A conversation between Steve James and Raj Patel about food, film, activism, and their new book and documentary project, GENERATION FOOD.
STEVE JAMES: Lead the way!
RAJ PATEL: Steve! You’re an acclaimed director and someone who’s been through the sort of standard hoops of documentary financing. Why crowd-sourcing?
STEVE: You know, it is a kind of ‘Brave New World’ of documentary filmmaking and financing.That’s due in part to the fact that even though there are many more places where a film, a documentary, can play than there were when I started in filmmaking decades ago, there are also a lot more people trying to make documentaries, which is exciting. And we’re in a situation where more people than ever want to make documentaries. There’s a need for it, especially with the retreat of mainstream media from dealing with issues in a deep and lasting way. So in order to finance a lot of exciting and challenging and provocative films these days, filmmakers are discovering that they need to take it into their own hands to some extent, and not be beholden to the usual gatekeepers to finance films. It’s like the DIY movement has hit funding documentaries too.
RAJ: I’m really struck by that, because I often hear about ‘the death of journalism,’ accompanied by a certain amount of hand-wringing about what the next model is going to be. Do we know enough about crowd-sourcing to know if this is a sustainable model for documentaries?
STEVE: I’m not an expert on crowd-sourcing at all. In fact, before this interview if you had asked me to define crowd-sourcing, I might not have been able to do that. I think that it’s too early to tell if it’s a sustainable model to be honest. I think what we do know is that is has proven to be successful for a lot of people. It may not be successful for raising your entire budget for a film, because films can be expensive. They usually are. But it can certainly help get a film under-way, and get someone to that place where they’re able to demonstrate to other people who have funds – whether it be distributors or broadcasters – that they really have something, that is a really important story, and it’s going to be well told. If crowd-sourcing only succeeds in providing fundamental start-up funds for a project, that’s an entirely important role for it to take. And of course, every once in a while, somebody hits a grand-slam and is able to fund an entire project from it.
RAJ: It seems to me that there’s something new embedded in that, about being in contact with an audience pretty early on. How much contact during Hoop Dreams or the Interrupters- the two massive films you’ve worked on – did you have during the process of making those films?
STEVE: I would say none. I think that you raise a really interesting point of difference between this new kind of approach we’re taking to filmmaking or the more traditional approach, or approaches that I’ve taken in the past. That is: the point of contact with an audience generally comes in a very minimal way when you’re finishing the film. First, you might show the film to a group of people – guinea-pigs, if you will – to get a sense of how that film is playing for that audience. Then second, once the film is completed, contact with the audience can take one of two forms. It can take the form of theatrical release or on television, or it can take the form of outreach and civic engagement, which are crucial aspects to many documentary films. But in the course of making it: none! You’re making the film by yourself.
I think even with crowd-sourcing, you’re making the film with a generally small select group of people. It’ll be exciting and interesting and new for me to see the interest and feedback we get as we venture down this road with a kind of audience, with a group of ‘funders,’ if you will, as a part of the mix, and see the ways they are engaged with the topic to begin with, and then along the way. If we’re able to sort of send them updates or footage or selects, to sort of see what their reaction is. It’s interesting. I think it’ll be exciting.
I think the thing you have to be careful of is that any kind of artistic endeavor is generally not done best by a committee. It doesn’t mean that it’s done by one person, but usually it’s a small group of people who are really the key core to any film getting made. I think what I don’t want to do, as a filmmaker, is make a film where I’m constantly thinking about “what is the audience for this film.” In general when people set out to make a film and calculate it for an audience, I find they don’t tend to be very good films. I think when people follow a passion and tell a story with conviction, then that film will find it’s audience.
RAJ: How interesting! That was my next question. Were you thinking about what you wanted to convey when you have made films in the past? And the reason I’m asking that question is that when I’m writing, I’m always thinking about who my ideal reader is, and what it is that I can assume that they know, and what it is that I feel like I need to work through with them. But when you’re in the editing room, is there a sort of process of bearing that audience in mind when you’re deciding what stays and what goes?
