There was a time when ‘culture’ was understood as a dynamic site that would appear intermittently in nature, in the midst of vast expanses of land. Today, in our crowded megacities, lungs and organs of the ever-extending organism of ‘culture’, nature is reduced to a ‘green space’, which serves, at best, only a decorative and recreational purpose, a surrogate for its former status as untamable and unknowable Other. In our countrysides, nature is transformed into blood and fuel, pumped up in the multitude of our highways, large arteries that convert, trade and serve the flesh of nature at the gates of our fattened cities. What justifies this movement of consumption and profit is our value-system, which exorbitantly seeks to inflate culture to the detriment of nature.
Teilo Vellacott brings these issues to the fore, in his elegant short observational documentary, On the Ground, in which a group of homeless people and environmental activists combine their efforts in an act of direct political defiance: the occupation of a terrain in Islington, North London, where seven trees are planned to be felled, by order of the council, for the building of luxury apartments. Some of the protesters are directly related to the cause, having made use of the green space as their home and shelter for months.
What can be appreciated in this vital piece of filmmaking is the diversity of the social actors who intervene. Indeed, as the film progresses, a divide becomes noticeable between those who are homeless, and directly concerned – the destruction of the site being a risk to their own life – , and the others, such as the central activist and organiser, whose purpose is oriented towards a broader practice to challenge the climate crisis. He repeats that the group is not there ‘just to save these trees’, but to put pressure on our ruling institutions in a wider fight against political inaction. The group of trees are therefore metonymic of the whole critical situation in which we all find ourselves. While some of the actors are not activists, per se, their effort to protect their homes is inscribed within the wider movement to circumvent what could soon become ‘societal collapse’.
In that sense, On the Ground is a refreshing representation of political action, democratised and taken into the hands of the homeless and the dispossessed, determined not to see concrete invade every inch of what they, and we have, all collectively, called our homes. Their aim is to serve the community and inspire others to follow in their footsteps. The most thoughtprovoking scene takes place near the end in the form of a monologue, spoken by one of the protesters, where his street philosophy shines through with depth: ‘no one will plant a tree, but all want to park in the shade’, he says, reminding us that we are part of ‘a big circle of life’, and it is our moral responsibility to treat that circle with dignity.
On the Ground shows on May 5th at the Rich Mix. Click here in order to acquire your tickets.