By Gena Magiaratti
(This interview was originally posted on the FLEFF blog)
I recently had the opportunity to speak on the phone with Helen De Michiel, who, with fellow filmmaker Sophie Constantinou, produced and directed the Lunch Love Community. According to the film’s website, they call it their “open space documentary project.”
The documentary, released online in the form of six webisodes, explores the community-based efforts in Berkeley, California to reform the school lunch program.
De Michiel will be screening and discussing the Lunch Love Community at noon on Saturday, April 16 at Cinemapolis. Accompanying her will be chef and cookbook author Julie Jordan and public health professor Stewart Auyash.
GM: Why did you decide to take on this project about lunch reform, and what were you hoping to find out?
HD: I really wanted to explore this story because it contained all really amazing elements that were really rich and kind of unknown.
If you just vaguely knew about whatever happened with school lunch in Berkeley, you would just know about a couple of heroes who people think of, [such as] Alice Waters, who started the restaurant Chez Panisse. It is really famous and kind of got the “delicious revolution” going in the 1980s. She was involved, but when I first started, I started finding out how many community members really worked hard over the years to get a food policy enacted and then make these changes.
I wanted to find out how individual citizens work together to change policies and institutions that were very entrenched.
Then I wanted to also find out how change develops out of conflict and opportunities. When there’s conflict, there are also possible opportunities that open up.
I also wanted to find out how obstacles can create new ways of doing things creatively. For example: When there’s a challenge, like how do we really change these horrible school lunches? Well, how do we do it creatively — given all the different obstacles that we’re coming up against? It is something I started to find out they did really interestingly in Berkeley.
Finally [I wanted to find out] how this town really is a model that can inspire other people to do it themselves.
It was a story with many many different layers to it. I really was intrigued by those different layers of the story, because when you talk about food, you talk about something that is really fundamental to people. It intercepts with politics, with pleasure, with nutrition, and heath.
Food is really a fundamental part of our lives and it intercepts with all kinds of social issues.
GM: Can you tell more about how food can be a part of social issues?
HD: The politics of food is very big right now. Even just in the news recently, the FDA is looking into what possible health hazards may come from food coloring.
Another thing that’s come up recently in the last few days is how our health might be impacted by food that is held in containers that have BPA plastic. That’s one level, one very fundamental level of things.
Another thing, of course, is where does your food come from? Are there food deserts in towns that people live in? Here on the west coast, even in places like the Bay Area that have an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables all year round, in communities like Berkeley and Oakland there are still neighborhoods that are food deserts — which means the only place you could walk to, to buy anything to eat, is possibly a corner liquor store. There aren’t supermarkets in the area so people are forced to eat just really horrible junk food or go and eat at a fast food restaurant. So that’s a really big issue around here politically.
Where does your food come from is another one. [From] how far away is it shipped in? How much fuel does it take?
There’s a movement here to really eat locally, which I know that you have in Ithaca as well. Another thing of course is organics: Can you afford it? What does it mean?
So the politics of food can extend to all areas of our lives. When it intercepts with health and the health of children it becomes really important. Now in this recession, 25 percent of children in this country go hungry. For many of them, the food that they are served at school, especially if they’re able to qualify for free breakfast and lunch, may be the only meals that they get in their day.
Another thing is, for example, in a lot of households children don’t eat meals with their parents. Their parents may not even know how to cook so they are kind of forced to eat processed food or go out to, again, fast food restaurants.
GM: What is an example of a change that has been instilled as part of the lunch reform?
HD: What happens in Berkeley, in the cooking and gardening curriculum that’s in the public schools, is children work in gardens as part of their academics, and they are also able to take cooking classes.
They not only learn to cook, but they learn geography [and] social studies. They learn about history, all through the cooking lessons that they have in the classroom.
Then, that same food that they cooked in the classroom reappears in different ways in the school program. So they are introduced to new kinds of eating possibilities in the classroom with their peers, and then they try it at school lunch as well — because you can’t completely change people’s eating habits right away. It takes a long time.
So, for example: Let’s say you’re at a high school that all of a sudden had fresh organic food. Chances are, most high school students, if they hadn’t been exposed to it, aren’t really going to go for it. But if they had cooking and gardening classes and a nutritious school lunch program from when they were in kindergarten, it would be completely normal and they would probably be a lot more exploratory in what they try.
GM: Was there any significance to the film taking the form of internet webisodes?
HD: The full-length film is still going to be made, probably as a one-hour documentary story.
What happened was, in this recession period, it’s been very difficult to raise money to make that full-length film. My partner Sophie Constantinou and I had accumulated a lot of material from 2009 and 2010.
This story, and the interest in school lunch, was really getting pretty significant in the country, especially after Michelle Obama decided that combating obesity was going to be one of her issues.
So we thought to ourselves: The internet and broadband capabilities are getting to be much more robust than they used to be, so why don’t we make some small little stories — little webisodes — that can be shared?
We’ll really use these connection technologies to see about new ways of distributing documentary and making documentaries.
It’s really like the form followed the function. The function was, we wanted to get some short stories out there before the long film was made, build a community of people who could use these short pieces because you can take them freely and embed them on websites. You can download them; you can do whatever you want with them. So we’re giving them away for free.