STEVE: I’m always thinking about that archetypal audience member when I’m making a film. Mostly when I’m editing a film, to be honest. When I’m out shooting, I’m mostly trying to just find the story. I take it on faith, whether it’s well-placed or not, that if it’s fascinating and interesting to me, that it’ll be fascinating and interesting to somebody else. It may not be fascinating to everybody else, but that there will be an audience for the film. I think the best documentaries touch on issues that are universal in nature. They tell compelling stories, and who doesn’t want to hear a compelling story? They tell surprising stories. In many respects I take the measure of a film to be if it could actually engage me, and illuminate me, and surprise me, about a topic that, going in, I may not have this profound and tremendous interest in.
It’s easier, in a film, when you’re preaching to the choir about a topic. I’ll give you an example with The Interrupters. I never in a million years would have thought that the film would have gotten the kind of profile that it ended up getting. On the one hand it’s a film about urban violence, and I knew that it would be a very raw film, and I wasn’t sure that, frankly, there were a lot of people who would want to see the film, or care about that issue to the degree that peopleactually seem to care about it. It’s been a problem for decades in this country. So I didn’t set out with any grand notion of what the audience might be. But as we were making the film we were covering people whose stories were about redemption and trying to change your life, and trying to live a good life, and trying to overcome adversity. Those are all universal themes that allow the film, in part, to connect with audiences that weren’t living in neighborhoods that were troubled by violence. Instead people got drawn in by the lives of these folks, and inspired by their lives, and in the course of watching the film, came to care in some way about the people they were seeing.
That leads me to a question for you. I’ve done films that are very much about what you might call ‘social issues’ and I usually try to find stories of individuals whose lives, in some way, have something to say about larger social issues. But I’ve never thought of myself as either a journalist or an activist in my filmmaking. But I think you, correct me if I’m wrong, define yourself as a journalist, among other things, and an activist. Do I have that right?
STEVE: Why…why do you want to work with me? No, that’s not the question. The question is: how do you see your journalism and your activism intersecting? And what do you see as the advantages of that, or the good things that come out of that intersection, and what do you see as the pitfalls of that?
RAJ: Well, to answer the question that you don’t want to ask, the reason I want to work with you came from watching Hoop Dreams. It blew my tiny mind, and opened me up to the possibilities of what documentary can do in the world. I have had so many amazing conversations about Hoop Dreams soon after it came out, about you respect for place, respect for community and story, and the participants in that film. It’s the kind of thing that gets taught in social science classes. I was taught that if you’re going to be an academic and a social scientist here’s how to respect the people you work with. So the reason I want to work with you is because you’re the embodiment of the kind of academic and social scientist I want to be.
But in terms of the activism and the journalism: one pitfall that I see, having sat in this world for a while, is that there’s a great deal of preaching to the choir. Certain modes of storytelling that you fall into have a very predictable arc. And I do see this story type in documentaries and print. It goes, “here’s how we’re screwed. And here’s how we’re screwed even more, and here’s how else we’re screwed.” Then there’s a possible happy ending, where a few experts will get together in the final paragraph or in the final scenes of a film, and say, “it doesn’t have to be this way.” Then there’s a cursory moment where it’s announced that, “if only we recycle and buy organic, everything will be fine.” It’s a kind of narrative that’s written for you, and it’s very easy to do as a journalist and as an activist. Saying, “here’s Big Bad X, here’s how they’re screwing us in three different ways, and here’s Noble Person Y, and they’re unimpeachable and you can’t say anything bad about them, and they are the hero, and THE END.” Obviously there are ways in which we’re being screwed. There are some incredibly brave people out in the world who are resisting the enclosure of their land, and the destruction of their communities. But I think that’s one of the things I’m keen to avoid. One of the reasons I’m really excited about Generation Food is because your ability to be honest and respectful of a place and a story makes it much harder to do the activist short-cut of just saying, “well, yes there are some contradictions over here but we’ll have to paper over those for the time being,” in service of “the cause.” That’s not to say we’ll ignore big structural issues - after all, Hoop Dreams talked about race, class, inequality and injustice in America. But it did it with nuance and subtlety. I’m hoping we’ll be able to do that for food.
