How filmmaker Susan Todd found wilderness outside her own back door

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By Cassandra West

Susan Todd, an Emmy Award-winning and Oscar® nominated filmmaker, has made documentaries in some of the world’s most remote and exotic locations—Madagascar, Alaska and South America. For her 2018 film “Backyard Wilderness,” co-produced with her husband, Andrew Young, a lot of the filming took place around their Westchester County, New York, home, where they’ve lived for more than two decades.

What viewers of the film will learn is that the environment that surrounds us every day can be pretty exotic—if we take time to notice. Todd’s own backyard is protected by a conservation easement of the Westchester Land Trust.

Filmmaker Susan Todd

Filmmaker Susan Todd

“Backyard Wilderness,” Todd says, is “about plants and animals outside a typical suburban home outside New York City.” While the plants and animals are real, the film is a fictional story about an 11-year-old girl, Katie, who doesn’t know much about what’s going on outside, Todd explained in an interview with One Earth Film Festival.

Like a lot of young people today, the girl is obsessed with her mobile phone, social media. “Over the course of the film, where you see what life is like for raccoons, spotted salamanders, deer and coyotes, she becomes more interested in the world in her own backyard and the ecosystems out there.”

And she is transformed by what she observes and learns. Viewers will have to watch the film themselves, though, to witness how the experiences affected her.

Todd says “Backyard Wilderness” started in a personal way with her own family. She and Young have two children, now 13 and 18. “We were experiencing this life ourselves, both being filmmakers and passionate conservationists. We grew up playing outside, in the woods, learning about nature first hand. That’s often not the way kids are learning these days. We thought we could use our own experiences about what was happening outside our own house.”

At the time, she also was reading “Last Child in the Woods,” an influential work about the staggering divide between children and the outdoors by child advocacy expert Richard Louv.

The film took about four years to make, Todd said.

Todd and Young have extensive backgrounds making films about natural history, cultural stories, documentaries mostly, she says. “But we would always come home and be amazed by what was happening in our backyard ecosystem.”

A big influence on the couple while making “Backyard Wilderness” was Douglas Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home.” Many in the Chicago area are familiar with Tallamy, having been introduced to his ecological philosophy when he presented at a West Cook Wild Ones conference a few years ago.

Tallamy was a scientific adviser on the film. “Not only does he have first-hand knowledge, he’s also done a lot of work around his own house to increase biodiversity,” Todd says.

In creating the film, Todd wasn’t trying to preach or lecture to audiences. But through the power of storytelling, the filmmaker is “trying to inspire kids to get outside and to make it as easy as possible for them to put down their cell phones and iPads and go out and explore their environment,” she says. “Because if you don’t care about your environment and understand a little about the complexity of if, you’re not going to work to protect it.

“What we want people to come away with is that there are ways that you can make choices in your family that help to move sustainability along and also encourage biodiversity by the plants that you landscape your yard with, by something as simple as how often you cut your grass.”