by Gaetano Kazuo Maida
I’d known the late Les Blank pretty much since I moved to Berkeley over 20 years ago. We’d cross paths at those intersections of food, music and film for which he is justifiably famous for documenting. He had a keen eye for odd characters and a taste for interesting food and drink, and his films were always a treat. Somehow you always wanted to know what had been going on between the takes.
Anyway, I had somehow fallen into that infinite well connected with the tea world long before, and I continued to pursue that passion with several Bay Area locals, including a Marin resident with many miles of Himalayan and Chinese adventures under his belt, David Lee Hoffman. David, the proprietor of the tea supplier The Phoenix Collection, was a real character and an early convert to the pleasures and profits of Chinese tea, and his company then, Silk Road Teas, always had a bright Tibetan tent at the annual Himalayan Fair in Berkeley’s Live Oak Park. If I was in town during the fair, I would join him at the tent for two days of sampling and serving some of the best teas on the planet. We were drinking buddies of sorts.
Les was known for his dedication to 16mm film, but he decided to make his first digital film about David and joined him on a number of trips to the tea producers in China. He also filmed at the Himalayan Fair and visited some of the new local teahouses cropping up in the area. But after several years of shooting, with no finished film in sight, Les approached me at the Fair.
Les told me that he’d been shooting David on and off for years, but that as avid as David was about tea, he was a bit too taciturn for the story to fully emerge from his own lips—would I therefore be open to doing a little narration work? As a filmmaker myself, I understood the problem (and of course I knew David well, so I could imagine Les’s frustration). I agreed to meet Les and his co-director Gina Leibrecht at a local tea shop to get some voice-over down. They said it would be easier for them to record with the camera in terms of editing, rather than to use an audio recorder. No problem.
We met at the shop when it was open for business (room tone anyone?) and I sat on a stool talking to Les and Gina while the camera rolled. They asked questions that would help address the holes in the film, and we drank great tea between takes. Anyone familiar with high-grade Taiwanese and Chinese teas is aware by now that such tea can be mighty intoxicating, and a certain loquaciousness can result from serious imbibing. Suffice it to say that, under the circumstances, I may have overdone my bit.
Many months later, Les and Gina rang me to see if I could stop by a sound studio to do a little ADR to fix a troublesome sound problem on a key line from my narration. No problem. I asked how the film, All in This Tea , was coming along and they said they’d be doing a festival run first and would announce a local premiere soon.
Not too long after, I began getting mystifying emails from friends from around the world saying “It was good to see you!” and “Lookin’ good!” Australia, Germany, UK, Holland, Hawaii, Denver … No explanations, just quick smiley faces and “Cheers!,” etc. My curiosity was aroused…
Finally the film was booked at our nearby cinema treasure, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. I arrived with my wife and greeted David in the lobby where he was serving tea. He immediately asked me to spell him for a bit so he could take a break, and there I was, serving tea to the crowd as they arrived for the screening. Never saw David again that night of course, but that just came with the territory.
I was finally able to take my seat in the theater and the lights came down on the finished film, All in This Tea . Scenes from China emerged and David was on screen amid the greenery and the tea markets, Werner Herzog appears and says the line that gives the film its title, and then I heard my voice-over. I smiled a little when, all of a sudden, there I was, on camera, finishing that sentence and then blubbering nonstop on a caffeine-high for what seemed like forever, all from that “voice-over” recording session at the tea shop so long before. Son of a bitch, they snookered me into appearing in the film ! I was a bit chagrined, but my wife was terribly amused. The audience seemed to enjoy it all, though, so really can’t complain of course.
After the screening I approached Les and Gina and gently chided them for being sneaky. They smiled and said, “Would you have agreed to be filmed if we asked?” and I had to admit, my preference has always been to be behind the cameras, not in front, so I had to say “Probably not.” They said, “So there you go!”
Now, seeing my younger self forever frozen in time is a bit amusing and useful for me. Still prefer anonymity, but anything for tea I guess. And documentary filmmakers—gotta love ’em! (‘specially the great Les Blank, R.I.P.)
Gaetano Kazuo Maida currently serves as Executive Director of the Buddhist Film Foundation as well as for the Tea Arts Institute. He was a founding director of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, and was producer/director of Peace Is Every Step, a film profile of Vietnamese Zen teacher/activist Thich Nhat Hanh, narrated by Ben Kingsley. Among his other films as director and/or producer are The Simple Life, On the Luce, Rock Soup, Milarepa, Touching Peace, and the forthcoming In Search of Green Gold.