Two straightforward nature docs drop you into worlds unseen: travel to forests around the world in The Hidden Life of Trees and underwater in the Pacific Ocean in The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52.
The Hidden Life of Trees is on VOD in the US and will hit VOD in Canada on August 27. The Loneliest Whale is on VOD in Canada and the US.
At Seventh Row, we pride ourselves on seeking out the best hidden gems that nobody’s talking about to ensure that our readers never miss a great film again.
When I interviewed Chris Hegedus back in 2016, she noted, “The thing that film does is it drops you into a world.” Two recent nature documentaries, The Hidden Life of Trees and The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52, are exceptional for that reason: they take you through thriving and dying forests, and into the oceans to find a particular whale.
Though we at Seventh Row have spent the last few months talking about the ways in which documentary filmmakers are pushing the boundaries of what we consider documentary — playing with truth and reality, telling subjective stories, constructing reality — these two films are much more traditional fare. Groundbreaking cinema they are not, but fascinating and engaging, they certainly are.
The Hidden Life of Trees
Based on Peter Wohlleben’s best-selling book, Jörg Adolph’s documentary follows Wohlleben around the world to visit threatened forests in British Columbia, the oldest tree in the world in Sweden, forests of varying degrees of health across Europe, and much more. Through sitting in on Wohlleben’s public lectures or capturing his personal video diaries, Adolph introduces us to the renowned forester, who, in turn, introduces us to his great love of trees.
With enthusiasm, Wohlleben explains how trees communicate with each other to decide when to pollinate and work as a community to help each other survive. He takes us to thriving forests to show us this rarely seen complex ecosystem, so that we know the difference when we see new, hastily planted forests and how threatened these new forests are. What the film offers that the book can’t is access to these wondrous places. Wohlleben can explain to us the difference between forests experiencing clear-cutting and those that have been maintained for centuries, but Adolph’s film drops us right inside them. You needn’t love trees as much as Judi Dench does to enjoy the film, though you might leave it feeling just as fascinated.
The Loneliest Whale: In Search of 52
It’s fortuitous that not one but two documentaries about whale songs and communication have come to VOD this summer: The Loneliest Whale: In Search of 52 and Fathom. Though The Loneliest Whale is the lesser of the two, it’s still a fascinating look inside bioacoustics research, and an investigation of a puzzle that’s fascinated people for years. Back in 2004, The New York Times published an article about the storied 52 Hz whale: a single whale found whose song was at a frequency no other whales produced, halfway between a blue whale (which sings between 10 and 40 Hz) and a fin whale (which sing at 20 Hz). The idea of this lonely whale with no one to answer its song captured lonely hearts, and it led documentarian Joshua Zeman to see if he could track it down.
The Loneliest Whale follows Zeman on his journey to solve this mystery, recruiting bioacoustic experts in San Diego, where the whale was last spotted (or rather, heard). At the same time of year as that last ‘hearing’, Zeman and a team of researchers set out to find the whale. Listening underwater, they are thwarted by the loud sounds of cargo ships in the nearby shipping lanes and the seeming impossibility of locating one specific whale. Along the way, they tag blue whales and fin whales, and discover new hangouts for them. Remarkably, in the end, they find not only the 52 Hz whale, but a friend calling back to it on the same frequency.
As a film, The Loneliest Whale can be a bit of a mess, torn between telling us the story of the scientists and the story of Zeman’s obsession, which is borne out of a kindred sense of loneliness. The film sometimes gets lost talking about why the 52 Hz whale captured imaginations, when the most interesting stuff is the detective work required — including seeing the fancy hearing devices the scientists throw into the water — to find it. Along the ride, there’s also a lesson in how whale communication works, though little of this is new if you’ve seen Fathom. But you get to see the 52 Hz whale! And many other whales along the way. As someone who loves whales as much as Judi Dench loves trees, I couldn’t resist.
You could be missing out on opportunities to watch films must-see films like The Loneliest Whale and The Hidden Life of Trees at virtual cinemas, VOD, and festivals.
Subscribe to the Seventh Row newsletter to stay in the know.
Subscribers to our newsletter get an email every Friday which details great new streaming options in Canada, the US, and the UK.