Jason Nardella is the documentary filmmaker behind 78 days, a powerful film about the surprisingly brutal conditions behind tree planting and what the lifestyle really does to the body and the mind. He talks to us about his experience as a tree planter, and why he wanted to make the film.
Festivus: 78 Days looks at a unique lifestyle, which presents an equal amount of positives/negatives. Was there a particular experience you’d like to share that inspired you to make this documentary?
Jason: I planted trees for almost 12 seasons, from 1997 to 2010. Throughout those years, the idea to make a documentary about reforestation and the tree planting experience was something I thought about regularly. I always felt that the extreme living and working conditions that tree planters have to deal would make for an entertaining documentary setting.
I remember one year, a very intense wind/rainstorm ripped apart our camp, tents were flying all over the place and the helicopter was flipped over. That really made me think, “It sure would be nice to have a camera right now”. Originally, I wanted to explore reforestation across Canada and try to capture the essence of the culture and lifestyle of tree planters. By the time I started shooting, my focus had changed and I realized that to make it interesting, the documentary really had to be character driven, so my focus shifted to a more intimate portrait of veteran planters.
Festivus: Tree planting seems like a very fun way of spending the summer, but by the end of your movie that perception is left rather ambiguous. The money may be good, but the job seems to be for the young at heart. Why would you recommend the job to anyone, and also, why would you not recommend it?
Jason: Tree planting attracts many College and University students since it is a very effective way to earn a decent amount of money in just a few months. Full-time students can live on their reforestation earnings during the entire school year, allowing them to focus on their studies and removing the stress of a part-time job.
As “78 Days” shows, reforestation is both physically and mentally taxing, and the isolation and monotony of the work can definitely take a toll on you morale. Some think of tree planters as being lazy slackers who don’t want to work, and I’m sure there are some like that. But, in general, I have found most tree planters to be dedicated individuals who can commit to suffering for a few months, knowing that the months of time off will be well worth the pain.
Since tree planting is piece work (i.e.: you are paid about 10 cents per tree that you plant), you need to be self motivated and must be willing to work by yourself all day. You must also live in a tent outdoors for several months at the mercy of nature, away from all the comforts of home. In “78 Days”, most of the characters I follow are long time planters that are at the end of their careers and burnt out from hardships of the usually long season.
Festivus: Are you still tree planting or have you moved away from it? What is your current lifestyle like and has it benefited from your experience?
Jason: I quit tree planting in 2010 and now work in film and television in Montreal. Although I know a few planters in their late 30′s and early 40′s that still plant over 4000 trees a day in northern Alberta, I had a hard time finding motivation in my last years as a planter. After 12 seasons, I had enough of spending 3 to 4 months in desolate swamp lands and was fed up with sleeping in a tent. When I decided to stop planting, I knew I had to find seasonal work so I could still have months off in the winter to go travel and play.
The film and television industry in Montreal is mostly seasonal and there isn’t much work in the winter. This has allowed me to maintain a similar lifestyle as planting. Instead of working 3 months, I have to work 6-7 months and I’m fine with that, as long as I get to escape the cold months of winter misery. I usually go surfing in Mexico or snowboarding in Western Canada. Those 12 years of tree planting across Canada definitely formed my personality and built character. It is the toughest job I have ever had and almost every other work I do seems easy in comparison.
Festivus: Are you interested in making any more documentary films? If so what subjects interest you?
Jason: I hope to make other documentaries as well as fiction films since I enjoy both. The challenge in documentary is to maintain an entertaining visual flow while creating a compelling story that will entertain and educate the viewer. I am interested in individuals who live unconventional lives and follow their passion.
I think my next documentary will be about an elderly couple who operate a small farm/orchard just outside Montreal. They are over 70, work alone and cultivate some of the best produce and apple cider in the province. On “78 Days”, I worked mostly alone. I would be motivated by collaborating with some other filmmakers, like my friend, Adam Dewolfe who is a surf photographer and videographer.
78 Days screens part of THE DOC BLOCK, today at 4pm @ The Oriental Theater