When one thinks of a large metropolitan city, sustainable farming likely isn’t one of the first things that comes to mind. But it should be.
Chicago-based filmmakers Matt Wechsler and Annie Speicher’s first feature documentary “Sustainable” is a passionate look at the American food system through the eyes of farmers, chefs, and sustainable farming advocates on the sustainable agriculture movement and how it can not only reform the relationship we have with food but improve the health of our land and create stronger bonds within our communities.
Put it all together and what you’re left with is a better quality of life for every living thing and a pretty amazing documentary that will be making its Australian premiere at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on July 10th.
Matt and Annie are a husband and wife filmmaking team with over two decades worth of production experience.
Matt, who grew up working in his father’s video production business, is the director of “Sustainable” and the founder of Hourglass Films. His short documentaries, including “Different is the New Normal,” have appeared nationally on the U.S. broadcaster PBS and have earned him several Regional Emmy nominations.
Annie, the film’s master editor and producer, also excels at her craft having edited numerous television programs and recently been nominated for a 2016 Daytime Emmy Award for her work on the culinary-travel show “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.”
Matt and Annie will be making their first trip to Australia next month to attend “Sustainable’s” Asia-Pacific debut.
In our in-depth interview, Documentary Drive asked Annie and Matt about the film’s production, from why they wanted to make a documentary on sustainable farming to the heroic efforts of farmers trying to better the American food system, to how making this film has changed their lives and how it might very well leave a lasting impact on yours.
Can you share a bit about your backgrounds and what sparked your interest in sustainable farming?
Matt: I’ve always been skeptical of food labels. I grew up in a kosher household and the kosher label didn’t make sense to me. While my family kept kosher, we didn’t eat great food or food with good flavor. I distinctly remember being forced to sit at the kitchen table for hours until I finished my frozen pre-chopped green beans – I can’t imagine cooking or eating that now.
Flavor was more important to me and I enjoyed cooking with raw ingredients. I was skeptical about organic food when that became popular in the early 2000s. Then I saw “Food, Inc.” which ignited my interest in organic and humanely raised meats. I still did not like the marketing behind organic, though.
When my wife and I met, she took me to my first farmer’s market. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I could tell these local farmers took pride in what they grew and the flavor was unbelievable. I never wanted to eat store bought vegetables or fruits again.
But then there was that word – “sustainable.” It was everywhere and everyone was preaching it. I started noticing it on boxed products in the grocery store. The idea of sustainability was being abused through marketing and I wasn’t happy about it.
I did some research and realized farming in America is NOT sustainable. In fact, it is a ticking time bomb that could one day leave billions of people hungry. And having just become a parent, I was concerned with the food security of my children over the course of their lives. It seemed like a problem that needed immediate attention.
Annie: I owe a lot to my mother, who brought cooking into our household during a time when processed and frozen foods were the norm.
She taught me to have a relationship with food that involved flavor, involved making food with my own two hands, involved using food to connect with people we love.
I was always a city girl, though, so it wasn’t until reading Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” that I really understood the profound connection between human health, the environment and the foods we eat. It made sense. I read my labels. I sourced better ingredients. It’s a lifelong change, one that’s still evolving, but that book changed the way I look at food and I never looked back.
Why did you to want to make a documentary on sustainable farming at this point in time?
Matt: Like many other food labeling terms, the word “sustainable” has been hijacked by food marketers who use it to manipulate the public’s perception of food production. In my eyes, that’s immoral – but apparently it is still legal. I wanted to create a film that defined what sustainable farming really is and to inspire consumers to reconnect to their agriculture roots.
We also have a tremendous need for more farmers in the United States as the average farmer age is in the upper 50s, so I wanted to create a beautiful film that inspired the next generation of farmers.
Annie: Really it became frustrating to see the word “sustainable” cropping up on foods we were buying at the grocery store. Sustainable is a beautiful thing, an integral relationship between people, their communities and the land. It should not be used as a cheap marketing label by the food industry to get consumers to buy products. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to regulate. I think it’s up to us to show people what “sustainable” food truly is and to inspire them to seek it out for themselves.
The farmers in the film are fantastic, Marty Travis being one of them. How did you guys meet?
Annie: We were introduced to Spence Farm through my connections with chef Rick Bayless, who has been a long-time advocate for farmers in the Chicago area. He told us it was worth a visit, so we grabbed a camera and decided to check it out. I think we had planned a 2-hour scouting trip and ended up staying an entire day.
The farm is more beautiful, more peaceful in real life than could be conveyed on film. Marty Travis is the wisest, kindest, most humble person I have ever met. We’re very lucky to have been able to spend so much time surrounded by the landscape and people of Spence Farm.
Matt: Annie’s connection with Rick Bayless led us to Marty and Spence Farm. We met Klaas Martens through Eli Rogosa, who has done some amazing work in bringing heritage wheat seeds to the United States. She insisted that we include Klaas and she was right. Bill Niman is a legend in the beef ranching industry and was one of the first advocates for sustainable practices in animal husbandry. Marty suggested we connect with John Kempf. That was a common theme for us – we would do an interview with someone and then ask them who else we should talk to. We ended up not using a bunch of interviews, but it was an important process for figuring out what was going to work best for the film.
The film is informative and educates on the subject of sustainable farming in a manner that is respectful and very down-to-earth making it an approachable film for a wide range of audiences. How important was choosing the right tone for you going into this project?
Matt: The tone of the film was incredibly important to me. I’ve seen too many negative, “the world is going to end” food films. I wanted to make a film that inspired people to connect with nature and with their local farmers. I hope viewers are inspired to go home and plant something, to question how their food is sourced and to stand up against industrial agriculture.
