The Felling: A powerful true Sheffield story of community versus corporation
It’s easy to forget it all began with one single Sheffield street tree.
Years later, the bitter anti-felling protests that took place across the city have become so much more.
Questions about why that one tree was to be axed as part of a £2.2 billion Sheffield Council highways contract turned into a quagmire of controversy: including transparency, bureaucracy, the right to protest, obscure trade union laws, the intricacies of PFIs, environmental regulation.
Then there was the international news coverage that followed the felling of trees on Rustlings Road at 5am in 2016.
That now notorious night raid was the trigger for filming to begin. Footage shot on the streets eventually became the basis of new feature documentary The Felling, by Jacqui Bellamy and Eve Wood.
The film neatly captures the everyday struggles of defiant protestors in the shadow of those very complex issues, to an ominous soundtrack.
Using key chapters taken from more than 500 hours of captured clips, the film showcases the battle waged by people determined to stand up for what they thought was right.
And stand up - under trees to stop them being cut down - they did. For hours, days, then weeks, months. On and on and on.
The film shows their resilience as higher barriers, both physical and legal, are brought in try to stop them. People start to be arrested, some face court. An injunction is granted. Still, they persist.
Watching the scenes where campaigners stand or play guitar in the snow, as chainsaws roar above and wood shavings drift on to their faces, was a powerful ‘faith in humanity’ moment.
There is humour too in this tale of community versus corporation.
Big laughs were heard in the packed UK premiere at Sheffield City Hall when the residents were shown foiling felling crews by staking out their depot and then racing them to the trees. Quite the slapstick game of cat and mouse.
And another funny moment came when protestors took instruments to tinkle on the streets following the arrest of one woman for, ridiculously, playing a plastic trumpet.
But there are deeply uncomfortable times, too.
The parts of the film in which protestors had their fingers literally peeled or yanked from railings were genuinely hard to watch.
Seeing the hi-vis clad armies of evidence gatherers and security guards start to outnumber protestors, as the contract deadline for felling trees deemed to be ‘diseased, dying, dead, damaging or dangerous’ nears, was also eye-opening.
It’s a thought-provoking story and one which, even as the credits rolled to a standing ovation, isn’t over yet.
Much has changed in Sheffield since the protests began, including the city’s governance, but there is still an independent tree inquiry to come.
The film also has extra resonance now, as strict new curbs on protesting loom via the Government’s proposed policing bill.
If it goes ahead, police would be given powers to shut down demonstrations if deemed too disruptive in what has been described as a ‘draconian’ crackdown on the right to protest.
Eve Wood, edit director and editor of The Felling, said the response to the film had been that it was ‘inspiring’ and an important record of what had happened.
She added: “For people to see what they did in a film, they were very proud to be part of it.
“When people are up against something, that’s when you get great drama, and they really were against something that was very nasty.”
The Felling is being screened at The Showroom this month and there are hopes it will also get a London launch and national theatrical release as the next step.
Eve said she and Jacqui hope the story of defiant Sheffielders could be part of raising national awareness of the threats to protest.
She added: “People are not aware of the fact that this policing bill is coming because there is a war going off and other distractions.”
As a former news reporter in Sheffield, I covered the early days of the tree protest movement.
For months the phone rang with calls from residents appalled to be losing the historic trees on their streets. Hundreds of letters, both against and for felling of trees, came in.
Trying - fruitlessly, mostly - to get answers about why this was happening shaped my future work. I could never have anticipated how enormous the saga would become, and that the tree protestors would ultimately triumph in this unbelievable David and Goliath battle.
Barrister Paul Powlesland, who set up Lawyers for Nature after being involved with the tree campaign, spoke at the premiere of The Felling.
He told the audience how international implications had taken root from the small grassroots movement in Sheffield and it had changed many lives.
‘If enough people stand up, you call the law’s bluff’, he said.
The Felling is a mighty message about the true power of ordinary people standing up, together.
The Felling is at The Showroom from April 1-7.
There is also a special Q&A session after the screening on Tuesday April 5.