DOXA 2012: 78 Days gives viewers a glimpse into the private green hell of Canadian tree planters
78 Days (Canada)
This hour-long Canadian documentary about a northern tree-planting crew is a relatively polite look at a career choice that would seem to be the preferred teritory of masochists.
Tree planters regularly put with a litany of bad things that seem to start with the letter B, including bees, bears, blisters, broken bones, boredom, burnout, boo-boos, and bloodsucking bugs of all kinds.
The fact that many of them trade three or four months of brain-numbing, back-breaking (more Bs) work in all extremes of weather for the freedom to do as they please the remainder of the year doesn’t seem to make the work any easier, especially after the “midseason burnout”. One planter refers to his job thusly: "It's kind of like running a marathon, but for 70 days."
Director and principal filmer Jason Nardella filmed a 35-person tree-planting crew in northern Alberta for most of the 2008 “season” (anywhere from 75 to 120 days, depending on a raft of circumstances) after spending several years as a planter himself. The crew has to plant 10.1 million tree seedlings, to exacting standards and in a variety of muscle-taxing landscapes, to fulfill the employer's reforestation contract.
When the fog rolls out and there hasn’t been an unseasonable dump of snow, the crew rides out in tank-tracked marsh buggies over the thawed and mosquito-infested muskeg or get ferried out to drop-off points in helicopters from the base camp near the settlement of High Level.
It seems that mental stability is probably the toughest variable to manage (after heat rash) while stuck in trackless post-logging slashscapes and trying to properly plant—and avoiding the dreaded “J root”—between 4,000 and 6,000 seedlings per 10-hour day.
Although the F word (freedom) is bandied about a fair bit by veteran planters when addressing the reasons they return to such difficult work every year, a common refrain heard from many of the featured dozen or so labourers (at least a third of whom seem to originate from Quebec) is that they must either be “crazy”, need “therapy”, or have to be “addicted” to tree-planting to return to a job that has at least one of them often breaking down and crying while working alone and living in dread every morning until he finally sees that day’s planting ground.
A surprise is that this camp, at least, allows children and dogs to reside therein for the season (the base consists of planters’ own small tents and larger portable structures for storage, kitchen, and mess hall, etcetera).
Nardella doesn’t go into many aspects of tree-planting culture that a longer documentary would have to examine to do justice to the subject. These would include bad companies (the ones that feed you crap and fail to pay at season's end, in whole or partially); drugs, sex, and booze; firings and desertions; the psychological downside of being forced to live in close confines with a small group of people for an extended period of time; and more details about the physical risks involved.
But as a primer on the topic, it’s a good little eye opener for those who may have never given the subject even a vagrant thought. You will sympathize with the planter who describes his severe heat rash as "a ball of fire in your shorts" that ultimately requires the application of a "manpon".
And if you happen to have a phobia about mosquitoes, horseflies, black flies, deer flies, wasps, and bees, it doubles as a horror flick.
78 Days screens as part of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival on Friday, May 11 (with the short “Among Giants”), at 9 p.m. at the Granville 7.
Watch the trailer for 78 Days.