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‘Light Needs’ documentary asks what do we owe our plants?

a close up of a jade plant. a sign in the pot says I DRINK A LOT
Courtesy of LIGHT NEEDS
A jade plant communicates its needs.

What do we owe our house plants beyond light and water? It’s a question that Milwaukee filmmaker Jesse McLean asks in a new experimental documentary, Light Needs. In it, she considers the relationships between people and the plants they live with, illuminating the responsibility that humans have to care for other living things.

I spoke with McLean, who is also an associate professor of film at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, ahead of the screening at the Milwaukee Film Festival.


Where did this film project begin for you?

It began, partly, because I'm a lover of plants. I'm a person that has 70-plus plants in my house. It's been a long-time hobby, activity, obsession. So it was personal. But I was thinking about plants in people's spaces. I was really struck by a friend of mine, who's also a plant person, who was living in a small apartment and had plants everywhere in his kitchen. The counter space was taken up with plants, there was not a lot of room to cut up vegetables.

I thought, would I do that for my plants? Because when I asked him about it, he said, “This is where they get the best light.” And I thought, am I that good to my plants, that I would give up precious counter space for them? I should. But would I? So that was the entry into what do we do for our plants? And even just thinking how, on a certain level, it's kind of odd that we do this at all, that we have plants inside? Like, it makes sense and it's so normalized. But there is this kind of moment where you think, why do we do this?

Courtesy of Jesse McLean
Jesse McLean is the director and writer of the new documentary Light Needs.

Do you think that the process of making this film has changed your answer to that question? Like now, are you the person that would sacrifice precious counter space for plants?

No. I'm still someone that struggles with the best way to take care of them versus what I want my house to feel like and how crowded do I want my house to feel with plants. I think I knew that I was that kind of plant person. And the film didn't change that. But the film let me explore a lot of different attitudes people have towards house plants or plants that they share domestic — or in some cases, office or workspaces with — and that became more of the pursuit. Let's look at a lot of different attitudes, some less likable than others.

I understand that you worked on this for several years. Talk about what the filming looked like and what held your interest for so long?

Yeah, it was longer than I anticipated. But I also didn't start thinking that I was going to make a feature film. I think I had initially just started thinking I would document the plants. And the people, you know, who cares? And then I realized that when the people would walk in a frame, that was a lot more interesting. I was hoping they'd walk by, and the plants would rustle in the wind or something like that. So part of it was like, OK, I gotta dig deeper.

I had been given the name of the two people who take care of the bonsai plants — Jack and Michelle. I went to their house numerous times to film, and then we did an audio interview. And when I cut that scene together, I thought, OK, this is a bigger film. I think this is a feature. So in a lot of ways, it was sort of accidental. I didn't start thinking I'm gonna make a movie about people and houseplants. I just realized I had a lot of material and things kept happening.

Of course, I recognized UWM’s campus. We go to the library, you meet the guy that's taking care of the plants at the library. Was much of this filmed in Milwaukee?

A lot of it was filmed in this area, in Milwaukee County or just around Wisconsin. So the bonsai — Jack and Michelle live in the Fox Point area, and they have a beautiful bonsai collection at Lynden sculpture garden, which everybody should check out. And then, Jim Baxter at the UWM library, of course. Interiorscapes is a local company that does plant-scaping for businesses, and they have a monthly sale, which is how I knew about them because I would go and get these amazing plants for really cheap prices. They were very generous to let me in and tour their space and talk about what they do. And then a lot of other people's homes because it is interested in domestic spaces.

In Light Needs, McLean explores the relationship between humans and the plants they live with.
Courtesy of LIGHT NEEDS
In Light Needs, McLean explores the relationship between humans and the plants they live with.

We see a lot of really interesting images — plants existing in human spaces that are almost contradictory. They're thriving in the corner of a quiet library, or there's this huge potted tree that's sitting on this dolly on wheels so that it can move around. What caught your eye, or what were you looking for, as you were composing these images?

I started off — when I realized, I think this is going to be a film and it's going to be about people and their plants and plants and their people — I did put out a call to people I knew. Do you have, do any of you know anyone that has an interesting plant collection or story about plants? And that was how I met — I actually knew Cecilia Condit. She used to teach in the program, and she's a local artist and a friend. I didn't realize she was into plants because she only has a couple. But she said, "I've got a story for you."

It kind of just kept going. People would say, like, “Oh, I know this person that has a million plants in their house” or “I know this interesting story.” The library was something that I had just seen and been attentive to, and thought like, these plants are enormous. What team of people is taking care of them? And then it turns out, it was just Jim Baxter. He's lovely, and such a great person and gave me a tour. So I just was looking at, like, how is the plant in the space? Is it something like in those library spaces — they're so vast, so you can try to get the scale of the plants, which some of them are like eight or nine feet tall. Other times it was just trying to again, emulate — you know, this person has a lot of plants. They have plants in their kitchen, and they've got plants everywhere around them.

