THE BLOG
08/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fresh 's Director and Producer, Ana Joanes, Explains the Difficulty of Filming a Documentary and What Sustainability Means

Fresh, a documentary that highlights people working to change the current industrial food system, is a refreshing compliment to Food, Inc.. While Robert Kenner did a fantastic job of exposing how much is wrong with our food system, Ana Joanes chose to focus on people who are doing what's right. Recently, she explained why she chose to film the documentary as she did and how she hopes it will inspire others to make a difference.

Louise McCready: You've said that you first started thinking about making Fresh after reading a three-part article in the New Yorker about global warming four years ago. How did you go from reading something about global warming to a film about food?

Ana Joanes: After reading the articles, I felt, as I often do when bombarded with stories of doom and gloom, like a powerless and hopeless observer, watching the world spiraling towards its inevitable destruction. I also realized that this feeling was responsible for my inaction. When confronted with such large and complex problems, it's hard to see the meaning of what appears like small, inconsequential, individual action. I embarked on the making of Fresh to recapture a sense of agency, a belief that my individual actions do in fact matter. As I researched, I encountered the most inspiring people, ideas, and initiatives. Food soon became the obvious focus. The food system is not only a microcosm of all the problems we're facing as a society (over-reliance on oil, depletion of resource, pollution of the environment, consolidation of our economy, loss of environmental and economic resilience, exploitation of people, etc.), it's an amazing showcase of how to bring about solutions. The alternative food system is grassroots. It's international. It's vibrant, innovative, and transformative. By that I mean that it's offering a completely new perspective of how to do things, a new vision for the future.

LM: Were there any other films that you looked to as a model when producing this film?

AJ: I can tell you more what I was trying not to do. Documentaries can be informative but also often dry. That's true especially of "activist" documentaries. There are plenty of great character documentaries out there, but too many concept documentaries miss the mark emotionally. On the other end of a spectrum you have Michael Moore's movies which are usually very successful on an emotional level, but, I believe, lack in complexity and analysis. It was important for me to make a documentary where the characters drive the story, not the experts, and that would be satisfying intellectually as well. It's a hard balance to find, but that was my hope in creating Fresh.

LM: How did you choose which farmers and food activists to include?

AJ: We shot 300 hours so we talked to a lot of farmers, and all of them were doing incredible work. In choosing whom to include, I, first of all, picked the most dynamic and charismatic people. In addition, although Fresh is a character-driven documentary, it has a conceptual structure. So in addition to their sheer interest as individuals, each "character" had to fulfill a purpose in my movie.

Joel Salatin embodies sustainability for instance. The word sustainability is thrown around a lot, but most of us don't really understand what it means -- I certainly didn't. I needed someone who could demonstrate the difference between the extract and waste linearity of our industrial model -- and way of thinking in general -- and the circularity of a sustainable model, where life is an indivisible network in which every node is critical.

George Taylor embodied beautifully the difficulty for farmers to do the right thing. George, like so many farmers, wishes he could farm differently but he is stuck, dependent on government money to make a living and unable to transition out of the system.

Will Allen's work, among many things, is an amazing answer to the questions of access and affordability that so often arise. Will shows that fresh food is for everyone. Finally, I wanted to include characters that could bring up the issues with our distribution model.

Diana Endicott, the founder of the farmers' coop in Kansas City, and David Ball, the supermarket owner, allowed me to explore the problem with consolidation in our food economy. If we, as consumers, are going to have access to food produced sustainably, we need to ensure that farmers have a market for their product and can make a living farming. Distribution is key.

LM: I was shocked by Russ Kremer's testimony about how one of the pigs in his industrial hog confinement operation gave him an antibiotic-resistant infection and that led him to raise pigs that don't use antibiotics. What surprised you the most while researching and shooting this film?

AJ: I didn't know much about my food when I started the movie, so everything came as a shock. But the shocking facts of our food system also became background pretty fast. What truly surprised me was how the alternatives -- the solutions made so much common sense. Every time I spent time on a sustainable farm and the farmers described what they were doing and the reason for doing it, I thought, "How can things make so much sense and be so beautiful, yet they're the exception and nobody knows about this?" We all have a tendency to assume that we do things a certain way for a reason -- it must be more efficient, more productive, more lucrative. But when you start exploring our absurd system you realize that we've taken some good things, like industrialization, too far and applied it where it doesn't belong. Most importantly, you realize that it does not make any sense at any level -- it's not benefiting anyone besides a handful of companies. It's shocking that we have solutions that work, that heal the land, that can revitalize our local economy, that produce more and better food, and that we're not promoting them.

LM: I know your emphasis was on farmers so you didn't touch as much on the role of government to produce change, but do you think government has an obligation to encourage sustainable food production or provide all citizens with healthy, locally-grown food?

AJ: I think government does, and I think we have a responsibility toward our government to make that happen. I did not put much emphasis on that in the movie because I wanted the movie to act as a platform to raise awareness and inspire. I thought that in order to do that effectively, it needed to be emotional. The politics of food is complex and addressing it in a movie would have required a certain amount of dry explanation, so instead of addressing the politics of food in detail in the movie, I decided to create a distribution strategy meant to engage audiences with their community. A central component of our strategy consists in promoting community screenings all over the country. These screenings are followed by panel discussion with experts -- farmers, city council members, professors, activists, etc. It's great when you have a city council member or someone from the school district present at a panel and they can explain how zoning laws impact the availability of fresh local food or the impact of institutions like schools or hospitals on the viability of our local food economies. The power of your individual voice in enormous, but our collective action is even more meaningful. Collective action means government. That is what government is supposed to be -- it's not what it is, but it's what it's supposed to do.

LM: What would you recommend a person do who has just seen your film, and who is inspired to make a difference?

AJ: There's so much one can do. It starts with acknowledging the desire to do something. Then, just start somewhere. It doesn't matter what it is and it doesn't matter how much it is. It's not an all or nothing thing. Volunteer with an organization in your community, plant a garden, join a CSA, buy $10 worth of local or organic food every week, cook more! Or simply ask the waiter at the restaurant you go to, "Do you know where your chicken comes from?" Kindly ask that question everywhere you go so people start thinking about the origin of their food, and so business owners realize there's a demand for food that's not industrial. And most importantly, speak about it -- Fresh can be a great way to start a conversation. It's been tremendously exciting to see the movie catch on and spread like wildfire, being used all over the country as a platform to raise awareness and connecting people to the solutions available in their community. We believe that Fresh can truly help get us to a tipping point where sustainable food will no longer be just a niche market. So go to our site, and sign up to host a screening!