Blending an Emulsion: Part One

Posted March 21st, 2011 by Helen and filed in Uncategorized

Why were we screening short web documentaries for an audience in a traditional university museum film theater if they could easily see them on the Internet any time?  This was the question I wanted to answer honestly for the Lunch Love Documentary Project as my co-producer Sophie Constantinou and I were laying out the elements to design a two-hour event for our Pacific Film Archive screening in February 2011.

Steve Seid, video curator at the PFA and clever wordsmith, called this screening and community gathering a “Media Social.” We set up the event as a public expression of stories and issues that now surround food reform, and in particular, how these topics have played out in Berkeley, where I live, and have been making the Lunch Love Community documentary project since 2009.  Sophie and I wanted this first public screening-event to be inviting and familiar to the community, but also slip into the mix a few, riskier and unpredictable combinations with a Berkeley flavor in which film, performance, and town hall meeting could spark something exciting and memorable.

Lunch Love Communitya series of short webisodes that we’ve been giving away online since December 2010 to anyone who could use, post or burn them to a DVD — has been an emulsion made up of separate and distinct elements. Like oil and vinegar, movies and the Internet, collaboration and creative autonomy, we are working with materials and processes that don’t naturally combine smoothly. Emulsions can be fragile and unstable, or they can cohere, with a lot of rapid whisking, into a thick and rich new substances.

For the people who came out to sit together in a dark theater on a sunny and warm mid-February afternoon, I wanted to offer a more expansive, live community experience than could be had on a small digital screen. Ever since we’d been making, showing and using documentary film in new spaces, combining both the virtual and real, I’ve tried to retain a connection to familiar ways of approaching, watching, and considering the film experience — no matter how far and wide our web films travelled online. Bodies and minds together in a dark theater for a couple of hours is still one of the most powerful ways to connect and imagine alternative realities.

Around 150 people showed up to see the short films, ranging from 3 to 10 minutes in length, and listen to four speakers we invited from our community:  Joy Moore, community food activist; Stephen Rutherford, elementary school teacher; Bonnie Christensen, Executive Chef for the School Lunch Program; and Charlotte Biltekoff, Professor of American and Food Studies at UC Davis. In the intervals between films, each of the speakers would briefly comment on one of four framing questions that linked them individually through their work, to one of the themes around food, education and school lunch reform that got its start here in Berkeley.

I was curious to explore how, in our super social-mediated world, people are now interacting and engaging with one another and the films in different environments. What would happen when individuals came together in a dark room to enter the magical world of film, and after, break away and interact with experts about real social issues and problems?

How then, to capture that energy, and move those conversations on to the Internet, where the films could be watched again in a completely different space and framed in a completely different context where they were just beginning to generate attention?  This was the transmedia experience I was looking for as a filmmaker — one that was solid, grounded in real people’s lives and work, and where form follows function.

The structure we had designed for the PFA screening could not contain our speakers’ needs to digress, question, or defend the school lunch transformation in Berkeley.  Following the first webisode The Parent Factor, and commenting on the question, “What are You Up Against?” Stephen Rutherford used his ten minutes to point out, in a heartfelt, digressive monologue, how the promises of the lunch program, while being touted and celebrated, were not actually being realized effectively at his elementary school.

Chef Bonnie Christensen watched and listened to him. Her anger was visible as she took notes on what she was hearing as an exaggerated, public misrepresentation of the facts.  After the next short film, The Labor of Lunch, Chef Christensen spoke to her framing question, “What is the Future?” in a way we hadn’t expected — by delivering a blazing, improvisational rebuttal to Rutherford’s comments. Berkeley schoolteachers in the audience then took the mike to add their pointed responses, both pro and con, to a debate we hadn’t anticipated.

Real life experiences, strong feelings, and unpredicted controversy erupted out of the containers we had designed to hold these passionate voices. I wished I could have pulled out my video camera (which I did not have with me) to capture this exchange — individuals in the audience getting excited and engaged as they asserted their thoughts, and brought their experiences to bare in front of others. This was Berkeley in action – a city of fearless idealists and opinion makers with the drive and courage to examine and try to fix the flaws they had uncovered. An alive and present force of real life concerns and conflict flooded over the films, and came together in an inadvertent demonstration of the confusing and messy processes it takes to make change on a community level.

Here was what we had hoped to stimulate- “citizen participation.”  The films encouraged people to imagine new possibilities for children, for education, for beautiful food that awakens their kid’s appetites and senses.  The event led us to revisit the assumptions and ideals of the school lunch reform movement, which in turn opened onto a larger, more free-ranging conversation about how little time children get to eat and play at school, how pressured teachers feel now with disappearing resources, and in this time of shrinking resources, how to work on educational equity in racially and class-divided neighborhoods.

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