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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Students create documentary on invasive vines that plague forests

bitter 1
Matt Levine, right, and Alex Scarlatos (not pictured) have been behind the lens for months to film a documentary about Professor John Scheffer, left, and the issue of invasive vine species. PHOTO CREDIT: ALEX SCARLATOS

Right in your backyard, your trees are being strangled. And right in your university, people are doing something about it.

Since May of this year, Matt Levine and Alex Scarlatos have been filming a documentary about Professor John Scheffer and an issue important to him: invasive vines that plague our forests.

“We go to the park, I show them the species, I’ll cut a vine or two, and show how it’s been strangling the tree,” Scheffer said on the filming process.

Scheffer first became aware of the problem years ago when he learned that invasive vines had been brought over from Asia in the 1860s and have been spreading at an alarming pace ever since. These invasive species grow year-round, unlike native species, which hibernate. This means that they will eventually overtake the forest. The vine in particular that Scheffer focuses on is called the Celastrus orbiculatus, or the Oriental Bittersweet.

The Bittersweet wraps around trees, slowly strangling them by stopping the flow of nutrients. When one tree eventually dies, it brings down several others in its fall.

Scheffer has been a hiker for many years, but he never realized that all these vines were invasive.

“After I learned about this I was shocked that I saw them really everywhere,” Scheffer said.

The vine contains bright red berries that attract birds. These birds eat the berries and spread the seeds throughout the continent.

“The way to stop them is manually remove them, not use pesticides, except in limited amounts. Just simply take a saw and cut them at base. It takes like one minute,” Scheffer said.

Removing each vine reveals a dark black scar on the tree. The native forest cannot regrow where a vine has taken root. The vine threatens not just trees, but the ecosystem as a whole.

“If nobody’s doing something, then it’s on me,” Scheffer said. “I have to do something about this.”

His initial plan was to make a small YouTube video to show what these vines are, but he wasn’t sure how to do it. He then discovered one of his WRT 102 students made films, so he proposed they work together.

Levine, a junior journalism major, agreed to Scheffer’s idea and brought in his filming partner, Scarlatos, a junior majoring in computer science.

“Once my filming partner and I went out into the woods with him to start filming, I realized the intensity of the problems regarding invasive species,” Levine said.

“Matt and I do all our film projects together, so once he was on board so was I,” said Scarlatos.

Once Levine and Scarlatos were involved, the project went from a 5-minute video to a 30-minute documentary called “Bittersweet—An Environmental Documentary.”

Levine and Scarlatos are the co-directors and co-photographers, and both of them are co-creators along with Professor Scheffer. Scarlatos also does the music while Levine acts as an editor.

“We will frequently edit small sample videos as an experiment to see what we will do in the actual film, though we haven’t started editing the final product yet,” Scarlatos said.

They hope to be finished sometime in early 2016, but it all depends on the funding they receive.

They’ve been obtaining donations through a Kickstarter campaign that will help fund a trip to Washington, D.C. where they can get interviews with the appropriate government officials.

“If we act now, we’ll stop this problem that’s going to exponentially grow,” Scheffer said.

Though Scheffer has wanted to raise awareness for a while, this is his first attempt to spread the message.

“I would describe the film as a pretty direct educational documentary that is just to raise awareness about what is going on in our backyards,” he said.

In addition to raising awareness, the trio hopes the film will incite action and uncover solutions.

“Our goal is to subtly and poetically reveal the issue to the audience, to make them feel the issue emotionally,” Levine said.

Though Scheffer doesn’t like being on camera, he said he is willing to take one for the team.

“I’m very happy there’s a movie that will be out there,” Scheffer said. “I’m enormously gratified that this is something in my life I followed through with.”

His goal is that hikers will learn to recognize the species, so they can cut it back.

“It will have enormous impact, because you’re not just cutting one vine, you’re stopping the 10,000 berries that the vine will make every year.”

Still, the problem has to be dealt with reasonably.

“I do not condone widespread use of herbicides to get rid of them, as it could poison the forest and damage many other species,” Scheffer said.

He also mentioned how much fun it’s been to make this film with Levine and Scarlatos, both of which have also enjoyed their involvement.

“I really like working with Scheffer,” Scarlatos said. “He’s really passionate about the project and is very laid back and easy to work with. We always have a great time in the field and I would even consider working on future projects with him if I had the opportunity.”

“Working with Professor Scheffer has been an amazing experience,” Levine said. “It’s been really exciting to work with an adult who feels so passionately about a project I’m working on.”

The documentary is being filmed by Hyadaga Films, a collaborative film company created by Levine, Scarlatos and their friend Shea Glasheen. This production label is responsible for all of their short films, music videos, and now this documentary.

Neither student had made a documentary before, but both spoke of the experience positively.

“It’s both thrilling and daunting to be working on a story that writes itself,” Scarlatos said.

“I’ve realized that it’s something I want to do professionally,” Levine said. “Being able to spread awareness for an important issue through my specific skill set feels very rewarding.”

In terms of upcoming projects, Levine and Scarlatos are working on a short film called “Mouse Trap” that will be uploaded to YouTube before 2015 ends.

You can find them on YouTube and on Twitter under the name “HyadagaFilms.”

“Even one person can make a great difference,” Scheffer said. “Only humans caused this to happen and only humans can fix it.”

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