by Michael L. Guillén
In its fourth edition, and with special guests, panel discussions, and community events as value added, the San Francisco Green Film Festival (May 29-June 4, 2014) offers 50 new environmental films curated in thematic sidebars ranging from “Water”—featuring the 40th-anniversary screening of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1973) (and relevant to concerns over California’s drought)—”Liveable Cities,” “Healthy Kids,” “Nature,” “Oceans,” “Take Action,” and my focus at this year’s festival: “Food Security.” From that sidebar, I recommend three picks, which is difficult enough to do within the sidebar itself, let alone among the festival’s rich, diverse programming. These three are just to get your started. Then I’ll trust you to explore.
The obvious short and sweet recommendation would have to be DamNation (2014), winner of the Audience Award at this year’s South by Southwest and the festival’s Opening Night San Francisco premiere. The opening night reception will be held at Aquarium of the Bay, followed by a screening of DamNation in The Bay Theater.
Filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel have created an eloquent, educational, emotional and beautifully lensed documentary that elevates the wild salmon as a 21st century Eucharist while taking aim at deadbeat dams. It’s an absorbing and intelligent document that uses archival material to lay out the history of hydroelectric dam engineering in the U.S., then proceeds to show how the conversation has changed over the decades, as activist campaigns to remove dams and restore rivers are won, one by one. Not much more needs to be said about DamNation except, “Go see it.” It’s a must. Knight and Rummel will be joined opening night by producer / underwater photographer Matt Stoecker to engage with what will no doubt be an enthused audience.
I do want to shout out, however, to Karen and Kevin Howdeshell’s irreverent animations, which masterfully use humor to balance out the divisive perspectives on the issue of hatcheries and wild salmon recovery. And don’t leave the theater without seeing how a bear shits in the woods.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, Macbeth’s friend Banquo overhears the three witches predicting good things for the king. Banquo is skeptical that the witches can foretell Macbeth’s uncertain future, yet at the same time curious if they can read his? And so he tells them: “If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me.” Shakespeare was, of course, cribbing from Ecclesiastes 11.6—”In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good”—recognizing that the simple strength of this Biblical metaphor had retained its meaning into his contemporary moment: if you can’t determine which seeds are worthy or not worthy for planting, you might plant the wrong ones, the crops might fail, and starvation will be all but assured. Alarmingly relevant to our contemporary moment, no quote could more aptly preface Sandy McLeod’s fascinating documentary Seeds of Time (2013), which garnered critical acclaim earlier this year at South by Southwest, and now boasts its California premiere at the San Francisco Green Film Festival.
McLeod has created a documentary that works on parallel tracks: first, it’s a compelling portrait of Cary Fowler, an American agriculturalist and former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, who was diagnosed with cancer at a young age, given six months to live, and defied all expectations by surviving into his sixties. Dodging death, however, has made him impatient with wasting time. With the narrow lens of passion, Fowler has focused intently on dwindling crop diversity and the negative effects of global warming on agriculture. “Climate change,” Fowler asserts, “is probably the single greatest challenge agriculture has ever faced.” In effect, he is fighting a similar battle against limited time as he did with cancer, but transposed to a global scale where increasing crop failure jeopardizes the future of food security.
One of Fowler’s strategies to preserve crop diversity has been to collect seeds from all around the world to store at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault—Norway’s “frozen garden of Eden”—an underground bunker near the North Pole whose sub-freezing temperatures prove an ideal environment for “seed-saving”, a practice encouraged by Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov (likewise profiled in Seeds of Time in what feels like its own miniature documentary nested within the larger project). In a race against time, the global initiative to create national seed banks is comprehensively tracked by McLeod’s film. It’s a race that’s not always won. Watching Teresita Borromeo become overwhelmed with emotion while reporting the destruction of the Philippine seed vault by Typhoon Haiyan is as heartwrenching a scene as I have seen at the movies all year.
