Article by Keiko Honda
Photos Courtesy of Karney Hatch
1. Where did the idea for the film come from? Something you knew a lot about? What attracted you to the world of urban farming as a setting for your new film? Why was it important for you to do a film about urban farming?
I grew up on a farm in Idaho, and when I was living in Los Angeles, I became aware of that city’s water issues, how they essentially steal most of their water from Northern California and neighboring states. So then when you’re driving around the city and see all those green lawns, it doesn’t really add up. They’re stealing all that water and not even using it to grow food. I mean, the statistic that still freaks me out to this day is that lawn grass is the #1 irrigated crop in the U.S. Talk about a terrible waste of resources! So I started spending time and filming with the Food Not Lawns chapter in Claremont, a suburb of L.A., and it took off from there. I also read Heather Flores’ book, “Food Not Lawns”, which was very inspiring as well.
2. What sort of research did you do in regards to the urban agriculture movement (e.g., its history and economics, multiple stakeholders, city regulations, technology development, local economy development and marketing, community building, land use etc.) and how is this research represented in the storyline of the film?
I did quite a bit of research on the Internet before I started filming, when I was living in Peru in 2010-11. And then of course some of the interviewees along the way were amazing sources of information, especially Roberto Perez in Cuba and Miguel Altieri at UC Berkeley. One of the main questions I came across during the research is for-profit vs. nonprofit UA (urban agriculture) projects, and that definitely feeds into the storyline. We have some amazing nonprofit projects in the film, and then we have Roxanne Christensen, author of “SPIN Farming Basics”, making a great argument that for-profit projects are really the way to go if you want to make UA a sustainable part of the economy rather than just a trendy movement.
3. How did you decide which cities you wanted to explore for the film? In comparison, which city/part of the world is most innovative when it comes to urban farming? How so?
Well it became clear through the research that there were some cities and countries that I really had to visit if I wanted to make a serious film on the subject, like Havana, Cuba and China, because of the histories and stories that come along with these places. In terms of most innovative, I think that Havana and Kolkata/Calcutta were the two places that really impressed me the most. Havana because of the scale of what they’re doing and how well integrated the different parts are, from inner city urban growers to peri-urban larger-scale farms, and the huge number of people who are involved in one way or another in the whole system. And Kolkata because they have a human-waste fed aquaculture system that has been in place since the 1850s, where they grow a considerable portion of the fish that are eaten in the city every day in this huge system of fish farms called bheris, with human waste at the heart of that ecosystem.
4. What is your experience and do you have any insights on community building around this movie? Were there any surprising/unexpected reactions you’ve received during public screening/sales pitches/fund-raising, so far? Can you tell us about it?
I guess one thing that sticks out in my mind is a grant that I applied for, and the board of directors voted against giving the film a grant by one vote, but then three different members of the board turned around and gave pretty good sized contributions to the film as individuals, and it made me realize that maybe urban farming isn’t for everyone, but people who believe in it really believe in it.
5. This is your second film following your earlier film, “Overdrawn!”. I imagine the challenge to put together a movie of this scale (international multiple locations) as compared to your other lower budget film. Was it more challenging in some ways?
It was, but on the other hand, urban farming is really a rapidly growing movement right now, and a rising tide raises all ships, so most of the time it felt like everywhere I turned there was a lot of support for my project, and of course we had a successful Kickstarter campaign to start it off, so that gave me a lot of energy.
6. How long was the project from conception to final editing? Was there any point during the shoot where there was a psychological moment that steered you in a different direction in terms of what the project was actually about? Was it the film self-financing?
I first started shooting in LA in 2010, but then I got a bit discouraged because there were other films on urban farming either coming out or in production, and I didn’t want to make just another urban farming film. The big turning point came when I was living in Lima, Peru later that year and in 2011, and I started wondering if there were urban farmers there. I found an amazing group of older folks who were farming under some power lines in a pretty poor district of the city called Villa Maria del Triunfo, supported by the local government and the state electric company. So I started spending time with them and filming there, and that’s when I had the idea of doing an international film that tried to show both the history of urban farming around the world and sort of the zeitgeist of what was happening around the world too. I wanted to show all the young farmers in the developed world that they were part of a long tradition of urban farming that goes back thousands of years.
