A year after being engaged to co-direct ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ - a documentary feature for CBC - the film finally aired in BC and Alberta, and I’ve been able to sit back, take a breath and enjoy a satisfying sense of completion. We were making adjustments up until the eleventh hour.
What a ride! For the most part, this film was one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve had the pleasure to be involved with. Our small crew - made up of some of the kindest and most talented people I’ve encountered - got to spend the summer hanging out on small farms around greater Vancouver, shooting - and eating - their exquisite organic produce. We might well have been the best-fed documentary crew in Vancouver at that time.
I remember chatting with my roommate early in the project about the general premise of the film - that young, urban farmers are trying, and struggling, to make sustainable, ethical and viable farm businesses in a climate of soaring land prices. Interesting, she said, I guess I always thought of farming as something that happens somewhere else, somewhere far away. This perhaps, epitomised the reason for the film’s existence: to inform and educate people on their local food production, to help engage communities with their farmers, and to inspire individuals to reevaluate their own relationship to food.
What I learned through the course of the production is that Vancouver’s challenges around agriculture and land access are far from unique. In fact, they resemble the challenges faced by my home city of Auckland, and by most growing cities around the world. And like many significant social and environmental challenges today, the issues are vast and complex. I do not believe that real, meaningful and sustainable solutions are very often simple, or easy to implement. And while it can be tempting to be drawn into a polarized view of these issues, one thing that became evident to me is that balance, adaptability and compromise is required in every camp. Our primary subjects, Doug and Gemma of Zaklan Heritage Farm, once wet-behind-the-ears environmental idealists, quickly recognised the unsustainability of a purist approach to farming - personally, economically and by virtue, ecologically. A perfectly “sustainable” farm is not much use if nobody can afford to run it without running themselves into the ground in the process. Today, those farmers have matured into savvy, successful small-business owners, doing their best to balance their environmental and social intentions with practices which make their operation financially viable and personally rewarding.
Of course there were plenty of creative challenges too. We knew there was a story, but the exact thread was hard to find. About half way through production we realised our current idea wasn’t going to work and we had to brainstorm a new approach. A valuable lesson in listening to what the footage was telling us, and treading the fine line between guiding and shaping the story as it’s revealed to us, and imposing our preconceived ideas onto it. When our editor, Tavi, first suggested involving more farmers I was resistant. Fortunately, as soon as I watched the rough cut with him I realized he was right, and so we asked Fractal Farm and City Beet Farm to be involved, and thankfully they agreed - just two weeks before the end of their season. We scrambled to capture what we needed with them before they closed up shop for the winter - a glorious few days spent amongst bounteous fall harvests under canopies of golden leaves. Coming in from a long, wet harvest day, kicking off our Hunters and gathering around warm meals prepared from that same day’s harvest was truly my idea of heaven.
We had our fair share of general production issues as well - missing mags, dysfunctional drones, technical problems and very limited funds (as per every documentary project, ever). When these challenges arose, it was interesting to observe how people responded. I witnessed some incredible displays of leadership, resourcefulness, and generosity. Occasionally, I was surprised when people cracked and reacted poorly under pressure. All useful experience for me to reflect on the kind of character I want to display, my strengths and my weaknesses, and how to do better in future.
For me, the project was a crash course in storytelling. I had never dealt with such a large volume of footage, and been tasked with assembling this into a narrative. A million decisions had to be made about what to include, and in what order. The hardest decisions were in excluding content which in many cases was golden, but ultimately wasn’t right for the story we were telling. During this process I was incredibly grateful to have the support, creative insight and personal wisdom of Tavi, who spent several long weeks holed up with me in his West End apartment edit-suite, breaking only to source coffee and dosas from Denman street before returning to trawl hours of footage, searching for that one comment or shot we needed. Many times in my absence he put things together in miraculous ways I never would have thought of.
Of course I made my fair share of blunders along the way, and learned a lot from them - from reminders as simple as to be more fanatical about hiding lapel wires (the bane of Tavi’s existence), to more complex and ongoing learnings, such as how to diplomatically and compassionately navigate the inevitable interpersonal challenges that arise with subjects and crew alike.
Although I’m currently tucked away on an island away from my team, it has been wonderful to enjoy some small sense of celebration and to finally send our little film out into the world. I’m aware that it is far from perfect, is very limited in its scope, and hardly begins to scratch the surface of the issues we’re skirting. But, given the paramaters in which we were working, I’m proud of our effort. And, as always, the most rewarding outcome for me has been the relationships I’ve forged with some incredibly talented filmmakers and farmers alike. These people who are now friends and collaborators, and with whom I know I will be connected for many years to come. I hope that in some small way, the film helps to open up more conversations around food - where and how we’re growing it, and how we can do better. There are no simple answers, but nothing will change without awareness, education and a good dose of healthy debate. To the farmers, chefs, politicians and eaters who are tackling these issues in whatever ways possible, I can only offer my deepest respect. This film changed my relationship to food irrevocably, and I hope that in some small way, it helps to facilitate more of these conversations around the dinner table.