I used this as a research project in a way to explore how film is going to open up new possibilities on the internet, both in terms of the way that it’s made and the way that it reaches people, and what people do with it afterwards. It’s a very developing process right now; it’s evolving.
We’re really learning right now about the limitations and the possibilities of creating short films online, and how they fit into the big picture. We have to look at the internet as a new medium where we make things differently. We have to frame the media that we make and put it out there in a different way.
GM: Some of your past work has also focused on local topics, such as your 1990 documentary Turn Here Sweet Corn, which was made in Minneapolis at a time you were living there. In Berkeley, where you are living now, you made the Lunch Love Community. How do you decide on which issues to cover in your documentaries?
HD: Yeah. I’m not really coming from a journalism background. I come from an art background, so I don’t always just think of “covering” a story, because that’s more journalism, which I could have been but didn’t. So it’s a very mysterious process.
I think what happens, is a person really feels connected to a particular story in some way. They really feel for it. It excites them.
This story, like I said before, was so rich and full of nuances. Plus it had so much to do with children and activism and food — and I kept finding out new things that really intrigued me.
I knew it was something I could stick with for a few years, which is really what it takes to make a film: A long time. It takes at least two years for most people, if not longer. Maybe three to five years for other people.
So you always think to yourself, do I want to live with this for five years, and if so, is there enough there that I can really drill deeply into this story?
For me, a wonderful thing about this particular project is, because it’s local to where we live right now, I’m able to really get into the story slowly, and learn about people and talk to a lot of different people, and kind of understand things over time.
What I thought it was about two years ago is not what I think the story is about today.
That’s very different than filmmakers or newsmakers who kind of parachute in, do a story, cover it as a segment, and then leave. The Berkeley school lunch program has been covered extensively on the major news network. They’re always doing stories about it, but really it’s very superficial.
It takes a long time, just as if you were to write a long magazine article or a book about a particular story. It takes you time to get into it and understand what all the different nuances are and figure out what your storyline is, and your narrative and your theme.
That’s really why I think it’s really great to be able to live somewhere and spend a lot of time with the subject.
GM: When you are creating films about local issues, do you make a conscious effort to try to present the subject in a way that globalizes it?
HD: I think that comes with these kinds of films when you do engagement activities afterwards. In this case, what you’ll see in the events in Ithaca are ways that these short little stores inspire conversation among the people in the audience.
That’s really their intention — is to inspire conversations.
They say, ‘Well they may have done that in Berkley, but let’s talk about a way that we can actually start things going in Ithaca.’ It gets people to open up and talk about their own world and all the different kinds of issues that they may be facing.
It’s not really that the film itself is going to show you everything that’s going on in the United States in terms of food reform because that’s impossible to do.
Really what it’s doing is just trying to get people emotionally engaged and interested in something that hadn’t occurred to them, and then talk about it and see where it leads them in their real lives.
GM: You made the independent feature film Tarantella in 1995. Can you tell me about the differences between making feature films and making documentaries?
HD: If you’re making feature films in the United States right now you really have to make a decision to be in the film industry. You would probably make a decision to live in Los Angeles, maybe work in television or film, and really specialize in a specific area of feature filming making. You might be a director of photography. You might be a producer. You might be a writer. You might be an editor.
But you have to live in the urban environment where everybody else is working in this industry.
If you make documentary films… it’s really wide open and different, in a lot of ways, from fiction filmmaking. It’s not so tied to an industry, per say, which has a lot of particular pathways from the creation all the way through the distribution.
Because it’s very complex, you have a few more opportunities to live in different places, to find stories that haven’t really been told before. I also think you use these other new communication technologies to create work that can be really groundbreaking and different.
I think you can do that with fiction film making as well. It can happen independently, but it’s much stronger when it happens within the frame of professionals who work in feature filmmaking rather than just trying to do it on your own.
But with documentary there are communities all over the country of filmmakers who have been doing really amazing work and not needing to live in Los Angeles or New York.
So I think it’s a little wider open. At least, it has been for me creatively.
GM: What advice would you offer to college students, especially those who are studying film?
HD: I would say to college students now you’re really lucky because the future, for now, online is yours to create.
So I would say there’s a few things.
Don’t take the internet for granted. It’s free and open now for experimentation and doing these kind of really interesting transmedia projects where you can …do all kinds of mixed media projects, because that’s really what people are getting used to.
That’s what they want, and you can affect people all over the world through very strategic use of social media. That’s for you to create.
At the same time, we all have to remember that the internet may not always be free. One really important thing is, in order to keep its freedom for you to create and experiment and make projects that really connect people, we have to work on making sure that the internet remains free, and that we always have network neutrality, and the corporations don’t try to snatch it away and hold it themselves so that we have to go through gates and pay. If that’s the case, then projects like Lunch Love Community won’t be able to exist.
Just think. Think about it because, for example, if we did not have free internet and we only had to go through iTunes, you’d be paying for every single one of these webisodes — even if I didn’t want you to pay for them, because that’s the way it’s going to be set up.
It’s just something to keep in mind for your generation. You want to know a lot about policy. You want to understand where the corporations are headed. You want to make your views known in order to be able to create freely, and construct the next infrastructure that the digital 21st century is going to have.
Save the date!: 12 pm on Saturday, April 16 at Cinemapolis, De Michiel will be screening and discussing the Lunch Love Community, along with chef and cookbook author Julie Jordan and public health professor Stewart Auyash.