Oral history at its finest, Forest for the Trees documents the efforts of Dennis Cunningham to prosecute a lawsuit on behalf of Earth First! organizer Judi Bari. The film captures Cunningham—whose career highlights include cases on behalf of the Black Panthers and the Weathermen—in the twilight of a seemingly quixotic struggle to clear the name of a sincere and charismatic activist. The case arose after Bari struggled against increasingly antagonist and sinister interference from the FBI (including false arrests, slander and harassment) due to her Earth First! activities in the summer of 1990. Directed by Cunningham's daughter, Bernadine Mellis, Forest for the Trees captures the lawyer and his team with their guard down, allowing a look behind the brave fronts that the men present to the press and the courtroom.
The film begins in 2002, just as the government has finally deigned to allow Bari her day in court—after 12 years of stonewalling and even Bari's death (after surviving a 1990 car pipe bomb—which the FBI accused her of planting—she died of breast cancer in 1997 at the age of 48). Cunningham's weary visage approaches the iconographic as he slogs through the mountainous obstacles stacked against him—he appears to bear the full weight of a lifetime of fighting injustice. Unlike so many of the self-satisfied and self-righteous activists in the world today, Cunningham never stops fighting long enough to toot his own horn or make pretentious claims about the power of the human spirit. If anything, Cunningham seems prone to self-criticism, snappishness and disillusionment, which, paradoxically, is somewhat refreshing. His only concerns seem to be living with a growing sense of ennui and the pressing necessities involved in bringing his case to a successful conclusion. Which brings us to the best part—he actually wins!
Haunting footage of Bari's speeches and interviews prior to her death are interwoven to great effect, and imbue the tale with a sense of urgency and poignancy. Forest for the Trees is the gem of the Northwest Film Center's Human Rights on Film series, which concludes next week with 2005's Dreaming Lhasa.
Northwest Film Center at Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., 221-1156. 7 pm Thursday, Nov. 2. $4-$7.