Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai

How the simple act of women planting trees changed a nation...
Alan Dater
Year Released
Film Length(s)
80 mins
Closed captioning available
Remote video URL


TAKING ROOT tells the dramatic story of Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai whose simple act of planting trees grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, protect human rights, and defend democracy—a movement for which this charismatic woman became an iconic inspiration.

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Featured review

Dr. Maathai's courage and vision are rivaled closely by her capacity to teach. Her story - as told in this film -- is worth a thousand textbooks.
Roger Wilkins
Clarence J. Robinson Professor Emeritus, George Mason University


TAKING ROOT: THE VISION OF WANGARI MAATHAI tells the inspiring story of the Green Belt Movement of Kenya and its founder Wangari Maathai, the first environmentalist and first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

The U.S.- educated Professor Maathai discovered her life's work by reconnecting with the rural women with whom she had grown up. Their lives had become intolerable: they were walking longer distances for firewood, clean water was scarce, the soil was disappearing from their farms, and their children were suffering from malnutrition. Maathai thought to herself, "Well, why not plant trees?" She soon discovered that tree planting had a ripple effect of empowering change. Countering the devastating cultural effects of colonialism, Maathai began teaching communities about self-knowledge as a path to change and community action. The women worked successively against deforestation, poverty, ignorance, embedded economic interests, and violent political oppression. They became a national political force that helped to bring down Kenya's 24-year dictatorship.

Through TV footage and chilling first person accounts, TAKING ROOTdocuments the dramatic confrontations of the 1980s and '90s as the women of the Green Belt Movement confront human rights abuses and environmental degradation. Cinema verité footage of the tree nurseries and the women and children who tend them brings to life the confidence and joy of people working to improve their own lives on their terms.

TAKING ROOT captures a world-view in which nothing is perceived as impossible and presents an awe-inspiring profile of Maathai's unstoppable and courageous thirty-year journey to protect the environment, defend human rights, and promote democracy.


TAKING ROOT is one of the most important documentaries of our times. In this critical era, may the work of Dr. Wangari Maathai serve as a powerful inspiration to all of us working to uplift our people and nurture life on the planet. May this beautiful film move us all to live as service warriors, as Dr. Maathai so humbly, yet fiercely demonstrates through the gift of her extraordinary life. Every seed planted offers hope, every plant watered brings life, and every tree celebrated is a gift to the generations to come.
Alli Chagi-Starr
Green For All, Business Partnerships Manager & Co-Founder, Art in Action Youth Leadership Program
What moved me about this film is how completely it does justice to the breadth of Wangari Maathai's vision. Students need to make the connection that the survival of our planet and the restoration of our humanity are intricately linked. Without one, there cannot be the other. TAKING ROOT shows students in a very visceral way what that means in one woman's life. I highly recommend it to teachers trying to expose students to ideas that can change the world.
Tracy Basile
Environmental Studies and English, Pace University
TAKING ROOT provides an unusually rich, comprehensive, and honest portrayal of one of the most articulate voices for social justice of our time--Wangari Maathai . . . [It] shows Wangari Maathai as a complex person--on her knees, arms covered with earth, planting a tree at one moment; on her feet cajoling a government official the next; staring down a band of thugs at one time, addressing international dignitaries the next. The power of this superb film is the extent to which it has captured the nature of the person and the impact of the work.
Susanne Dumbleton PhD
School for New Learning, DePaul University
The film exceeds even my high hopes. [Taking Root] is much more than a moving tribute to Wangari Maathai, although it certainly is that. It captures the transformative potential of regular people finding their voices. It proves that courage is contagious. It directly contradicts the current negative, disempowering images of Africa. It is about the deep change I know is essential to save our planet and is possible because I've had the profound privilege of seeing it. Now I am overjoyed because through this film millions more can see what I see. It will inspire untold, endless acts of courage.
Frances Moore Lappé
Author, EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want; Diet for a Small Planet
Wangari vividly makes the connection between healthy communities and a healthy environment. This timely message is presented through the focus on a dynamic African woman who connects local, domestic settings and governance on the global stage, successfully leading a social movement that challenges an entrenched, mostly male, elite. This film was an excellent ingredient in my class on Gender and Social Change in Modern Africa, illustrating a range of possibilities rarely highlighted in the literature. A must see!
Dr. Mirka Prazak
Anthropology, Bennington College
TAKING ROOT underscores the critical importance of education to a social movement. It portrays a vision of education that is not about changing people's heads, but ultimately changing the conditions under which people live. We can talk in the classroom about education for social change, but this extraordinary film provides a model for change that engages and inspires. It is worth a hundred hours of classroom talk...both the film and the woman are truly extraordinary!
Dr. Thomas Heaney
Adult & Continuing Education, National-Louis University
Anyone studying environmental policy and law today should see this film. Wangari Maathai is an inspiring teacher.
Carolyn Waldron
Environmental Law Program, Indiana University
TAKING ROOT: THE VISION OF WANGARI MAATHAI is an astounding film, capturing for years and populations to come the life and work of one of history's most extraordinary women, one in whose living presence we are blessed to share.
Thomas Berry
Geologian and Cultural Historian, Author, The Dream of the Earth
Attests to the seismic changes wrought by women of different religions and ethnicities working together . . . Lucid, lovingly crafted pic.
Ronnie Scheib
Highly recommended. ***1/2
Video Librarian
Video Librarian
Lisa Merton and Alan Dater's documentary shows how one person can change the face of the Earth, giving environmentalism and activism a face other than Al Gore or Michael Moore . . . From this affectionate, rousing portrait, the Nobel Prize winner emerges as a warm, humble, but unstoppable advocate for human rights—proof that one small voice of dissent can shake nations. It's news we need to hear
Brian Miles
Nashville Scene

