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Between Earth & Sky Review and Q+A with Director Andrew Nadkarni

Between Earth & Sky, dir. Andrew Nadkarni

“When I grow up, I want to do something that protects trees. Something that pays them back for the sanctuary that they gave to me as a kid.” These words from renowned ecologist Nalini Nadkarni form the root of the nature documentary Between Earth & Sky, directed by Nalini’s nephew Andrew Nadkarni, a queer multiracial filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. Nalini’s greatest scientific discovery is of canopy roots, which allow a tree to get nutrients from the mosses and soils that it supports. She climbs trees in the rainforest canopy to study “what grows back” after trees undergo an ecological disturbance.

Between Earth & Sky interweaves Nalini Nadkarni's personal revelations with her pioneering work on tree canopy communities. Nalini energetically shows of her invention of an elaborate slingshot/fishing pole contraption she calls the Master Caster, a tree climbing tool that shoots rope over tree branches and allows her to climb up into the canopy to carry out her studies. Nalini’s love for trees is evident in every facet of her life, and her academic accolades—she is a professor of Biology at the University of Utah and has had over 120 papers published—are treated with the same level of engagement and enthusiasm as her appearance on tv series Bill Nye the Science Guy, and her likeness being used for a custom “Treetop Barbie.” Her noble goal is to bring trees and science to more people: we see a conversation she has with a young Indian woman who is not used to seeing someone who “looks like her” working so prominently in the scientific field.

Between Earth & Sky makes the most of its immaculate natural locations. Directors of Photography Joe van Eeckhout and Derek Knowles’ photography in the canopies of trees capture the beauty of canopy communities from angles that we don’t usually see in nature documentaries. Editor Peter Zachwieja creates a tapestry of archival, verité, and nature footage to give context and a deep emotional current to Nalini’s life and her passion for trees. Over the grainy texture of 8mm home movies, Nalini talks about childhood in Maryland with her Indian father and Jewish mother. She tells how her parents wanted her to be a boy and how that she had to accomplish great things to get attention.

As a child, Nalini climbed trees to hide from her family, feeling safe in their branches as the trees were always there as her witness, she explains. Over years of hard work, Nalini was able to turn her escape into her passion and career, studying trees around the world. However, in 2015 in Olympic Peninsula in Washington, Nalini fell 50 feet from a tree and almost wasn’t able to walk again, suffering nine broken ribs, five broken vertebrae, and a broken pelvis and fibula. Through her long recovery period, Nalini began untangling the roots of her past and bringing family secrets to light, in order to understand how each impacted her life's course. Her scientific focus in her research on trees is the effects of physical disturbances on canopy plants and what grows back after these disturbances.

In Between Earth & Sky, though, Nalini turns this question onto herself to explore the effects of disturbance and recovery throughout her own life. Canopy plants communities are fragile and vulnerable to physical disturbance—even 40 years after stripping experiments, Nalini can still see the imprint of those disturbances. Just like the trees she loves, Nalini still bears evidence of her disturbances. Her childhood, family hardships, and injuries from her fall all contributed to making her the person she is today, what Between Earth & Sky calls the “third state Nalini,” the new version of herself that she becomes when she grows back after her accident.

Between Earth & Sky is now streaming on and the PBS App:

The film is also featured as a Vimeo Staff Pick. It can be watched at:

Review by: Joshua Hunt

Q+A with director Andrew Nadkarni

When did the idea to create a documentary about your Aunt come to you? What was your goal of what you wanted to show with this project and did that change throughout the process as you got to know more about Nalini’s life?

In 2020, I set out to make a film about Nalini’s miraculous recovery after her fall from a tree. I intended to capture her inspirational recovery back to her “original state,” fearless, resolved, and perfect, like a superhero. As we deepened our relationship, I began to understand Nalini more deeply; she opened up new conversations within my family, and we embarked on a challenging but rewarding journey to examine the ripple effects of trauma. I was inspired to make a film that shows Nalini’s strength not only in her achievements, but in her vulnerability. We ended up making a film about “what grows back” after a disturbance in the rainforest, and in a person’s life.

What tree climbing experience did you have before the film? How much tree climbing during filming did you have to do yourself to get such beautiful shots of the canopy? What were the biggest challenges with getting those shots?

I had done a few “climbing demos” with Nalini growing up. My first memory of Nalini is when she gave one at my elementary school. But I’d never climbed anything as tall or remote as climbing “Figuerola” in Monteverde to film. I climbed three times. First Keylor (Nalini’s climbing assistant), then me, then Nalini. About two-hundred feet up. I’m not afraid of heights but this was terrifying. The first time I went up, I accidentally got off on the wrong branch, too early, and had to perch precariously until Nalini made it to the proper branch. It was a happy accident as I captured one of my favorite shots of the film, looking up at Nalini in the canopy through the leaves, truly at peace.

A big challenge was quite simply balancing, and getting “the shot.” I had my A7S on me, and a GoPro on one of our helmets. Even though I was strapped in for safety, I could still fall off the branch, so each moment, I had to weigh whether I could lean or balance out to get a better angle. But safety always came first. I like that the footage is shaky and imperfect, it’s authentic and matches the intended tone of this portion of the film as Nalini finds peace and comfort in the Monteverde canopy. Going up is scary, but coming down was scary/fun!

