We all have our opinions on what is flawed in society, but very few of us actually bother to make a stand for what we believe in. We lead our lives conforming to society’s norms and many are quick to dismiss those who don’t as extremists or tree-hugging hippies. These titles conjure up images of two very different societal factions. Dean Puckett’s documentary, Grasp The Nettle, however, examines an overlap between these two circles, as ecological activists become political and formerly Zen individuals place themselves in very risky situations for their cause.
Puckett sets up camp with a bunch of environmental friendlies as they build an eco-village at Kew Bridge, complete with its own shower served by rainwater. On a disused piece of land owned by developers St George, the group intend to promote the idea that sustainable living is possible despite the constraints of a commercial, capitalist society. Thus they pursue what they believe is a liberated lifestyle, recycling materials, planting crops in the hopes of eventually achieving self-sufficiency and engaging in freeganism (or bin-diving to put it less politely) in the meantime. Puckett interviews members of the commune throughout about how they were drawn to a life of basic survival, most expressing seemingly utopian ideals. We are also allowed glimpses of their personal lives in and outside of the village, such as talk of relationships, sexual encounters, mental illness and bereavement. Yet, Puckett remains tasteful in his filming and committed to portraying the progress of their movement as opposed to creating a soap opera.
Media coverage and membership grow gradually as people ostracised by society (such as the homeless) join the commune. The village becomes a hotspot not only visited by the local community but also by substance abusers which thus diminishes the peace a little, as control is lost and more and more fights and aggressive behaviour occur. The conditions even turn quite surreal with the arrival of former MI5 whistle blower turned transvestite messiah David Shayler, a fact which Puckett notes himself.
The eccentric family formed on the basis of a mutual cause is further threatened as developers St George and the eco-warriors are forced to battle for the land in court. This causes the sporadic emergence of other eco villages and the resurgence of a debate concerning land rights. The story gets quite exciting here as one wonders how far the commune will go to save their village. But certain strains of the village disagree how legal proceedings should be approached so as not to fracture the community, which culminates in the demotivating effect of the loss of the court case. The community has been divided and conquered. Certain villagers are even convinced that Puckett and other members are in cahoots with police.
Around this point, a parallel ‘democracy village’ is set up by long-term campaigner Maria at parliament square, involving some of the eco village members. This is where we see the group really become activists in their not so legal actions in protest of the war in Afghanistan. The police and bailiffs respond with violence and in a similar chain of events to the eco village, paranoia and invasion by homeless substance abusers ensue, but perhaps on a more extreme level. Nevertheless, the activists battle to the very end in both cases with an unbending resolve and positivity.
I fear that some resonance is lost with this documentary as the events took place three years before its release and tension will be lost for audiences who followed the events back in 2009-2010. It is, however, important that these social experiments have been documented from the inside in a real and honest portrayal of activism. These people are very transparent – they have no reason not to be – and even pretty comical on occasion. The story is an inspirational one in that the village members won’t give up and see success in their actions where others would think that they had failed. You have to give Dean Puckett credit too for getting rid of his flat and turning down other jobs to live in the wilderness (if you can call a patch of land cradled by roads and blocks of flats the wilderness).
Grasp the Nettle is the result of a successful Indiegogo campaign raising £5215. It has played at the Open City Docs Festival and The Portobello Film Festival and has recently been accepted into the Leeds International Film Festival (6-20 November).
For more information visit www.graspthenettlefilm.com