Awards and Screenings

Audience Award, HOTDOCS, 2008
Full Frame Women in Leadership Award, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, 2008
Amnesty International Durban Human Rights Award, Durban International Film Festival, 2008
Prix ÉcoCaméra 2008, Prix du Public 2008, Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal, 2008
Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Film and Digital Media, Council on Foundations, 2009
Best Documentary, Asheville Film Festival, 2008
Best Documentary, Audience Award, Mendocino Film Festival, 2009

Director Commentary

We first met Wangari Maathai in the spring of 2002 at Yale University where she was a guest professor. We had been asked to do an interview with her for a possible short film; the idea of a short film was immediately abandoned. Wangari's was a big life, an exemplary life that the world needed to know about.

I have never been so moved, captivated and inspired by anyone's story as I was by Wangari Maathai's. It was not only what she had done but the way she had done it; it was also her presence and her skill as a storyteller. She was of it, completely part of the story she was telling - a filmmaker's dream! She was spellbinding, funny, delighted, expressive and full of life. Nor had I ever met a person of such courage, one who had risked her life for the truth. Her story was organic; her rural roots connected her deeply to the earth, and despite her education and years in academia, she had never lost that connectedness.

In Wangari's story, we could see an evolutionary path that linked seemingly disparate realms. As her story unfolded, it became clear that each step she had taken could not have been taken without the ones before. Her path was a blueprint of her developing understanding, and hence, our understanding, of the nature of holistic change and the deep relationships between sustainable development, democracy and peace.

When she left 15 years in academia, she reconnected with the rural women with whom she had grown up. In looking at their problems stemming from a degraded environment, Wangari was starting at the grassroots. These women were the caretakers of their families, and it was because their lives had become so difficult that she took notice. It made her problems in academia seem trivial by comparison.

TAKING ROOT tells of the journey she took, with the work of many others, following the links from poverty to development, to environmental protection and good governance. At the time, Kenya was still under the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi, a man who had attacked her personally, put her in grave danger, and was in the process of destroying their country. Yet, Wangari held no bitterness toward this man, no hatred was expressed. Despite her amazing courage, she was humble.

We were both inspired and compelled to tell her story. Her message was utterly timely and needed to be heard by millions of people who would resonate with her story or, perhaps, make the connections for the first time. It is our hope that TAKING ROOT presents her journey as a model for humanity to follow.

Features and Languages

Film Features

  • Closed Captioning
  • DVD Extras

Subtitle/Caption Languages

  • Chinese
  • French
  • Spanish

Promotional Material

Promotional Stills

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