Is Cecilia the person who's like, “that plant missed me”?  

Yeah, she's one of the first people we meet, about the plants that she thinks were lonely. The plant missed her. And the plant missed its plant friend.

At one point, you ask this question where you're like, it's not should plants become more human by entering our space? It's can you become more like a plant? What are things that you think we could learn from plants or that you think we might do well to emulate?

That's a good question. I think that comes from a kind of ideology or sort of ethics towards the nonhuman world, which is we always judge it on our own terms. Like a lot of times, all of the vegetative world, be it plants outside or forests, we just treat them like a backdrop for our own existence. And domesticated plants have a complicated history. Most of them come from pretty faraway places around the world. So it's a complicated story.

I think from a lot of things that are found in the natural world or the nonhuman world, just stillness, patience. Viewing things on a different timescale. I mean, plants, things happen a lot slower for plants than we see. And I think as human beings, we're always in a hurry to figure things out and get an answer and comprehend. Everyone feels like they're in a hurry. Everyone feels like they're busy. Maybe plants, if they feel at all, maybe they are in a hurry too. But it seems like they're pretty good at a kind of slowness.

a rubber plant asks, 'what does photosynthesis feel like?'
Courtesy of LIGHT NEEDS
The film considers the consciousness of house plants, as well as questions like what the wind, or photosynthesis, feels like.

There's this part where we get to eavesdrop on a plant conversation, which I really love. It's this piano room that's filled with plants, and they all talk to each other. They express sorrow about being inside. One of them wants to know what the wind feels like, another one wants to meet a bee. Did you imagine plant voices throughout the project? Did the problems that they might face — did that come very easily to you?

I think pretty early on, I realized — when I realized, OK, I'm making a feature, and it's going to have different subjects, different attitudes — that I wanted the plants to talk. And I knew that they'd be voiced by human beings. I kind of needed that to happen because even though at the beginning, there's this text on screen that poses this question of “what is photosynthesis feel like?” I can't really know because if I was to speak for the plant, it would be an act of ventriloquism.

I knew that I was going to actually do that later. And I have had experience with people where they were like, “You said you weren't gonna make the plants talk and you did.” But that's kind of the point. I feel like I needed to acknowledge my own hand as a human being making this film. I didn't want to come off as some kind of plant expert, or like, “I really figured out how they feel.” So I knew I wanted them to have a voice, but it would be complicated because you can tell that they're human beings.

And in terms of what they talked about, I did want them to have a comedic but sorrowful conversation. It's kind of funny, and yet the things they talk about are pretty sad, about being left at someone's house or being sent through the mail. Things that we do that we never think about that like, would be kind of traumatic if they have a consciousness. But I also wanted it to end with them sort of theorizing in a poignant and maybe a slightly melancholic way, like, what some of these natural forces that they don't get to experience are like, like rain or wind. And daydreaming like, maybe that would feel amazing. Or maybe it would be terrifying.

a close-up of hands pruning a bonsai plant
Courtesy of LIGHT NEEDS
A human cares for their bonsai plant.

What do you hope that viewers get from that perspective?

A lot of people have told me that they think about their plants differently. They don't always follow that up, with like, now I'm nicer to my plants, whatever that means, or now I'm terrified of my plants, because maybe they're listening to me. But just the fact that they think about them, pay more attention to them. That, to me, is a really great outcome.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I didn't shift. I'm still this plant person that loves plants, but forgets to water them. It's a very humbling activity. Because even if you think you know a lot, you don't speak the plant's language, and the plant could get sick and die. You may think you've really got a handle on it. But there's a sort of mystery that will always be there. But I think just being attentive to them, more than the obligatory, “I need to water them or change the soil every once in a while.” I think just being like, “they're here. And I don't know if they have a consciousness or how sentient they are, but they're here and they're living.” In general, that's something that I'm interested in doing as an artist, and as a person, is just remembering and reminding ourselves we're not the only species on the planet. There's so many other kinds of species and living beings that we coexist with.

I definitely had that experience, sitting out in the lobby waiting for you to come to the station. We have all these plants on top of the air conditioner and they were all kind of nodding in the AC output [air vent]. They were like, “hello Jesse! We're here, we’re ready for you!” That was cool.

I was happy to see them.

‘Light Needs’ screens at the Milwaukee Film Festival Tuesday, April 23 at 8:30 p.m. at the Times Cinema and Thursday, April 25 at 4:00 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre. Both screenings will be followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Jesse McLean. Find tickets and more information here.

WUWM is a service of UW-Milwaukee.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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