7. Was there something you left out that you now wish to share with the audience? Any interesting episodes on communities/filming and editing process and Daryl Hannah?
Well I know how celebrity obsessed our culture is, so I can tell a quick story about recording the narration with Daryl. You know she let the world know a few years ago in an interview with Dan Rather that she has Aspergers Syndrome, and I have a good friend in LA who’s an actor and writer who has it, too, so it was really interesting to spend time with her at her mother’s house in Malibu, which is where we ended up recording the narration. I mean, for one thing, she’s very, very smart, and a fast thinker. People with Aspergers are known to be really smart and she’s certainly in that category. And she’s very passionate and knowledgeable about urban farming, so we ended up co-writing some of her narration on the spot that day, adding a few things that she really wanted to say in the film.
The challenge in Malibu is that you’re between the Pacific Coast Highway and the Pacific Ocean, so you’ve got a lot of sound on both sides. So Daryl had this idea to build a little fort out of blankets and comforters in her living room, so it was like a miniature sound isolation booth. And it worked really well – so thanks to her and my excellent co-producer and collaborator Stephon Litwinczuk, who recorded the sound that day, we got everything we needed in one day and didn’t have to go back to re-record anything.
8. Give me your personal thoughts on urban farming for the future. Are you engaged in any farming/gardening activities? What personal accomplishments in the sustainability realm are you most proud of?
I’ve found that my thumb isn’t nearly as green as my mind, but I do grow a garden every year. My problem is that I often travel for my work, and gardens need constant attention, so I often have to come back to a garden that’s been pretty much ignored for a month or two and try to pick up the pieces, but it’s great to get out there with my ten-year old in the garden.
I have a Google alert system set up so that every time there’s a new story about urban farming that pops up, it goes straight to my Inbox. And I have to say, so many things that I read inspire me so much and make me think that, in 15 or 20 years time, there’s no reason that every city that wants to can be growing just as much of their food as Havana is. If we can start seeing all of our food “waste” and human “waste” as resource streams rather that waste streams, and using them to fuel vegetable and animal farms inside our cities, I really believe that we can get there. And of course the secondary but massive benefit of this would be that our communities would be strengthened almost more than we can imagine. That’s the thing about urban farming: you can’t make a successful urban farm without at the same time building a successful community. It’s impossible to say too much about this. Every urban farm I visited, worldwide, was a thriving community of like-minded individuals working towards a common cause. And with our so-called developed civilization in serious trouble right now, not just in terms of sustainability but in terms of our democracy, our social structure (ever-increasing numbers of single-occupancy households, etc. etc.), what we really need more than anything is stronger communities, and urban farming is one of the best ways I’ve seen to establish and maintain strong communities.
9. What is your next project (filmmaking or otherwise)?
I have a few different documentary projects that I’m pursuing right now, but nothing is for sure yet. I’ll be doing a tour with “Plant This Movie” on the East Coast in April and I’m sure I’ll show it some more this summer too, so promoting and screening this film will be taking up quite a bit of my time this year I think.
10. What do you consider your biggest challenge at the moment with regards to sustaining your career as a filmmaker, independent or otherwise?
Funding is always the hardest part. As a freelancer and independent filmmaker, you’re always looking for a job, even when you’re in the middle of one! A creative writing professor a long time ago told me that you shouldn’t become an artist unless you can’t imagine doing anything else, and I would give the same advice. Unless you really have to do this work, do something else. But I’m like he said, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
11. What is your plan during your stay in Vancouver?
I have a few friends up there, and I’m looking forward to meeting some urban farmers and hopefully even touring an urban farming project or two. Plus maybe a harbour cruise and a visit to Stanley Park!