Planting ideas through images; the making of a documentary.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Rough! Rough!

There's a little scene in the film, Dirty Work, where one of the worker's dogs, who is tied nearby to the field where they are planting seedlings, begins barking. "Ruff ruff ruff! Ruff ruff!" It's one of those things, I could have edited the sound out, but instead I edited a shot of the dog in, and he has a little cameo.

That comes to mind because we're ready to screen the Dirty Work rough cut, and for weeks and months I've been cutting little scenes like that, making spontaneous decisions like that, and soon we will decide what makes the actual final cut, what's in and what's out.

Being so close to one's film, there's always things that slip under your radar, and screening the rough cut helps to determine whether the story line and details are clear to an audience. Mike, my trusted companion, who shot the film, was, of course, the first person to see it.

What we have right now is a film that is 62 minutes, and it will have to be cut back to about 52 minutes for broadcast on public television, so we're soliciting audience reactions in a session, a laboratory, as it were, of interested people, at the Independent Film Project's Docu Club.

Docu Club was founded by Melody Gilbert, of "Married at the Mall" fame, and many of those who attend are documentary producers, actively engaged in their own media adventures. So it will be an interesting and hopefully lively discussion about what works and what doesn't, what's loved, and what's missing, what could be pruned or moved around or made more clear, or dropped altogether.

Anyone and everyone who is interested is welcome at this session.

Docuclub is scheduled at IFP MN (2446 University Ave. West, Suite 100, St. Paul/651-644-1912) on Friday, February 26, 2010.

DIRTY WORK is an hour-long documentary about a dream. The film follows a year in the life of the people who invested their sweat, hopes, and tears into Elsie's Farm; a little field of vegetables that just might change the world.

Potluck snacks and drinks begin around 5pm with the films starting around 6:00pm. It’s free and and open to all.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Progress Report

I haven't been blogging, mostly because I've been editing like mad. Making hay while the sun shines!

Or let's say you are planting seeds, getting your hands in the dirt, and you finally get to the end of a row and then another, and you just ignore the aches and pains, bend down again and again, and keep on task, and suddenly, even though it seems like forever, you've reached the last row. All your work is not done, there's weeding ahead, insects to fight off, and down the road, a harvest, but it feels good to look back and see all the little sprouts waving their green flags behind you, in their orderly processions.

I'm very close to having a rough cut of the film. I've been just cutting scenes one by one, and now, soon, I'll hook all those scenes together and see what I've made of it.

I took that opportunity to call up Farmer Don and tell him where we are at. Don Roberts is a very vigorous and feisty seventy something year old, and he's had some health challenges this winter, which has kept him a bit low for a few months.

The good news is, he's successfully recovered, and sounded hearty, and jovial, much like his old self, it was a joy to hear!

Here's to Don and Joni!!

Sunday, January 17, 2010


"In a discontinuous world, I love continuity" Don Roberts declares, the day we filmed at the Kingsfield Farmer's Market. Continuity, as I mentioned earlier, rules my editing of the film about his organic farm.

Michael Pollan's book, Food Rules, just released and climbing the charts, is premised on continuity, the sayings and proverbs about eating that were passed down to us.

What is it about continuity?

Pollan is a writer worth knowing about. He's engaging, curious, literate, anecdotal; yet someone who relies on common sense to come to certain conclusions. He argues, in his latest books, that to be healthy one should eat food.

Remember that old televison ad, Lay's Potato Chips, bet you can't eat just one? Or even better, Pringles, the crisp that fits in a can? These are highly engineered corporate products that are designed, yes, people work on this, eight hours a day, day in and day out, to take away whatever little control you might think you have over what you put in your mouth.

Rule of Thumb 1, if your great grandmother cooked it, and your grandfather ate it, Pollan says, it's probably o.k. for you to eat it. If not, think twice about even buying it. When you feel the urge to eat a potato chip, he wrote recently, wash a potato, cut out the eyes and dodgy bits, slice it thinly, preferably with the skin on , fry it in olive or almond or sesame oil, and by the time you've done all that, and cleaned up after yourself, you'll have better nutrition, are less likely to overindulge, given the work involved, and I imagine also, that if there's any other human in range of the wafting scents of frying, they've probably already reduced your portion size by at least half.

If it grew spontaneously out of the dirt, it's probably got eons of history with the human race and is going to, in the long run, make you feel better, give you more energy, and save your life. Food Rules! That's the philosophy of Elsie's Farm and, ultimately, this film.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Reel Time

I was reading an interview with a filmmaker yesterday who said documentaries differ from fiction in that, not only do you have no script, you have to wait for the story to happen in real time.

Real time is exactly what I was wrestling with, the other day.

Early video artists once made a point of rejecting the constant cutting, montage, the manipulation of a viewer's experience that has come to characterize television and Hollywood narratives. Andy Warhol's six hour meditation on the face of a sleeping lover is the film of that sort that comes to mind. As you might guess, these films were easily forgettable, exercises in boredom. Real time still inspires artists, but, mostly as a place to start from.

We like our time collapsed, like a telescope. It's one of the pleasures of film, to view experience from afar, see more of it in a glance, than when we were immersed in it.

So a documentary, these days is all about cutting up time and reorganizing it, putting events and statements in an own order, the logic of which follows the heart, or sets up an argument, or makes sense to you in some way you can't explain.

