City of Trees


Remember the so-called “Obama Stimulus”? I’ve always been a little surprised by how little attention the media has given the $787 billion American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) over these past five years. The “stimulus” was complex, controversial and costly — but incredibly, follow-up coverage has been barely a mere blip on the radar.

Someone should do something about that. And, luckily, two film-makers are.

This month, I met DC-based documentary filmmakers Brandon Kramer and Lance Kramer of Meridian Hill Pictures. I got a first-hand look at their new feature film, City of Trees. The film tells the story of the recession and the recovery through a unique perspective. It takes the view from trainees and staff in the Washington Parks & People DC Green Corps — one of the ARRA-funded blue-to-green collar job training programs in DC.  Over the course of about three years, the filmmakers documented program staff and three low-income DC residents — Charles Holcomb, James Magruder, and Michael Samuels. These three men navigate a transition from long-term unemployment, to an intensive hard and soft-skills training in urban forestry, and their subsequent fight to support their families and build a meaningful, sustainable career within urban communities in DC that still had unemployment figures hovering around 20 percent.

After four years working on the project, Brandon and Lance launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise critical funds to finish the film. They have smart ideas for outreach and engagement, hoping to share the film at festival, broadcast, and through community-based screenings in cities across the country. They shared an advance rough cut with me during the Thanksgiving holiday. I was moved by the way the film personalizes the intersection of the recovery with urban communities, the day-to-day experience of participating in a job training program, and the story of a disenfranchised minority participation in the emerging green economy.

City of Trees is a rare, non-partisan, people-centered window into how the massive and complex Recovery Act intersected with everyday people's lives. Through objective, critical storytelling and an observational filmmaking approach that allows real human drama to unfold on the screen as it happens in real life, the filmmakers found a way to tell an utterly compelling story about the fight to create jobs within a minority workforce largely left out of the "green collar" economy.

City of Trees features people whose stories represent the hopes, struggles and challenges of countless Americans impacted by the recession. This is the kind of film that can spark and advance an honest, inclusive and broad-reaching dialogue on how to create equal access to good jobs and safe green spaces in our cities. We need long-term, thorough, critical journalism right now as the economy is still recovering and people of all persuasions are looking for ideas for how to re-engage our nation’s long-term unemployed, particularly through new sectors like the green collar economy.

They have already assembled an incredible roster of some of the finest social-impact documentary filmmakers working today as advisors and crew on the project, including Gordon Quinn and Justine Nagan of Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, Life Itself) and Katy Chevigny (E-Team) as creative consultants since 2012; Eddie Martinez (To Be Heard) as senior editor; and Brian Satz (Brooklyn CastleTime is Ill-matic) who is composing an original score. Only two weeks into the campaign, Meridian Hill Pictures has already raised almost $35,000 from more than 325 backers. The early success of the campaign is a solid indicator that there’s clearly an audience for this kind of project and a need for this story to be told.

Check out their Kickstarter campaign and consider making a donation to help finish this exceptional project. All donations are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law through their non-profit fiscal sponsor Kartemquin Films. Anything that the filmmakers raise beyond their $35,000 goal will cover an outreach and engagement to bring the film to audiences in communities nationwide. Help spread the word to people and organizations working on urban poverty, green jobs, environmental policy, job training, labor issues — or anyone anywhere who loves great documentary films.


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