New documentary reveals secrets of California redwoods

"Giants Rising" to premiere at Bay Area's DocLands Film Festival

They only had to wait a few thousand years, but the redwoods are finally getting their moment in the cinematic spotlight. California’s big trees are the stars of Giants Rising, a new feature-length documentary that will make its Bay Area premiere at the DocLands Film Festival on May 4.

“I’m so excited to be able to screen this film in the Bay Area, in the place where the idea for Giants Rising was born,” says film director Lisa Landers. Inspired by a childhood visit to Muir Woods that left her “awestruck,” Landers started developing the idea for an in-depth exploration of California’s redwoods back in 2018. “There wasn’t a film out there that told the redwoods tale in its entirety,” says Landers. “It was always pieces of it, but there was no singular cinematic experience that would delve into the science, the history, our cultural ties to the redwoods, and the unbelievable awe that the trees inspire.”

Bright blue water travels through underground roots and up the trunk of a redwood tree in this animation of water transportation in the redwoods
In Giants Rising, a sequence by Bay Area animation company Little Fluffy Clouds shows how coast redwoods transport water several hundred feet into the air to reach the forest canopy. Image courtesy Lisa Landers.

Giants Rising paints a mesmerizing picture of how these forests have endured for millennia, with state-of-the art animations illuminating the redwoods’ superpowers—from withstanding fire and sharing resources underground to capturing massive amounts of carbon. The film also explores the unique hold these trees have on the human heart. Scientists, conservationists, and Indigenous leaders share fascinating stories of discovery and connection in the redwoods, and all speak passionately about the pressing need to protect these vital ecosystems. Tragic losses to the ancient forests—and the equally dramatic battles to save these iconic trees—are underscored by moving narration by musician Michael Franti. 

Conservation efforts by the League and its partners are also woven throughout the documentary. “Many of the research and conservation projects that we highlight were made possible, often in large part, by Save the Redwoods League, from the mapping of the redwood genome to the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative,” says Landers. She adds that “Redwoods Rising is a big moment in the film,” referring to the ambitious project to restore 70,000 acres of formerly logged redwood forest in Redwoods National and State Parks.

Three people paddle a canoe on a large river, with woman holding a wooden paddle in the foreground
Giants Rising explores the cultural significance of redwoods to the Yurok people and the benefits of integrating Indigenous ecological knowledge and forest management practices. Photo courtesy Lisa Landers.

Several key scenes in the film were filmed at the former Orick mill site in Humboldt County, a League property slated to be returned to the Yurok Tribe as part of the vision for the ‘O Rew Redwoods Gateway. Rosie Clayburn, Yurok tribal heritage preservation officer, is a central protagonist in Giants Rising, giving voice to the significance of redwoods to the Yurok Tribe—and their fight to restore cultural connections to these ancestral forests.

Another passionate protagonist is Sarah Bird, a multimedia artist and photographer working to capture a life-size portrait of an ancient redwood. The film chronicles Bird’s process in finding the perfect subject—a 1500-year-old coast redwood called Old Tree—and her multi-year effort to stitch together hundreds of stills into a single image. Bird recently revealed the completed portrait, Being/Tree, in San Francisco, projecting a luminous full-scale image of Old Tree onto the city’s historic Ferry Building. The filmed art installation is being incorporated into Giants Rising.

As buzz for the documentary builds, Landers hopes to continue festival screenings and secure a distribution deal that will bring Giant Rising to a wider audience and inspire more people to enjoy and protect the redwoods. Says Landers, “My hope is that this film kindles a deeper sense of connection to the redwoods—that it cultivates a fascination and appreciation for these trees that will make us better stewards of all forests.”

Giants Rising screens at the DocLands Film Festival in San Rafael, Saturday, May 4. Discussion panel to include filmmaker Lisa Landers, Sam Hodder of Save the Redwoods League, Rosie Clayburn of the Yurok Tribe, and redwood geneticist Zane Moore. Get tickets and learn more.

About the author

Kristina Malsberger works to enliven the conversation around conservation as the Writer/Storyteller & Editor at Save the Redwoods League.

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