Update March 4: Grand prize honors went to Homeward by Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine of The Perennial Plate. Their film features farmers in Hidalgo, Mexico who created a thriving cooperative producing organic oregano that keeps their community together. View it below. A 1st place price went to Green Bronx Machine, which also netted the "People's Choice" award, for its depiction of the positive role school gardens have played in one of the poorest congressional districts in America. Runners up include A Greene Generation and Who Keeps the Beekeepers. Watch all these short films below.
On my blog Lettuce Eat Kale, my most popular post is a top 10 list of documentary food films. Four years since it went live, readers are still weighing in on the merits of various food flicks and their ability to convey critical messages about the current food system in the United States in an informative, cinematic, and engaging way. In the five years I've covered the food beat, I've reported on numerous food films from Food, Inc. to Food Stamped and not a week goes by without a filmmaker reaching out about their movie covering the food movement. (This week's email comes courtesy of the good folks behind Growing Cities, which documents the urban farming renaissance around the country.) For Bay Area Bites alone I've written about the globe-hopping crew behind The Perennial Plate, a local school food documentary series, and a couple of PBS offerings on the genre.
Some of these films, like The Garden, straight out of South Central L.A., are simply fabulous. Others are a tad too earnest or overly long and tedious for my tastes. That's why I was intrigued by The Real Food Media contest for short films about sustainable food and farming. The first annual competition recently announced its top 10 films from more than 150 entries around the country. A panel of high-profile food movement folk--including Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and Alice Waters--have picked three winners, including cash prizes for presumably starving indie filmmakers, which will be announced March 4.
Among these films, the Bay Area represents with an uplifting look at how immigrant cooks add to the area's culinary vibrancy in Kevin Longa's Hands in the Orchestra. There's still time to pick a People's Choice winner before the March 2 voting deadline. Did I mention these videos are SHORT? We're talking meditations on fixing food in four minutes or less. The shorts will also screen at the upcoming Food & Farming Film Fest in San Francisco in April.
To find out more about the stories and people behind these non-professional (though hardly amateur hour) films, I checked in with Oakland's Anna Lappé, director of the Real Food Media Project, about the submissions, including a doco-style short on the threat of another Dust Bowl, an examination on the crisis in commercial beekeeping, and a first-person narrative about a young berry picker in Oregon. The project targeted film schools, and there were many student submissions from young people who care about sustainability issues. Astute food film followers will also note contributions from more established folks behind the camera such as Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine of The Perennial Plate and Severine von Tscharner Fleming and the team behind The Greenhorns.
What prompted you to create this short food film contest?
For more than a decade, I've been traveling around the country meeting people who are working on the front lines of fixing a broken food system, from rural farmers in Missouri to school food transformers in New York City to seed savers in Northern California. From this experience, I knew there were great stories out there, and I wanted to create a platform for them. I also knew that the food industry--Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and the other biggest players in the food industry--regularly court the next generation of communicators and filmmakers: I wanted to give those young people and up-and-coming filmmakers a chance to channel their talents into storytelling about sustainability. We were blown away by the response.
What were you looking for from these filmmakers?
We were looking for authentic voices, under-reported stories; we were looking to be moved: to laugh, maybe even shed a tear or two. We were looking for a combination of unique storytelling voice, great cinematography, and a powerful message. It was actually really hard to pick the top 10 because there were quite a number of the 156 that rose to the top. When we put the call out for entries, I could imagine some people thinking that watching films on farming is about as exciting as watching paint dry, but I found myself carried along by each of these stories.
What is it about The Greenhorns' and Perennial Plate's work that’s particularly appealing?
I loved Our Land by the Greenhorns for its concrete focus on this specific project in Philadelphia: connecting the EPA in communities in this really tangible way for soil testing and possibly remediation. I think a lot of us feel like federal agencies are abstract concepts whose work doesn't touch down in our lives in a direct way.
I had never seen the work of Perennial Plate before and was moved by the characters in Homeward. The story we so often hear about farmers in Mexico is that NAFTA 20 years on has devastated rural communities there. It was uplifting to see a community coming together around farming and using their power as a cooperative to create lives with dignity.
Are there any overarching themes that emerged from viewing all these food films?
First, young farmers: You see this in the kids in A Greene Generation, one of our finalist films. But again and again I saw films about young people turning to farming. It's an incredibly hopeful trend to me, when you realize the average American farmer is 56.7 years old.
Second, food as a source of healing and community. In Harmony Gardens, a backyard in a suburb bursts with life and healthy food. In Green Bronx Machine a gaggle of youth exposed to healthy food and gardening change their lives.
Third, the theme of crisis wove through many of the films, whether concern about the dying breed of beekeepers or the imminent repeat of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest.
What about compelling work that didn't make the top 10, any of note?
Yes! There were so many great films. We'll be rolling some of these out on our website and in social media with staff picks in coming weeks, including some Bay Area-focused films. Stay tuned. We are also planning to have a youth category for winners next year, because we got a number of youth-made movies we'd like to profile. One of my favorites was a movie made by teenagers comparing shopping for the same foods at a Whole Foods in Los Angeles with a supermarket in their neighborhood. I won't spoil the ending, though you might guess what they discovered.
Why should people take the time to watch these entries?
In under four minutes each, you're taken into the lives of people you'd otherwise never get to meet, and learn about an aspect of food you might never otherwise think about--from soil and seeds to the Bronx and bees. They're bite-sized films, but their stories stay with you.
Tune in and cast your vote by Sunday March 2 at The Real Food Media Contest.