DOWNTOWN — The film opens with shots of a stark landscape where once thriving communities have now been reduce to rubble. Burned-out factories crumble next to large open fields where homes once stood, the people who lived in them abandoning this urban core in search of opportunity or because they no longer could afford the mortgage.
The scene was reminiscent of a community torn apart by way. But this wasn’t footage from Dresden or Beirut. This was present-day Detroit.
In the documentary “Urban Roots” by Santa Monica-based Tree Media Group, the Motor City, once a bustling, diverse, and culturally-relevant metropolis, is captured as it is today, struggling to reinvent itself in the wake of the auto industry’s collapse and the Great Recession. Unemployment is high and fresh food is scare as grocery chains have fled to the suburbs, creating “food desserts,” forcing those in the city to buy sub-par produce from liquor stores, or travel dozens of miles to the nearest market.
At first it seems as if all life has been stripped away, but there are those who have hope and are creating opportunities for themselves and their community by turning vacant lots into small farms, producing fresh food for themselves and their neighbors while also planting the seed for a new economy with more local control.
The documentary, directed by Detroit-native Marc MacInnis and now being shown in theaters across the county as part of the Whole Foods “Do Something Reel” Film Festival, not only entertains, it educates the viewer and inspires them to want to make a positive change in their community, all of which is the mission of Tree Media and its founder, Santa Monica resident Leila Conners.
“We founded the company 15 years ago with the aim to create media that supports civil society, essentially media that matters, media that helps people understand their world better and envision a more sustainable and just future for everybody,” Conners told the Daily Press.
The company, which has an office on Main Street, strives for a “triple bottom line” — projects that produce a social and environmental benefit, and of course provide a profit to help finance future work.
With the help of stars like Woody Harrelson (“Thoughts From Within,” short film) and Leonardo DiCaprio (2007’s “The 11th Hour,” directed and written by Conners and her sister, Nadia Conners), as well as work with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the small company is making some headway, however, with any film project comes concerns about financing.
“I think we have a lot of support emotionally, but I think financially it is very difficult for someone to cut a check for these kinds of films. It’s hard,” said Conners, who lives north of Montana Avenue with her two sons and her partner, Mathew Schmid, the executive director of Tree Media.
“The people who fund us are very enlightened, forward-thinking people who want to see a shift in the world and want to use their money in that regard,” she added. “And they will get their money back.”
Conners, who did not study to be a filmmaker at first, traces her inspiration for writing and directing back to her childhood. She grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles and spent a lot of her youth outdoors, enjoying California’s diverse landscape. Her mother was both Egyptian and German, and she remembers traveling overseas often to visit family. These two things fostered a love for the natural world as well as a desire to understand how politics divided continents instead of uniting them.
“I was always interested in how the world was put together politically,” she said. “Why is the Middle East all Muslim with pockets of Christianity? Questions like that fascinated me as early as junior high.”
In college (she attended UC Berkeley before transferring to The American University of Paris), Conners studied international politics and economics and minored in art history. From there she became associate editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, an international journal of social and political thought, and associated editor of Global Viewpoint of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, an internationally distributed op-ed column that reached 200 outlets. This provided her with the opportunity to interview policymakers and thinkers like former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and feminist Betty Friedan.
During that time, Conners began to experiment with writing and directing, always believing that film was an art form that could make an impact, and now with the Internet, reach millions of people across the globe.
“The web is finally getting to where we wished it was 10 years ago,” she said of online technology that allows users to view feature-length films, slideshows and interact with filmmakers.
The Internet is also responsible for “Urban Roots.” Conners said MacInnis contacted her via e-mail about the project following the success of “The 11th Hour.”
“A lot of people were coming to us with projects after that, but I had recently become pregnant with my second son and I was not up for taking on another film so I kind of avoided that e-mail.”
She finally decided to check it out and she was moved by what she saw.
“What struck me was not just the farming, but the sate of Detroit,” she said. “It shocked me because, that’s America right? All this destruction should have been caused by a hurricane or a tornado or something like Katrina, or war, but it wasn’t. It was because of neglect and abandonment. One of the things I like so much about this film is that it assumes the post-industrial collapse has already happened. We’re not going to argue about it. We are moving on now … .”
In connection with the documentary, Tree Media is working to create five small farms at Los Angeles high schools.
Conners next project is a film entitled “Into Eden,” which focuses on the individual’s power to create change. She is also looking at ways to raise capital so future films can be made in a shorter period of time.
When she’s not working, Conners enjoys being a mom and taking her boys outdoors to the beach, parks and Farmers’ Markets. She’s also a yoga enthusiast and credits that to living in Santa Monica, which she calls the “yoga Mecca of the world.”
“Santa Monica for me resembles New York or Paris in the sense that you can walk around, you can hail a cab, you can take a bus or you can bike to get around without a car. I like that. I also like being around the ocean,” she said. “The air is much cleaner.”
Like any artist trying to tackle complex issues, Conners understands that change will not happen overnight and can get frustrated with the pace. But every time she hears from someone who has seen a Tree Media film and been moved, Conners is bolstered.
“It’s truly humbling and rewarding to know that you helped someone see things differently,” Conners said. “It feels pretty good.
“I think people like the idea of a company like Tree Media, but if you like it, you need to support it.”