Public Comment

‘Avatar’: Tree Speech on the Silver Screen?

By Jessica Schley
Thursday February 04, 2010 - 08:47:00 AM

People want to kill tree sitters, but no one wants to kill James Cameron. 

As Cameron’s film Avatar became the highest grossing film of all time this weekend, former Berkeley tree sitters gathered in theaters in the East Bay to see what they have come to consider the Hollywood version of their own quest to save the planet, one tree at a time. Since the last tree was felled at the now famous (some say infamous) oak-grove-turned-sports-complex in Berkeley after a nearly two-year struggle with officials in 2007 and 2008, the pie-in-the-sky activists have searched for a way to ground their worldview after coming down from the trees. 

  “Avatar is a classic tree sit, but on the silver screen,” said one young former tree sitter who called herself Leaf. “It made a billion dollars off of the message we were trying to send out about anti-capitalism. It’s so ironic. And they wanted to kill us. But then Cameron gets accolades.” 

  Although the real life tree sitters had no flying dragons, lethal arrows, or floating mountains, they faced adversaries as blatantly hostile as the film’s military contractors searching for “unobtainium,” and even received death threats from bystanders angered at their blithe ability to stop what some viewed as progress; all for the sake of their “silly” environmentalist ideals. Through all of this hostile opposition, the tree sit was deliberately nonviolent—save for a few unsavory and regrettable moments. The film was decidedly not—in fact, it seemed to promote the idea of violent activism. Perhaps even the right of the Na’vi to kill for a cause. 

  As a student journalist at the University of California Berkeley who was arrested for a nonviolent action during the stand-off between University officials and activists who were fighting to save a 100-year-old oak grove condemned for a new sports complex, I feel that Avatar has tapped into a the consciousness already present in American society; one that falls shy of supporting tree sitters but unabashedly applauds a film about environmental activism—even if it is violent activism. 

  Avatar has won critical acclaim from filmsters and praise from environmentalists. 

Although the tree sitters in Berkeley drew media coverage from all corners of the globe, they were criticized perhaps more often than they were applauded. They had their fans, but they also had angry football fans to contend with who felt territorial about the proximity of the tree sit to their beloved Cal Bears stadium.  

  While there never was a crowd of supporters at the base of the oak grove as large as the box office lines were for the movie, many environmental activists feel that the film has done what they were trying to do all along at the Berkeley tree sit and elsewhere: raise awareness about the harm western culture—not just America, but all commercialized cultures, everywhere—is doing to what is left of the natural world.  

  Conservatives viewed the film’s hostility toward the military contractors as anti-American, but really, no one mentioned Americans. The fact that they construed it as such really just points to someone’s guilty conscience about how American corporations may be directing efforts similar to the Unobtanium project on Pandora in countries that seem just as remote to the average American as an alien planet does to the moviegoer. 

  So why is the film getting equal support in Midwestern towns, just as much as in liberal urbanite areas? Because it tells us that if we want to, we can defect from our own consumptive culture and become a Jake Sully in order to save the planet. The film’s basic, stripped down storyline perpetuates a western-centric view of how to save nature: it is up to us. This is why the film is being compared to Dances with Wolves, Fern Gully and even Pocahontas: they all tell us that we, the western conquerors, can actually become the hero to our own victims. 

  In her 1975 essay, anthropologist Reina Green coined the term “Pocahontas Perplex” to describe this phenomenon in western culture storytelling. It means that we sexualize the conquerable (the Pocahontas archetype in multitudes of Native- American-meets-European storylines) and “save” her for her beauty and virtue. The Na’vi, replete with doe-eyes and lanky, scantily clad blue-baby bodies, needed to be commanded by an ex-marine in order to band together to save their planet. The film even used classic Woody Guthrie rhetoric (“This land is our land”) to inspire retaliation and defense of the native sacred sites, and to show the audience that the tough-yet-tender natives needed some Americo-centric sing-song to get them through their hard times.  

  Perhaps having grown up on Pocahontas and Fern Gully is why I gravitated toward the tree sit, and then of course toward Avatar, contributing my $14.50 to the billion dollar bottom line to see it in 3D. I never spent that much to view the tree sit, but perhaps if they had charged a fee and made you stand in line, they would have been more successful in their venture to stop the bulldozers.  

  Yet, they weren’t for a lack of media coverage, garnering coverage worldwide. The next tree sit to make it into the Economist, NY Times, New Yorker, LA Times, SF Chronicle, NPR, CNN International, and thousands of small town newspapers, blogs and YouTube postings, might just have what conservatives have always been afraid of: a crowd of supporters with a billion dollars to spend.  

  I just hope that the next generation of inspired tree-sitting activists—and there will be more—won’t feel the moral imperative to commit murder in order to defend their beliefs, as was the example set in Avatar for future activism.  


Jessica Schley is an American Studies major at the University of California, Berkeley. She was arrested in 2008 for throwing a water bottle to a tree sitter but the charges were dropped.