Fresh is a new documentary about food contamination, environmental pollution, and the people working to do something about those pesky little problems. Sound familiar? It draws natural comparisons to last year’s Oscar-nominated film, Food Inc. Both films portray the horrors of factory farming, and both feature some of the same characters, like proto-organic farmer Joel Salatin and The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan. But the films have markedly different tones.
While Food, Inc. left us frightened and horrified by nearly everything at the supermarket (and rightly so), Fresh offers up solutions, profiling Americans who are innovating to responsibly produce and sell food. We meet fascinating people like former pro-basketball player Will Allen, now an urban farmer and MacArthur Fellow whose organization, Growing Power, creates urban farms and education programs; and Kansas supermarket-owner David Ball, who partners with local farmers to provide fresh, locally grown food at affordable prices.
But it’s not all happy organic vegetables. There are plenty of shots in the film of factory farms, sad cows, and sick chickens. But ultimately, director Ana Sofia Joanes seeks more to inspire change than to horrify. That’s an important distinction for Joanes, who was compelled to make the film after reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2005 series on climate change in The New Yorker. “Those articles were just so incredible in describing the urgency of our time and how businesses as usual is no longer acceptable when we’re facing such an incredible crisis,” she says. “I had to meet the people who were doing something about this and trying to make a change.”
Blisstree talked with Joanes about making the movie, the Food, Inc. comparison, and the importance of having a vision.
Did Fresh end up being a more optimistic film that you thought it would be?
When I first started, I thought I was just going to make a documentary about global warming and scare the shit out of people, but you don’t scare people into action. I think you scare people into paralysis. In some ways, I feel like our media are doing that. We have had for too long a media that turn us into passive observers. We’re so used to seeing blood and crisis and hunger on the news that I think we’re kind of numb to it.
How did you fund the film?
A lot of debts. A lot of loans from friends and family, a few grants – and donations from people.
I read that you got quite into meditation when you made the film. How did that influence the movie?
I feel like there’s a message underneath the message about food in the film – that what you do matters, that each one of your actions matter. When I interviewed Joel Salatin he said that everything he does has a sacred dimension. I remember at that time, I probably rolled my eyes, but then it really stayed with me. I think the more I was making the documentary, and the more I meditated, the more I understood that and embraced it as my philosophy.
Fresh is drawing natural comparisons to Food, Inc.. What do you think of that?
I think they totally complement each other. It’s interesting because I usually use very strong language, as I did earlier in this conversation, about how I’m tired of doom and gloom, and how I don’t think it’s helpful to scare people because fear paralyzes them. In some ways that’s what Food, Inc. does, and I don’t think Food, Inc. is contributing to paralysis, although a lot of people have said that to me. They came out of Food, Inc. and they didn’t want to eat, period. I do believe that you need all kinds of different approaches that reach different people. And I think Food, Inc. has done an incredible job of educating people. But I think Fresh is then trying to give people options and solutions.
Did you have any contact with the Food, Inc. filmmakers when you were making Fresh?
Yes. Robert Kenner, the director. When he visited Joel Salatin’s farm (after I’d been there to shoot), Joel told him about me and gave him my contact info, so he contacted me. We’ve been in touch ever since, on very friendly terms. He’s a wonderful guy. He asked me for some footage and I gave it to him, and he ended up really helping me out with some archival material. We’ve been very supportive of each other.
Did you worry when Food, Inc. came out before your film?
Sure, there’s always that worry. I remember when Robert called me and told me what he was doing. He clearly had this huge budget and seemed to be making a movie that was so much more thorough than mine. I just kept having to remind myself: It’s a different movie; we’re not making the same movie. It’s not like there’s only one romantic comedy a year, but it was scary.
He called me last August or September, and I’d been way behind schedule because I didn’t have the money to hire an editor for six months. He was like “Ana, I’m going into post-production; we’re doing color correction this week; we’ve been accepted at the Toronto Film Festival”, which is one of the top festivals. I was on my way to Philadelphia by bus, trying to raise money, and I started crying on the phone with him. I don’t know this guy. I’m talking to him on the phone and I’m crying. And I said, “I’m so sorry Robert, I’m happy for you, I’m just exhausted, and I’m not sure I’ll ever finish this movie, and I’m so overwhelmed by what you’re telling me.” And he said: “If you weren’t crying, you wouldn’t be a filmmaker.” He was so nice about it, that I just sort of let go and trusted that I was making this movie for myself, for my process, and that it would find its audience.
Food, Inc. really focuses on specific villains from Tyson to Monsanto. With Fresh, that’s not really the focus. Was that a deliberate choice?
I wanted to make sure that the farmers were not vilified. So even the farmers who are industrial farmers in the movie I believe are seen more as victims than villains. There’s definitely a small section, it’s easy not to focus on it, on consolidation. ADM, Cargill, Monsanto, are named, and I certainly think they’re the villains, but I also think we’re all the villains to the extent that we’re allowing this situation to exist. We’re not breaking those monopolies or supporting the government in breaking the monopoly. The focus was definitely not on dwelling too much, too long, and instead was about focusing on alternatives so that we can move in this direction. I believe that if you don’t have a vision, you can’t move toward it. You need to see it in order to start the process of changing.
Fresh opens in select cities today. To find a theater or screening event near you, visit freshthemovie.com.