at the Banff Mountain Film Festival 2020 and the Wild and Scenic Film Festival 2021.

Haslett said she knew she wanted to create documentaries after she graduated from Swarthmore College in 1990 as a way to explore the intersection between visual arts and political engagement.

“I had a revelation about a year after I graduated when I was on a train going across the country, and I realized I wanted to do something that combined my interest in politics and art,” Haslett said.

“Pushed up the Mountain” travels the 7,000 miles between Scotland and China, where Haslett weaves a story about conservation work, climate change and the human responsibility to preserve our biosphere. To tell this story, she interviews a number of people across both countries, including Chinese conservation biologist Geng Yuying, who have tirelessly devoted their time and research to protecting rhododendrons. The film includes footage of these plant experts at work, where “work” can be anything from research at a seed bank to traversing mountains and rainforests searching for rhododendrons. Haslett narrates, raising questions and encouraging audiences to consider the plants around them more deeply.

“I’m very interested in the points where different cultures and countries cross,” Haslett said. “I want to make these connections for people between the very local and global social history of some of the plants they might see every day.”

Despite not initially picturing herself as a professor, she found that academia provided a nice home for documentary filmmaking, especially because her work allows her to follow her intellectual curiosity. Haslett said she was drawn to the story of rhododendrons in part because of her interest in the state of our environment and concern regarding the degree to which it is rapidly being destroyed.

She said the biologists, botanists and other conservation experts featured in the film are the true heroes because of the laborious work they do to document micro-changes that demonstrate how climate change is affecting the environment. Haslett herself trekked through the mountains near Myanmar with another conservationist to obtain footage and photos of rhododendron plants. The photos they collected would be used in comparison to photos from the 19th century of the same environment as a way for conservation scientists to understand how climate change has impacted the landscape.

“That type of work makes documentary filmmaking look like a walk in the park,” Haslett said. “I wanted to bring attention to these conservationists, who go out every year and work in these thankless, very difficult environments.”

At a time when people are tied to their homes, Haslett, who lives in Carrboro, said she has noticed that many people have gotten interested in gardening and cultivating their own small connections to the outside world. She said that the inclination to spend more time in nature is leading to more people becoming aware of plants and the effects humans have on them.

“There are a lot of hardcore conservationists who don’t believe gardening is really conservation work, saying that planting pretty petunias in their yard doesn’t impact the larger environment,” Haslett said. “But I would disagree. People need a point of entry to the larger concepts of climate change and biodiversity loss, and their own garden is a place to locate that.”

At Carolina, Haslett has taught upper-level documentary production courses and intermediate film production classes. In the fall of 2020, she taught “Environmental Filmmaking,” a special-topics course in the communication department that brings her passion for environmental activism and the natural world into her teaching and interactions with her students.

Haslett’s documentary production classes typically focus on filmmaking as a craft and exploring creativity within a nonfiction realm, which means that students tend to have a background in film production. However, “Environmental Filmmaking” had no prerequisites, so Haslett’s students brought wide varieties of experiences in majors from geology to media and journalism. Many of them had never taken a film class before. Some professors might see this as a challenge, but Haslett saw it as an opportunity for people across disciplines to get involved with environmentalist issues.

“I was so excited when people were able to make films just with their iPhones,” Haslett said. “There were so many people who had completely different majors, and everyone was bringing really interesting experiences.”

The course combines screenings of environmental documentaries with supplemental readings while also cultivating the production skills of Haslett’s students and their interest in engagement with the environment. Haslett taught the course for the first time during the pandemic and said she was impressed with how her students managed to forge connections with local environmental organizations and explore their communities through the lens of a camera while also thinking critically about their own relationship with their natural surroundings.

“I want to foster a curiosity about the world in my students,” Haslett said. “I love all the ways that teaching encourages and requires students to engage with the outside world and bring it back to the classroom.”

Sophie Pruett, a junior majoring in biology and film studies, was drawn to Haslett’s class by its promise of meditation on environmental documentaries, as well as the opportunity to create her own.

“I’ve always been surrounded by nature, and I think cinema has immense power to communicate messages,” Pruett said. “And since I already had this strong sense of environmental stewardship, I was interested in dipping my toes into the creative aspect of making these types of films myself.”

Pruett’s first project for the class was a short film documenting the place she lived, which in her case was her dorm where she was a resident advisor. Haslett referred to Pruett’s piece as a “patient observation” on life at the near-empty dorms at the University. There was no requirement to have a narrative element for this assignment; it was instead an opportunity for students to get to know their lived surroundings and develop an appreciation for the parts of their own natural world that they saw every day. Pruett found this lack of narrative constraints freeing when she was creating her film.

“As soon as I try to incorporate meaning and lessons … I start to feel overwhelmed,” Pruett said. “So to have a project like this one where I could just play with my camera and make something I loved was really fun, and I felt very comfortable with it.”

Ultimately, in both her filmmaking and her teaching, Haslett wants people to care more about plants and the natural world. She hopes her “Environmental Filmmaking” class can serve to bring students from across disciplines together to think more deeply about the effects of environmental destruction, both on nature and humans.

“With this class, I want people to think about how these short pieces of media might spark conversations or influence change,” Haslett said. “The underlying assumption is that if people care more about plants, they’re going to want to protect them.”

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