When it comes to some of the benefits when journalism and activism intersect, I do think that journalism can open up the world to an audience, so that they think about it differently, and in thinking about it differently, you might help people see how they themselves could transform the world. And that’s very exciting. It’s very empowering. This isn’t about sharing what I think needs to happen to change the world. Much more powerfully, it’s about people feeling like they are powerful enough to conceive change in the world. Having the right stories, the right examples, and the right knowledge about what’s possible – and those stories and that knowledge is always much bigger than we think it is – there’s always much more that is possible than we suspect. That’s what journalism and storytelling is good for.
Certainly with journalism I feel like I’m on a slightly stronger footing. But storytelling is something that I’m really in the foothills of. I’m looking forward to ascending to slightly greater heights, at least, by following your leads.
STEVE: Well soon you’re going to be in the Andes of Peru at much greater heights.
RAJ: Yes, well I don’t want to get altitude sickness. I’m kind of looking for junior foothills storytelling, at least to start with.
STEVE: That’ll be good!
I’ve done many films that involve journalists, and I’ve heard journalists make a big point of not expressing their political point of view on any given topic. They feel like it’s part of their duty and calling to not, in any way, express that or even try to look at the world through those biased eyes. This, of course, may be impossible. Do you reject that strong firewall that journalists like to put between their job and their beliefs?
RAJ: I’m suspicious of it. Just because the stories I tell are usually about people being screwed by an entity or a series of forces that usually have the upper hand when it comes to media coverage. I like being on the less comfortable side of that conflict. Sometimes, simply by having selected a story, one is already in violation of some sort of fair-and-balanced firewall. For example, if one is talking truth to a multi-billion dollar company, certainly a line or two from that company is important to have. But it’s also important to explore some of the stories that, without the intervention of journalists who are interested in these kinds of struggles, would never appear at all.
It’s not that I think that it impossible to be fair – I think it’s important to be fair. But I think it’s important to actually be fair. One comes into any situation with an idea of fairness and justice, and this is inescapable. You can’t be fair and set aside your idea of fairness. If you’re going to be fair as a reporter – that world ‘fair’ is already loaded with politics and morality and sense of justice and truth and ‘right’ in one way or another. I think that the most important way of being honest with that is to lay one’s cards on the table instead of pretending that one doesn’t have cards.
Steve: I’ve often been in situations where this question comes up, and I tell people that the films I do have a point of view. But I like to think that the point of view they have is arrived at through a complicated and full understanding of the world in which the film is documenting. I also like to think that the film gives you, the viewer, an opportunity to assess and decide for yourself what you think.
When we made Hoop Dreams, more than one person said to me that as they were watching the film they went back and forth with a debate in their own head about whether the basketball dream was good for these kids and their families or whether it was the worst thing that could ever happen to them. They had that debate raging in their minds. I thought that was the best compliment the film could get. Frankly, I had the same debate going on in my mind. So the film has a point of view, but it’s not a polemical point of view, and I found that the best writing achieves that.
Can I ask you, what made this particular issue stand out to you? I know you’ve written about other things, but this will now be a second book for you that delves into the issue of food and feeding the world. And now a film as well. What is it about this topic that resonates so much with you?
RAJ: These kinds of stories are quite personal. For me, it’s the story of being exposed to poverty in India when I was very young, and being reduced to tears by it, and frustrated by it, and angry about it. I was with my family and we were visiting people in Bombay and there was this incident that happened at a traffic light with a young girl who was begging. I was frustrated by the fact that she was standing in a monsoon and we were sitting in a car, and she wanted money and we had it. That sort of thing stuck with me, and when I came back home I started collecting money for the famine in Ethiopia by, you know, renting out my toys and things like that. It’s been something that, for as long as I can remember, has pissed me off.
STEVE: How old were you when that happened, Raj?
RAJ: I was five or six. I was tiny. But it was the sort of thing that stuck with me, and I was very, very upset and angry. I’m not remarkable in that outrage - every kid, every adult, has a sense of fairness. “That’s not fair’ is a cry you’ll hear in every playground across the world. But I’ve been trying to find out the answer to why this happens and what we can do about it, for a very long time.
I feel like what I was doing in Stuffed and Starved was an act of diagnosis and interpretation, asking “why does this happen?” Particularly now with a two-year-old, I’m much keener to do something quite serious about it. The figure that was shocking to all of us when we first heard it – about children leading shorter lives now because of the food system - is disturbing, and a call to action. That’s why I wanted to do something around the solutions, rather than on why everything’s a bit crap. Also, I wanted to have that richer sort of ‘warts and all’ telling of the stories of solution. I have plenty of warts, and I don’t want to dangle a solution in front of anybody, including myself, that’s not something that I could see myself being part of.
