How The Felling charts inside story of Sheffield trees scandal as new film released reveals how campaigners defied council chiefs – Andy Kershaw

THE FELLING, which grips the viewer from the start to its climactic end, chronicles the astonishingly successful campaign by a relatively small group of residents, to prevent the felling of thousands of healthy street trees in England’s greenest city of Sheffield, during a two-year campaign which attracted global attention.

The film, which is beautifully shot at close quarters by local filmmaker and co-director Jacqui Bellamy, who often found herself caught up in the maelstrom, captures most of the high drama, pathos and comedic moments of this epic battle to save mature limes, oaks and other species of large trees, many of which were condemned to be felled for want of a simple engineering solution to the problems they caused on the road or kerbside.

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It stands as a masterful tribute to the many people who were prepared to stand in harm’s way, using peaceful ‘NVDA’ or non-violent direct action in the face of escalating levels of aggression and legal weaponry aimed at thwarting them by South Yorkshire Police, Sheffield Council and its PFI highways contractor Amey plc, which was awarded a £2.2bn contract in 2012.

The Felling is a new film which charts the Sheffield tree-felling scandal.

The film begins with the dramatic and now infamous events in Rustlings Road, in the leafy Ecclesall area of the city in November 2016, where terrified residents were knocked up at 5am by police to see their cars being towed away as council ‘arbs’ (private sector arborists hired by Sheffield Council) in hard hats and hi-vis vests, armed with chainsaws, begin to chop down seven healthy lime trees.

The sequence culminates in the arrest of two pensioners and the subsequent political outrage and national media condemnation of Sheffield Council. Using narrative from the campaigners themselves, actualite from local news bulletins and underscored with music from homegrown Sheffield bands, The Felling is superbly edited by fellow filmmaker and co-director Eve Wood to give a chronology of the increasingly menacing and bullying tactics used by the police, Sheffield Council and its contractor which included video surveillance, High Court injunctions, fines, and arrests under obscure trade union legislation and threats of bankruptcy.

The film never slows in the pace of the edit and quality of the camera work as we witness residents often in their nightgowns and fancy dress, prepared to risk being in contempt of court by placing themselves inside the controversial safety barriers to prevent the loss of their beloved street trees.

Equally, the film demonstrates the impressive levels of sophistication and organisation employed by the Sheffield Tree Action Group (STAG) in staving off many of the felling operations using a range of ingenious methods from early morning lookouts to spot the ‘arbs’ leaving the council’s main Olive Grove depot and the use of multiple WhatsApp groups standing ready to obstruct them before they even set up their barriers. At one stage the whole days felling operation is delayed for hours by the simple use of bike locks on the fencing, which broke two sets of Amey’s bolt cutters trying to cut them off.

The Felling is a new film which charts the Sheffield tree-felling scandal which continues to embarrass the city.

As the confidence in frustrating Amey’s work grows, we see protesters using new direct-action techniques ‘bunnying’ and ‘gekkoing’ or climbing into the threatened trees and inserting themselves between metal fencing and garden walls, whilst facing a posse of adrenalin fuelled ‘stewards’ in hi-vis, backed up by dozens of police officers.

The film records some highly comical exchanges. For example, Dave Dillner, the founder of STAG, is filmed shouting across to police “You’re going to need a bigger van”, indicating the number of people who were prepared to obstruct the felling. “We have a right to protest and we’re standing quietly and peacefully next to trees,” he says, politely to the bemused workmen.

The film shows how the surgical use of Freedom of Information requests were used to expose internal emails revealing the council’s secret plan to fell 17,500 street trees in Sheffield, despite its public denials of such a target.

But we also see the human cost, fear and anxiety which the council’s hard-line legal strategy causes to leading campaigners like Paul Brooke, Simon Crump, Alison Teal, Calvin Payne and others as they consider the risk of losing their homes and assets for breaching the council’s injunctions. Court orders which were so widely drawn as to cover any ‘persons unknown’ entering or intending to enter a safety zone erected by the contractor.

The Felling is a new film which charts the Sheffield tree-felling scandal.

“I believe Sheffield is a better place for the things that I and other people have done,” says Calvin Payne, who received a suspended prison sentence for breaking the injunction.

The film is perhaps evidence of a watershed in the history of the right to peaceful protest and the defence of free speech in Britain which is about to be severely curbed in the Police Bill 2021 which is awaiting Royal Assent. It is a truly remarkable piece of cinema.

The Felling is to being given its UK Premiere at Sheffield City Hall (Oval Hall) on Sunday, March 20, at 2pm. Tickets:

Andy Kershaw is a former BBC journalist who covered the Sheffield street tree protests over a period of four years.

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