In addition to Marty, there are a handful of other farmers from across the U.S. featured in the film, including even an Amish farmer. What drew you to their stories?
Matt: There are various opinions about what is right and wrong when it comes to sustainable farming. Our goal was to stick with ideology that supported a systems approach – meaning an approach that took into account the environmental, economic and community elements. All of the farmers in our film are not just using sustainable farming practices, they are also entrepreneurs with successful businesses who are helping their fellow community members earn a living. They represent a lifestyle that is based on community empowerment and anti-establishment.
John Kempf, the Amish farmer, was one of the most interesting stories. His father was the local pesticide dealer in his community. The soil fertility of his family farm was getting worse every year and needing more and more chemical inputs. When John was an early teenager, his family started farming on his neighbor’s organic soil and noticed a dramatic difference in the quality of their plants. It led John to question using pesticide. He started reading books on chemistry, physics and biology and eventually discovered the organic method for improving soil health that he uses today.
Annie: As we were creating an outline for the film, we realized that the best story would connect all of the farmers in a very organic way.
The biggest surprise, though, was the Niman Family. Because we wanted to cover the impact of pasture-raised animals in the film, we knew we had to interview Nicolette Niman, who is an environmental lawyer and author who has been combating caged animal operations for about 30 years now. Luckily, she also is married to Bill Niman, the cattle rancher who has changed the way Americans think about hormones in their meat. It was just natural to have Bill and Nicolette, along with their two young children, make up one of the most heartwarming sections of the film.
Did any of them put you to work?
Matt: Surprisingly no! And we asked to be put to work when we had the chance. We did eat some amazing food, though – green beans straight off the vine along with tons of other fresh vegetables. We also had some amazing off-camera conversations – Klaas Martens told us about the similarities between sustainable farming and the farming practices of the ancient Jews. With John Kempf, we discussed desertification, GMOs and biological warfare. All very interesting stuff.
Annie: Ha! I wish we had had that luxury. Our schedule was always so tight, especially on out-of-town-trips. There was one time, though, that I put down the mixer, got my hands dirty, and helped cut up potatoes. My dream for this summer is to go to Spence Farm without equipment, take my shoes off so I can feel the dirt under my feet and help Marty pick tomatoes.
The film’s cinematography is stunning, particularly the landscape shots. What type of equipment did you shoot with?
Matt: The majority of the film was shot with a Canon C300 using an AbelCine scene file. Some beauty shots and slow motion scenes were done with a Red Scarlet-X. Most of the interviews were shot with a 50mm prime lens.
From a director’s perspective, are there ever any downsides to doing your own camera work?
Matt: There are definitely some downsides, but for docs I feel there are way more upsides. The major downside is I’d prefer to be off camera for any on-the-fly interviews. To get around this, I would ask questions from behind the camera and they would look at Annie, who was holding the boom mic. But again, there are many more upsides. I started my career as an editor and learned to shoot based on what was needed for the edit. By doing both the directing and cinematography, I ensured myself that I always had the story covered in a way I knew I could edit together. I also got to pick and choose how I wanted the film to look and feel visually. I wasn’t relying on another person to do that. Doing the cinematography is also a way for me to engage in the art of filmmaking. My grandmother was an artist and I have her paintings all around my house. I can’t draw or paint, but I’m good with a camera so it is nice having the ability to engage filmmaking as an artist as well as a storyteller.
For those fortunate enough to catch a screening of “Sustainable,” what’s one question or idea you’d like to leave them with?
Matt: Get to know a local farmer – it will change your life. In America we glorify doctors, lawyers, financial advisors and other business professions, but we don’t glorify farmers. They are the backbone of our food system, and the ones who are doing it sustainably are risking everything they have for the sanctity of wholesome, healthy food.
Annie: At our local screenings, we usually get Greg Wade (the baker from our film) to bring loaves of bread for people to taste after viewing the film.
This, to me, brings the film’s impact full-circle because audiences meet the farmer that grows the wheat. They see the beautiful landscape on which the wheat is grown. They learn how Greg turns it into bread with just water and a little salt. Then, they get to eat it. Every bite we eat has a story. It makes us healthier, happier, richer people to seek out those stories. I wish I could give everyone a piece of Greg’s bread, but you can find the story for yourself in your own community. Go to a farmers market. Seek out an artisan cheesemaker. Or just grow a tomato plant in your own backyard.
Finally, what for you has been the most interesting and rewarding aspect of making this film?
Annie: It has been incredibly rewarding to meet these amazing farmers and to see what they are doing on their farms. There is a lot to be scared about when it comes to our planet and its environmental stability – soil erosion, drought, flooding, climate change, pollution – all of which affects our ability to grow enough food. But these farmers are dedicated, compassionate people who are doing what they can to regrow our crumbling agriculture system. There are a lot of people out there working hard to make their own small difference in the world. These every day heroes are the big inspiration to me in producing this film.
Matt: I am forever a changed person for making this film. I now source all my food locally, I have a vegetable garden, I go to the farmer’s market every week and I make my own bread. Food is like a religion to me now. I feel healthier and stronger than I ever have. I find great pleasure in cooking for others and conversing over great food.
Making this film has definitely changed my life.
To learn more about “Sustainable,” visit sustainablefoodfilm.com and follow the film on Twitter and on Facebook. “Sustainable” screens July 10th at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Tickets are currently available through Moshtix.
Additional festival information online at: mdff.org.au / @mdffest / MDFF Facebook Group