STEVE: If you have warts they don’t show, because you’re quite a handsome man. It sounds like you were an activist from the age of six on. Your parents must have either been very proud of you, or very concerned. (Laughter). Or maybe both.
Here’s another question, just so people understand more clearly the distinction between Stuffed and Starved and what you intend to do here. Will this book and film build off of what you learned in Stuffed and Starved? Or are there just a lot of new things that need to be explored to understand solutions, above and beyond what you learned with Stuffed and Starved?
RAJ: Stuffed and Starved was a sort of ‘view from space,’ as it were, about why we live in a world that has obesity and hunger. I think we’ll be able to compress quite a lot of that information into Generation Food. I really see this film and book as a stand-alone story; not of what’s wrong, but of the different ways that people are trying to make it right. I am seeing this as complementary to my previous work, though it’s not really a sequel. It’s about lots of people trying to figure out how to make things better, and stumbling, and sometimes getting it wrong, and being in different parts of the world and sometimes being more or less powerful. I see this as a work with much broader appeal. Yes, it’s about food, but it’s also about that very human striving of wanting to do things better now so that your kids are slightly better off, and I think everyone has that feeling at some level. Food, it happens, is a useful thing around which to focus that story. I’m envisaging something that’s not written for people who are interested in hunger or obesity, but for those interested in what it is to be human and who like to think about the future a little bit.
That prompts a question I’d quite like to ask you, which is about food. This isn’t explicitly an area that you’ve explored before, though it’s certainly been a feature of the lives you’ve covered in, say, The New Americans. What do you think is going to be interesting, and what are you looking forward to that’s specifically food-related? You’ve covered a range of different kinds of human relationships in the past. Is there something about food that you’re tantalized by?
STEVE: First of all, I love it, and I indulge in it regularly. But more seriously, when you approached me about this project, I realized it’s one of those topics that I feel I’m completely ignorant of. Also, I too am bothered by this disparity between the lives of people like myself, and those who live not just a few blocks away from me on the West side of Chicago, for example, but also on the other side of the world. It has to do with a realization that we don’t have it all figured out here, despite our tremendous wealth, and opportunities, and education. We’re screwing up a lot of things at home, when it comes to issues like obesity, and how do we feed ourselves, and how do we organize the system of growing and consuming food in this country. We’re also not really doing the rest of the world any real favors in that capacity either. We’re not exactly a beacon of hope and leadership on issues of food.
You approached me about this project, then I talked to you, and read your book proposal, and it dawned on me that this is a profoundly important issue. Yet it’s also, like you just said, a very human one. It’s about as fundamental as you can get. I liked the idea of going around the world as well as here at home, trying to understand, from within the cultures of other people and other countries, what they’re up against. And to learn what they’re trying to do to solve such problems for themselves that also may teach us something about solving our problems at home. It seems like it’s a very timely topic.
I have found over the years that the films I end up making push some kind of button in me about something that I want to know more about, and that I’m woefully ignorant of. So I’ve made a specialty of going out and doing films on things that I don’t know anything about. I think that’s the part of the process that’s so exhilarating and liberating and exciting: to go on an act of discovery, and learn what other people are doing and discover people who are inspirational.
For example, when I went to Nigeria for New Americans. It was the first time I had been anywhere in Africa. When we were driving into Lagos from the airport, I was struck by what I perceived to be a profound level of poverty, the likes of which I had never encountered even in Chicago, where there is some pretty severe poverty. That immediately hit me in a powerful way. But a week and a half later instead of just seeing the poverty, I saw these incredibly resilient folks, whose lives, in many respects, were likely far more fulfilling than many of our lives here in the West. They told us about how when they leave to go, say, get firewood, they don’t have to call someone to come in to look after their young children. Their neighbor does it. That’s just what neighbors and friends and family do. People would be out in the streets of the market until ten or ten thirty and night. On the one hand you could say, “wow, the market’s open late and people are working quite hard.” But when you walk through the market it felt like anything but work. It felt like community, it felt like a place where people came together. It felt very fulfilling in a way that work often isn’t, in this country, anyway.
