Essay: From farm-to-table to film-to-table, a Coloradan approach to moviemaking
Nov 19, 2013
By Mitch Dickman and Alex Harvey
The sustainable food revolution that’s underway in contemporary restaurants and kitchens around the country emphasizes a creative process focused on locality. Thanks in part to the efforts of authors like Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore’s Dilemma") and Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation"), over the last fifteen years the return to locally sourced agriculture, meat and dairy has gone from the niche market mentality of expensive restaurants on the coasts to a general outlook accepted by a broad spectrum of food providers across the nation. Even the Denver-born fast food chain Chipotle sources its ingredients from in-state farms to appeal to locavores.
Revisiting this tradition is energy efficient because it cuts down on the carbon footprint of food distribution. It is healthier because produce fresh out of the ground is richer in nutrients and untainted by preservatives than processed foods. The old ways are also more economically sound -- cutting out the middleman allows food workers on both sides of the production and preparation process to be better compensated and keeps money circulating within local economies.
This movement has earned a popular name for itself: farm-to-table.
In both its production and consumption, "Hanna Ranch," a feature-length documentary which premiered at the recent Denver Film Festival, has allowed us to imagine what a film-to-table movement might look like.
The project is a Colorado story told by Colorado filmmakers, shot and cut by a Colorado crew, and financed with Colorado money. It depicts the Hanna family cattle ranch south of Colorado Springs. Its main theme is the “eco”-cowboy Kirk Hanna’s defense of his land against development and his parallel battle against depression. Schlosser served as the film’s executive producer.
Like farm-to-table, film-to-table asks what is the most intimate and direct narrative approach to a given story. Fruits and vegetables doused with chemicals and shipped thousands of miles from where they were grown do not taste like themselves. They become disassociated from their unique flavor and nutritional value. In film-to-table, the emphasis is not on creating a synthetic or modified version of the story to fit some particular cinematic end. Instead we want to emphasize the specificity of a subject or a narrative examining what is unique, personal and remarkable about where it actually comes from and what it actually is. We want to allow the camera lens to bring out what is singular in the story – not to generalize it, disguise it or spoil its specificity by pretending it is from somewhere it isn’t.
That’s why, following preliminary interviews with the Hanna family, it became clear that the story might more powerfully be told as a documentary than as a fictionalized feature -- the original plan.
Traditional filmmaking tends to be incredibly inefficient. Huge numbers of people and vast sums of money are involved as well as vehicles with lights and equipment that consume a tremendous amount of energy. Producers think nothing of grabbing the crew’s breakfast at McDonald’s.
A film-to-table project must be approached differently. During the making of "Hanna Ranch", days began by meeting up with Daniel Asher, the culinary director of Denver restaurants Linger and Root Down. Asher and his team prepared local, organic, fresh breakfasts and lunches for the small crew. One hybrid vehicle was used to traverse rural Colorado to conduct interviews and take b-roll shots. The entire movie was filmed solely in natural sunlight manipulated by a system of reflectors, silks, and flags.
Conducting business in line with current environmental practices both matched the subject matter of the film and served as an example of the way filmmaking can be part of the broader sustainability movement moving forward.
Film-to-table views the local economy as an eco-system. The marketplace is really a superstructure of linked symbiotic partnerships filling niches in a native environment similar to the biosphere. Promoting motion picture production inside one particular locality creates an economic link between those producing film and those consuming it.
The state film incentive program in Colorado initiates just such a cycle when it comes to sustainable filmmaking. It provides work for local film professionals, thus helping them to stay in state and create Colorado-oriented projects.
The eco-system extends to distribution. "Hanna Ranch"’s core audience is here in Colorado. There are multiple ways that audiences across the entire state can view the film. Owing to the support of organizations like the Denver Film Society, the picture was screened through the Starz Denver Film Festival earlier this month as well as in locally-owned movie theaters along the front range. In rural areas, the film will be available through BluRay/DVDs directly from the website and video on demand.
An essential component of film-to-table is the generation of new projects to feed the creative eco-system and keep the wheel turning. From incentivized in-state production to the reception that films are able to achieve with local audiences, a system of fiscal energy flow begins to emerge. This mutually beneficial cycle is meant to re-launch new projects that feed back into the system. The model works identically to the nutrient cycle in eco-systems that farm-to-table methods are attempting to harness.
Following the "Hanna Ranch" model, we are now joining with a team of Denver-born artists to explore film-to-table practices on a new project currently scheduled to go into production next summer.
The narrative feature we are developing together is a loose adaptation of Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece, "Walden". The film rearticulates the themes and imagery of Thoreau through a trio of contemporary Colorado stories. Like "Hanna Ranch," "Walden" will be produced with a hyper-local mindset utilizing the methods described above.
The most distinctive way farm-to-table has transformed consumer living is by sparking people’s desire to know where their food comes from. Many locavores and chefs have met or directly interacted with the farmers they are supporting and who are in return supporting them.
Film-to-table recognizes that knowing where a film comes from enriches the experience of the material in the film. Working with a smaller-scale sustainable model allows for more face-to-face exchanges. That human contact is really what film-to-table is about.
Taking our cue, once again, from the food industry, with "Walden" we are planning to involve the local community by sharing the unique personalities we are encountering in our process with our audience during the making of the film. This past summer, for instance, while shooting a trailer for the film, we partnered with Fort Collins kinetic sculptor and outsider artist, Les Sunde. For several decades Les has been building a structure out of found objects on his property in Bellvue, Colorado. Beyond providing a breathtaking location by letting us shoot in his sculpture house, Les’s personality has proved to be a philosophical inspiration to the project -- he’s a gentle and eccentric 21st century transcendentalist; our very own Thoreau.
Over the next year we will share stories of our process with people like Les through multi-media online journals that document the making of "Walden".
In every aspect of the farm-to-table philosophy, practitioners are dedicated to closing the gap between the consumer and the producer. Colorado filmmakers and audiences are just as eager bridge the same gap in film.
Mitch Dickman is an award-winning producer and director, and the founder of Denver-based production company Listen Productions. Dickman directed "Hanna Ranch" and is the producer of the forthcoming feature, "Walden." Alex Harvey is a Denver-born theater director, writer, filmmaker, musician, teacher and producer currently based in Brooklyn, New York. Harvey is the director of "Walden."
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