Nalini said her favourite tree was the strangler fig in Costa Rica. Do you have a favourite tree?

I have a few favorite trees, but I have a single favorite place in nature. A creek, Ridley Creek, in Rose Valley, PA. I used to hike out and play in the water as a child. It was a place of curiosity, exploration, and play. Over the years I’ve revisited many times. As the soil erodes into the creek over time, you can see the complex web of roots in the trees. I’ve taken friends, family, and partners here. Whenever I visit my parents’ house it’s the first place I go for solitude, taking my dog to run freely off-leash. I’ve had very significant conversations here, and shared new parts of myself. And in addition to nostalgia and safety, this creek also connects me to loved ones, both literally through connecting waterways, and figuratively, thought time, as I know family I’ve lost has spent time in connected bodies of water. I named my production company “By the Creek Productions” in honor of this creek and the associations. I hope to carry the safety and comfort I feel by the creek with me, and to share it through my work.

You and your Aunt Nalini seem to have a very close bond which added to the vulnerability of this short. Do you have any childhood memories you would like to share of you and your Aunt that contribute to that closeness?

I would say we knew each other as family members, but never deeply! My first memory of her is when she visited my elementary school, using her “master caster” to shoot a rope over a branch, and gave a bunch of preschoolers a climbing demo. Growing up, seeing her in National Geographic films, giving TED talks, even getting a Barbie modeled after her, I looked up to her as this shiny superhero: “The Queen of the Canopy.” My famous Aunt. I bragged that she was in Playboy “featured in an article!!” In highschool I invited her to speak at a school-wide assembly, and we got to know each other a little more.

BUT it wasn’t until we started working on this project, and did weekly multi-hour Zoom interviews exploring her life experiences and our family antecedents that we really got to know each other. At first it was one directional, me asking her questions. But eventually I realized that it needed to be reciprocal, she was opening up and being brave and vulnerable, and it created space for me to do the same, ask questions, share new parts of myself, my questioning, my queerness, my traumatic experiences.

A few weeks ago Nalini and I were invited back to my highschool as joint “Distinguished Justice Speakers.” We shared the film, talked about what it meant to us, were more open and vulnerable together, rather than being buttoned up and perfect. We were both “in process.” It felt like a full circle moment.

What is the biggest thing you want people to take away about your Aunt from the documentary short? What is the most important lesson you have personally learned from her?

I hope this film will inspire people to look around and recognize the trees and nature surrounding them, especially in urban areas. I want them to tap into that childhood energy and love that Nalini has for nature, the way she holds onto that love of climbing trees as a child. Everyone has that with something in nature, and I want them to carry that into adulthood, myself included. I also hope that people watching the film will feel less alone in dealing with whatever disturbances they face. Inspired by my aunt’s radical vulnerability, I hope to communicate that regardless of our productivity or achievement, we are inherently worthy of love, safety, curiosity, and joy.

I am always interested to learn what directors and watching and taking inspiration from. What is something you watched recently that you thought was great or really inspired you, whether it be a short film, a documentary or otherwise?

I’d like to highlight four documentaries that have inspired me recently. All of these films explore the complexities of parent child relationships in unique ways and nuanced ethical questions of representation. Poetic, tactile, and at times quite difficult, they hold space for tenderness and care. These are emotional explorations of where we come from and what gets passed down.

Q by Jude Chehab - documentary feature

An intimate portrayal of a quest for love and acceptance at any cost, Q depicts the influence of a secretive matriarchal religious order on filmmaker Jude Chehab’s family and the unspoken ties and consequences of loyalty that have bonded her mother, grandmother, and herself to the mysterious organization. A love story of a different kind, Q is a multigenerational tale of the eternal search for meaning.

The Feeling of Being Close to You by Ash Goh Hua - documentary short

This autobiographical film documents an attempt at healing the trauma of touch between mother and child, as the filmmaker and their mother talk openly for the first time about the intergenerational trauma and abuse within their lives. Present day phone conversations are juxtaposed with archival VHS footage, creating a connection between the past and a re-write for the future.

Tracing History by Jalena Keane-Lee - documentary short

This film follows a Chinese American mother and daughter on a road trip to reconnect with their ancestors and each other. They travel to locations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Great Basin Desert where their Chinese ancestors worked to build the transcontinental railroad. From Montgomery Pass where 150 year old artifacts lay strewn across the ground, to catfish pond where catfish brought by Chinese laborers still survive a 7,000 feet elevation, to Paoha Island on Mono Lake where Chinese finally found refuge after a racist mob chased them out of town. As they travel and retrace their own history they find the space to open up about the present and deepen their relationship to each other.

Still Waters by Aurora Brachman - documentary short

Through a series of extraordinarily honest and intimate conversations, filmmaker Aurora Brachman examines the intergenerational fallout of experiences her mother endured as a child. Together, they forge a path forward that offers them a new beginning.



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