Redwood Forest Defense Activists Star in the Documentary Sentinels

In the film, Portland documentarians Derek Knowles and Lawrence Lerew capture a Humboldt County, Calif., tree-sit.

Behind the new documentary Sentinels lies a forest of stories.

There’s one about how the logging company Green Diamond owns the fourth-most land in the United States, another about how Pacific Northwest tree-sitting protests have evolved since the timber wars of 30 years ago, and more still about the convictions of anonymous activists and their efforts to block clear-cuts.

Sentinels, though, leads the audience into the trees hoping they’ll see the forest eventually.

In the film, Portland documentarians Derek Knowles and Lawrence Lerew capture a Humboldt County, Calif., tree-sit with a bare, sensorial, vérité style, often through the sightlines of airborne Redwood Forest Defense activists committing a half-decade to their mission.

Influenced by the observant, naturalistic approach of directors like Kelly Reichardt (First Cow, Old Joy), the nonfiction filmmakers orient Sentinels around the atmosphere and processes of tree-sitting: the rain’s patter, a backhoe’s screech, and the care required to make a 100-foot manual ascent into a redwood.

“It’s such a big story when you think about deforestation and what they’re really up against,” says Knowles, the film’s cinematographer and co-director, and a veteran of multiple documentaries about California wildfires (Last Days at Paradise High, After the Fire). “It felt appropriate to do something microscopic to get at this larger overwhelming issue.”

Streaming currently via the Los Angeles Times and screening June 1-12 at the San Francisco Documentary Festival, Sentinels hoists the viewer onto an elevated network of platforms connecting the 18 acres cordoned off by the activists.

As direct-action protests go, it doesn’t get much more direct. We even witness activists rope trees into their blockade, hoping that loggers won’t risk their safety and that of the protesters by felling the connected giants.

Above all, Sentinels emphasizes the protest as a devotional act of time. Even though the film’s runtime hovers around 20 minutes, we intuit how long it might take to fill a jug with rainwater, that the holidays have quietly arrived, that hummed songs cycle through the protesters’ heads and, most notably, that there are still years left to go.

Shot in 2020, Sentinels covers about 200 days, but the activists aim to continue their sit until 2024 when Green Diamond’s logging permit expires.

“Many times direct action is in support of a legal challenge, a stalling tactic,” says co-director Lerew, who has worked on documentaries that have embedded with Oakland hospitals (The Waiting Room) and police units (The Force). “In this instance, there’s nothing like that.”

While defiance is inherent in this form of protest, daily confrontation with lumberjacks isn’t the goal. In fact, the one instance of face-to-face contact captured in the film catches an activist who goes by the “forest name” Lupine genuinely off guard.

For his part, Knowles was rocked by the sudden gnashing of machinery on his first night filming from a canopy. “That was some harrowing shit,” he says, likening the scene to the memorable sequence in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001) in which Saruman’s Orcs raze Fangorn Forest.

Though anonymity is a priority, the Redwood Forest Defense does operate a website and Instagram outlining its cause and ways to assist. At the time of filming in 2020, Knowles and Lerew say their subjects operated the only active tree-sit in the Western United States. Others have since taken off, including the escalation of a substantial blockade at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

“It’s a youth-led movement,” Lerew says. “A lot of the people arrived at [tree-sitting] because signing petitions and writing to their state and federal representatives was not leading to any real change that they could see for themselves.”

Even if the 18-acre site of the Sentinels protest counts for a mere fraction of Green Diamond-owned land primed for what the company terms “harvesting,” the film seeks to showcase the grounded, ecological vibrance nestled within the protest’s symbolism.

“It is a forest teeming with life,” Knowles says. “What you realize from just spending five minutes there is when you come in and destroy an ecosystem, you can’t just replant that.”

SEE IT: Sentinels streams for Los Angeles Times subscribers at latimes.com/about/shortdocs. The film also streams June 1-12 as part of the San Francisco Documentary Festival at sfdocfest2022.eventive.org. $10.