Fearing not only the loss of genetic diversity, but of the culture embedded into their use of indigenous plants, the Quechua of Peru have contributed their seeds to Svalbard in hopes of also keeping their culture alive, highlighting the symbiotic relationship between domesticated plants and culture. Another inspiring sequence in the Peruvian highlands involves the effect of global warming on the tuberation of potato crops and an unusual alliance among traditionally self-sufficient communities to establish a communal “potato park” where different varieties of potatoes can be preserved and nurtured. Yet another particularly interesting sequence describes the attempt to strengthen the gene pool of domesticated plants by reintroducing them to their wild relatives.
McLeod diversifies her visual registers with a CGI introductory sequence that casts enlarged seeds as rolling objects in space, but includes various styles of hand-drawn animation to illustrate particular sequences. When I asked her about this, she replied: “One of the challenges in making a film that presents a relatively unknown and complex issue, is that you have to educate the audience. It seemed to me that by breaking up those moments visually, we could illustrate some of the concepts in a shorthand and avoid lengthy and tedious explanations. So we worked with animator Sam Marlow to try and figure out how to visualize these concepts. We liked the idea of a black and white sketch and since we had used the sketching idea in another sequence to illustrate how the vault was built we decided to go with something that would be visually akin to that. We wanted them to look hand drawn because that style seemed to be the most ‘organic’ to the film itself. Also the use of black and white would provide a visual break and hopefully nudge the viewer into a more attentive state. We were hoping on the one hand, that they would be relatively seamless , and that on the other they would stand out just enough to make information absorption effortless.
“In terms of the seeds, I had seen a stunning book of electron microscopic photographs called Seeds, Time Capsules of Life. I was astounded by the beauty and complexity of those seeds which were photographs taken by Wolfgang Stuppy and Rob Kessler of the Royal Botanical Gardens. One of the ideas that I wanted to play around with in the film was scale and that these tiny seeds are no less life giving than our planet and in fact you can look at our planet as a seed of sorts too. So I wanted to put the seeds in space and introduce them in a scale that we never really see them in to give them their due.
“The graphics were yet another element for simplifying the data and we used graphics designer, Dana Schecter, for some of the collages, the news sequence and for the sequence at the Vavilov Institute. We worked with various ideas to knit them to the period footage. With Chris Greener, who did the earth graphics, we put planet earth in the same setting as we had earlier with the seeds to work with that marco/micro idea and JD Marlow, our editor and co-producer had the idea to add a sound effect for the earth as we had with the seeds to give it even more ‘weight.'”
Bay Area director Ryan White synopsizes his film Mondo Banana (2013) better than I ever could so I’ll just run with it: “Deep in the forests of Sumatra, a Finnish sea captain seeks an elusive banana. In a Kolkata kitchen, Bengali chefs prepare scrumptious banana stalk curries. As the sun blazes in Kuala Lumpur, a Chinese exorcist calls forth an evil banana spirit. Mondo Banana is a documentary adventure about bananas—and people. Whisking the viewer off on an international journey through the vibrant world of human-banana relationships, the film explores the personal, cultural, and environmental importance of one of the world’s favorite fruits. Shot on location in China, Finland, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, and featuring an eclectic cast of people who have been touched by this remarkable fruit, Mondo Banana cooks up a delicious banana-flavored medley of puppetry, culinary demonstrations, exorcisms, scientific research, performance art, anthropology, underground film, and dragon-dancing to peel away the secrets of human-banana relations and celebrate the age-old connection between people.”