There’s something about getting out of your own world and your own country and seeing other parts of the world that are not your usual places, and experiencing in a deeper way what other people’s lives are. It can teach you quite a bit not just about their lives, but about your own.
Raj, what are some of your favorite food films that you’ve seen, whether they be fiction or non-fiction?
RAJ: I think the classic film for anyone who likes food is Tampopo, the Japanese film that came out in the ‘80’s. It’s still a film that you can go back and laugh out loud with. The food is amazing, and the social relationships are amazing, and the story is amazing, and you leave hungry. I felt that way very recently of the “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” though I certainly left the theater wanting sushi, and since I’m vegetarian, that was hard.
But I have enjoyed some of the food ‘big-issue’ films, like Food Inc. and The Future of Food. And, though problematic, even things like Darwin’s Nightmare. But the kinds of films that I’m waiting to enjoy are those in which there isn’t a parade of experts. Thesekinds of films tend to be much more fiction than non-fiction. Whether it’s Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, or (S: Right, that was a good one.) or Big Night, which I also enjoyed a great deal. I like the films that have a sort of lustful eye for food, and which are not shy about showing you how pretty food can be, but at the same time, don’t turn food into pornography in the way that the Food Network might.
Did I tell you that story about the Food Network, and the production tips that they borrow from the pornography industry? A friend of mine, Fred Kaufman wrote a book called, A Short History of the American Stomach, in which he had a porn producer watch the Food Network. The porn producer was saying, “look, actually, they’ve nicked all our stuff. They’ve brought out the color, they over-mic the sound so that the whipping of the eggs sounds a little naughtier than it might otherwise. And when they take the food out, it’s called “the money shot.”” There is something sort of over-sensualized about the Food Network. I think that’s sad, because food is very sensual itself. The films that I like which are about food, or touch on food, bow to the sensuality of it because that makes it a much richer story, including everything else that’s going on.
STEVE: I think you’ve touched on something that is important to what we want to do. We want to show why food matters beyond just the fact that it allows us to live. Beyond caloric intake. We want to show why food matters in other ways, and how food is prepared and made and created is embedded deeply in a culture and its values. And I think we also want to show places in the world where they’re struggling to hang on to that, and places in the world where they’re succeeding. Those may even be the same places. Also, I think we want to show places in the world where that’s been lost, and what gets lots with that, or what is in danger of being lost.
It’s more than just a story about how do we feed hungry mouths. It’s a story about culture, history, and community, and family. What else, Raj. What else is GENERATION FOOD about?
RAJ: I do think it’s about pleasure and joy. I should say, that’s why food is one of the more appealing things for me to do activism around. Not that there isn’t 350.org doing fantastic things around fossil fuel, but when it comes to persuading people that things can be better, food is kind of fun. When you have people like Alice Waters - who you and I and the lucky bidders for that particular ‘thank you’ gift on Indiegogo will be having dinner with – who is above all a sensualist. She is open to the world and feels the world in ways that are just so exciting and so attractive. I think that’s one of the things that food’s about as well. It’s about connecting with the world in ways that we might have lost. I grew up in a convenience store surrounded by the kinds of crap that I regularly inveigle against, only later to discover that food can taste great, and that it can be this moment of bonding and experience and joy. I think that a communal meal is not just about the community but also about a space to be able to imagine one’s self in the world very differently, and that’s kind of exciting.
STEVE: You are a food sensualist. I think you could get a gig directing at the Food Network, on the heels of this conversation. But it also strikes me, that as a vegetarian, I won’t be taking you to Gibson’s Steak House in Chicago to have the classic Chicago experience, where they bring out the big red cut of meat and you decide which one you want?
RAJ: Well, you know, when I was doing my research for GENERATION FOOD in Japan, I put my vegetarian-ness aside at time. There were occasions when, for example, we were hanging out with farmers who said, “ you’ve got to have the local Okinawan specialty,” which was goat sashimi. So goat sashimi was what I had, and it tasted exactly as you think it might. If I think of going to Chicago as an anthropological experience, I might be open to a steak.
STEVE: Or a hot dog?
RAJ: Or a hot dog. Exactly.