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Films Full of Biophilia

'Fierce Light' and 'Food Fight' at the Whistler fest.

By Dorothy Woodend 5 Dec 2008 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Scene from the doc 'Food Fight.'

The house where I live is bordered on one side by a liquor store parking lot, and on the other by a grocery store loading bay. There's a florist and a dry cleaner right behind us. In between all these inhospitable bits of concrete and chain link is a garden. Planted a long time ago, it has not had an easy life.

My brother piled the bit of green with abandoned car parts, and cans of used motor oil. Stuff he deemed not useful, he customarily threw outside to rot in the rain.

The drycleaners, oddly enough, are especially bad neighbours. In the front of their store, they profess cleanliness, everything crisp white and starched, but in the back of their store, they regularly throw garbage on the ground, and simply leave it there.

The landlord comes sometimes, tops the trees and goes away again.

Every day it is a battle for this garden to simply continue, buried beneath people's empty Starbuck cups and cigarette butts tossed over the fence. If you turn the soil, you have to pick out shards of unidentifiable plastic, before you can plant anything.

All of this is to say, this one small patch of earth has been so trashed by humans, it boggles the mind. If you multiply this by all the small patches of the earth, all around the world, that struggle to continue and you begin to get a sense of exactly how deeply comprised is this poor beaten planet of ours.

Watching Velcrow Ripper's most recent film, Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action, playing this weekend at the Whistler Film Festival, cemented the notion that the struggle between people who would care for growing things and people who would beat them up and chop them down, is one of the essential wars currently being waged.

Garden in the ghetto

One of the central chapters in Fierce Light is the story of the South Central Farm in Los Angeles. After the L.A. riots of '92 (sparked by the beating of Rodney King), the South Central Farm was gifted by the city to 350 low income families, who were each given a plot of land. Born in flames, the farm grew into what Ripper calls "An oasis in a concrete desert."

Over the course of a decade, the farmers brought in soil, planted, sowed and reaped a bounty of home grown food that they would otherwise be unable to afford. South Central Farms was the largest urban garden in North America, a patch of deep green against the grey city. But despite its success, in 2006, the city of L.A. sold the farm back to a developer and served the farmers with an eviction notice. The story, of course, is much more complex than can be squashed into the confines of a single narrative. For more information about the farm's history, the players involved and the possible future, Scott Hamilton Kennedy's documentary simply titled The Garden lays it all out.

The farmers appealed the city's decision and occupied the land. Celebrities like Danny Glover and Ralph Nader championed the cause, but Daryl Hannah took it one step further and sat in a tree with famed tree sitter Julia Butterfly Hill. Ms. Hill, who occupied an ancient redwood named Luna for three years, is an interesting presence in the film. Her story, already something of a pop culture touch-point, is soon to be a drama directed by Deepa Mehta.

As the occupation, tree and otherwise, grew into weeks, the farmers managed to raise the money for the asking price of the garden, some $16 million dollars, even as the L.A. police assembled outside, with riot gear and plastic handcuffs. This seems an especially painful circularity since the L.A. Police were responsible for spawning the riots that lead to the farm's creation. Here they are again, to attend to its dismantling.

Frozen heart syndrome

If you follow the news, you may already know the fate of the farm, but go and see Fierce Light anyway. Watching the film, I felt my biophilia kick into gear. Not simply because of the brunt brutality of the act, taken against both people and plants, but because, ultimately, it is so self-defeating. Greedy, stupid and woefully shortsighted apply equally well. When I spoke with Velcrow Ripper during the Vancouver International Film Festival, I asked him how someone could do what that developer did. "He has frozen his heart," said Velcrow.

Another explanation might be a severe sense of disconnection.

The remainder of Fierce Light examines a dizzying array of subjects around the globe, everything from Living Systems Theory, to the civil rights movement of the '60s. The film is populated by a number of interesting people including Sam Harris, Alice Walker, Bell Hooks, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Joan Baez, even Judy Rebick.

But if the fate of the farm echoes what is happening on a larger scale, things do not look good. Or as Velcrow plaintively asks "I wonder if we'll be able to save this planet?"

Ultimately, what the film proposes is that you need more than just talk, and more talk. In the words of Van Jones, "You need to put some feet up under these prayers." Jones, who is a fine speaker, describes human beings as being at a crossroads, a moment where we either behave as a locust species, and scour the earth to the bones, or find a way to bring ourselves back into harmony.

If the ultimate aim is to create what Velcrow calls "An all-inclusive community, at peace with itself," we've got a long way to go yet. I am uncertain it will ever happen exactly like anyone envisions. Human beings for one thing are just too damn ornery to ever proceed in a straightforward fashion. Every time I pick up another piece of trash that someone has blithely dropped in my backyard, I have to squash the rising tide of rage that would make me despair of messy oblivious humanity.

Eat it. It's good for us

Another documentary that takes the notion of food, farming and revolution is Chris Taylor's Food Fight. The film, also playing at Whistler this weekend, follows the birth of California cuisine, and places Alice Waters, queen of Chez Panisse, at the centre of this phenomenon.

I interviewed Waters a number of years ago, for a now defunct Japanese magazine called Eat. During our conversation, she talked about Korean farmers committing suicide because they couldn't make a living, and despaired of the future for their kids. She was angry and impassioned, but she literally put her money where her mouth was, and started a program called Edible Schoolyard. The program, which began in 1994 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, has since blossomed outwards. You can see its effects even in Vancouver, if you drive to the east side of town, where many schools have gardens. (On the west side of Vancouver, it appears to be that if you want a garden, you can plant one at the back of your million dollar house, instead of your kid's school. Although, I must concede, community gardens do seem to be on the rise.)

Food Fight is a fine piece of polemic that will make you hungry for change, and just simply hungry. There is some pretty significant food porn here, but all in the name of a good cause. The film traces the origins of the current sustainability movement to a few hungry hippies in California, and the woman who basically catered the revolution.

When Alice Waters started Chez Panisse, she had no lofty ideals about changing the way people ate, she just wanted to find stuff that tasted good. This quest for taste, primarily driven by pleasure, ended up creating an entirely new food system. The local farmers, who sold their wares at farmers markets, supplied the chefs. Ordinary people, who wanted to shop where the chefs did, followed in droves. This may seem an overly reductionist account fashioned partly for the sake of a crisp clean narrative, and it probably is, but the point being made is that small action undertaken, without a grand motive or a lofty cause, can still have unforeseen, potentially enormous, consequences.

Protecting one's turf

It's very difficult to ever grasp the big picture, or make surefire pronouncements on the fate of human species. Fierce Light offers up the analogy of the three blind men, who each feel up an elephant and make solemn pronouncements on its reality. "The big onkin' divine pachyderm" is very hard to see, much less understand. Sometimes, all you can do is steward one small patch of earth.

The Whistler Film Festival runs through the weekend. There are a number of excellent Canadian films on offer including Brett Gaylor's RiP: A Remix Manifesto, which picked up the Dioraphte Audience Award at the 21st International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) in Amsterdam, and directors Darren Curtis and Pat Kiely's Who is KK Downey?, which may be FUBAR for a new generation. I can't tell yet if I love it or loath it, but maybe that's the point.

Related Tyee stories:


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