Mondo Banana falls within the food security sidebar at the San Francisco Green Film Festival because—even though bananas are acknowledged as the fourth most important crop in the world with more than 1,000 varieties—little is being done to understand and prevent the decimation of banana species from fungal blight. As reported by Sourish Bhattacharya for India Today, “big banana companies—including the disreputable United Fruit Company (now named Chiquita), which was responsible for the term ‘banana republic’ entering our lexicon—are nervously awaiting the ‘Panama Disease’ to strike Latin America and Africa in another five to 20 years. Just like the insect named phylloxera had wiped out the wine industry between the 1860s and the 1890s, Panama Disease (caused by a virulent strain of a fungus) is expected to exterminate the Cavendish bananas that America and Europe has daily for breakfast. Ironically, the Cavendish—then considered a poor cousin from China—had replaced the old favorite, Gros Michel, after the fungus had rendered it extinct by 1960 and driven banana companies to near bankruptcy.” Bhattacharya sources his data to a 2008 opinion piece in The New York Times (wryly entitled “Yes, We Will Have No Bananas”) by Dan Koepple, the author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. Koepple criticized the big banana companies for being slow to finance efforts to either find a cure for the fungus or a banana that resists it.
Enter “Captain Banana” aka former Finnish sea captain and self-taught botanist, Markku Häkkinen, who over the span of 30 years has written more than 80 scientific papers on bananas and is the world’s undisputed wild banana expert. Mondo Banana chronicles Häkkinen’s exploratory expedition to Sumatra to seek out a wild banana with a resistant gene against the fungus that threatens domesticated breeds.
But much more than a doom-and-gloom treatise on the fate of bananas, Mondo Banana is as much a celebration of anthropological and ethnographic observances of the role bananas have played in human culture. The Thai equivalent of pie eating contests in the U.S. would, of course, be banana eating contests, banana peels can shine your shoes, and in the “is that a banana in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” category, the phallic associations with bananas include one botanist’s provocative supposition that the banana may have been the true “fruit of paradise” eaten by Eve and offered to Adam, with the introduction of the apple and the serpent as visual substitutions. Bananas are essential to Indian folkloric rituals from birth to death and are an auspicious offering to receive grace from Vishnu. In China, the banana harvest includes the Green Dragon Dance where an enormous tail is recycled from all the banana leaves left over from harvest. And in the category of waste not want not, banana trunks are used to create Indonesian shadow puppets, used within the film to recreate a banana origin legend.
One particularly entertaining sequence comes from Malaysia, where bananas harbor a negative inflect because of the bats that feed on their flowers at night. This has inspired the legend of the Pontianak banshee, a beautiful woman who died in childbirth and threatens individuals wandering alone at night in the rain forest. White incorporates some hilarious footage from atrocious Malaysian horror films to illustrate the legend.
Of aesthetic interest is Ryan White’s decision to couch his testimonials within distressed video interstitials. When I asked him about this, White responded: “I partially chose the VHS aesthetic to touch on the ephemeral nature of culture/cultural beliefs in the mediated globalized world. The film reappropriates the ‘mondo’ film genre of the ’60s and ’70s in its eclectic episodic structure and I wanted Mondo Banana to feel like a relic of sorts—an abandoned videotape, transmitting these cultural connections between humans and plants—to illustrate that these connections are being lost. The interstitials and episodes are intended to critique mainstream media’s tendency to reduce cultural information to easy-to-digest soundbytes and eye-catching imagery, fetishizing rather than informing. Also, as this project was a fairly intense labor of love, in which I played so many roles, during production I often thought of the documentary as my ‘home movie’. Originally, as part of my working edit I had included a title at the beginning reading: ‘a home movie by Ryan White’—to play with that concept and inform the construction of the piece.”
Michael Guillén is a freelance film journalist with one foot in the San Francisco Bay Area and the other in Boise, Idaho. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, has served as media liaison for the Sun Valley Film Festival, and as a guest programmer for the Treefort Film Festival, Boise Film Underground, and San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. He is a contributing writer to FilmInternational, movieScope, Ray and Fusion magazines, as well as online sites Fandor, MUBI, Twitch, and Greencine, while administering his own website The Evening Class. He looks forward to reviewing more films, eating well, and lifting a glass of wine now and again in his capacity as editor for EatDrinkFilms.