Dirty Work, unlike previous documentaries I've edited, has a clear sequence of events to be followed. It's amazing to me how much time I spend cutting up real time to create the illusion of it, instead.

if the film works, all this intricate puzzle piecing to maintain continuity will embed the viewer in the story, so that we are swept up by the lives and challenges happening before our eyes, and see them in a larger context.

Is this organic editing? Or merely the illusion of it? Only time will tell.

Friday, January 15, 2010


I learned a new word yesterday. I was listening to a radio interview taped a few years ago, the show Local Hero. Don Roberts, the co-owner of Elsie's Farm, and his son Alexander, the chef at Alma, were on air to discussing organic food, their relationship as grower and purveyor, health and healing, finding one's bliss, community supported agriculture and the cooperative movement, amongst other topics.

Don gave a rapid fire list of all the people it took to run Elsie's Farm, and mentioned wwoofers, a word the host, Brett Olson, quickly seized on. Having been involved with Elsie's Farm for five years, I didn't know the term either.

A wwoofer, it turns out, does not mean the bass resound in your audio speaker, but is an acronym for "world wide opportunities on organic farms." The WWOOF website puts people in touch with organic farms that could use their labor in exchange for housing and meals. Like couch sitting, only for those with a green thumb and a yen, not just to wander the earth, but love it, and get your hands dirty with it.

Elsie's Farm, the place, and Dirty Work, the movie, were enlivened by many young people that happened to be around at the time we were shooting; Jeff, Kristen, and William, in particular. I'm glad to learn about wwoofers because I have the feeling, after seeing this, others like them will want to get involved.

WWoof! Wwoof!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

When you play old-time fiddle, you have a lot of friends who are dancers. People ask me the difference between a fiddle and a violin and the best answer is a fiddle is a violin with ATTITUDE. But the next best is; you know it's a fiddle, if it makes you jump up and dance.

All this because yesterday, I spent all day building a little scene of my movie, then tore it all apart and, not happy with the results, built it back up again.

This is a scene familiar to many artists, casual knitters, and pretty much anyone who does anything creative, but yes, it's frustrating to end the day having worked eight hours to reap less than one minute.

O.K. it was more like 25 seconds.

Two steps forward, one step back. What comes to mind is a diagram of footprints with x's and arrows, usually set out on a floor for someone to follow.

So maybe I could consider my peripatetic progress on this film as-- not a set back-- but a dance.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Making Room for What Happens

One of the ways in which joining a CSA changes your life, is that you are confronted each week with things you hadn't anticipated. Normally one goes to a produce section with a list, or your eyes jump to certain familiar vegetables: carrots, celery, tomatoes. You may not even see other choices, because our brains are highly developed to screen out everything but what we deem relevant.

In a CSA box, you find chard or turnips or raddichio, and then you must work these into your life, in some way, and your palate widens.

This is true also of documentary. I've been thinking about fiction and reality. Over the last several decades, the fiction of reality has fascinated and rattled documentary films' claims to truth, in the circles I travel. The hand of the cameraperson and editor may well be invisible, but that doesn't mean it's inconsequential. A film is constructed, whether it is narrative or documentary. Those interviewed do perform, in many ways, for the camera, the persona that they want the camera to see.

But there is a difference, and while it's hard to define, exactly, it's like finding radishes in your CSA box. Things happen, things you didn't anticipate, and you are challenged to change your ideas of your subject and your film to accommodate them.

That is very true in this film, Dirty Work. I wanted to say one thing and ended up with another.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Field of Dreams

When we first became CSA members, began picking up our boxes of vegetables, and following events at Elsie's farm, I was not aware how deeply invested I would become in the dream, the story, the vision of our friends Don Roberts and Joni Cash, and the interesting cast of characters who had put down stakes in this piece of ground.

No one who starts an organic farm does so with only the dream of making a living. There are easier ways of doing that. A farm like Elsie's is a philosophical venture. It's making a statement about what can exist, what ought to exist, and what kind of life is worth living.

These are the seeds that began to sprout in this particular story.

This blog is for anyone who is interested in organic farming, or documentary filmmaking, anyone who has been a friend of Elsie's farm, or of it's off shoot, Otter Creek Growers, or wants to be. It's about making a film, about telling stories.

And hopefully about contradictions and paradoxes we all face, the simple beauty of hand made food, the politics of green living, with recipes, editing quandaries, poems and anecdotes, and hopefully, your comments.

Seeds and Wings

Here in this blog, is a kind of launching pad, a leafpile of stickies, an etch-a-sketch where I can work out some ideas about a film I am making, called "Dirty Work", the story of Elsie's Farm in Richland, WI.

One of the owners, Don Roberts, was an old friend of my faithful companion and fellow filmmaker, Mike Hazard. He and his wife, Joni Cash, traded a comfortable life in the city for a piece of land in the country where they could garden full time and make beautiful love with vegetables for their family and friends.

We started filming because a community supported agriculture farm, or CSA, like Elsie's, usually expects and depends on their members to pitch in with the work in some way. And, given our backgrounds, we preferred pixels to pitchforks.

It's not enough to nurture seedlings, aerate compost, and pick beets, your 21st century farm needs to have a virtual presence as well. And so does the film, which is an act of imagination as well.