Cooking and Cinema Matter: An Interview with the Directors of the FOOD AND FARM FILM FEST


by Gary Meyer

San Francisco’s Food and Farm Film Festival offers a place for the food and art worlds of San Francisco to collide. This is the third annual festival offering fun as well as asking tough questions about our food system. It is a celebration of food and farming and film, as well as a challenge to our ideas about how we think about food and farms. All proceeds from the fest benefit the Cooking Matters program at 18 Reasons.

We give you an insider look at the films in the Fest here.

The Food and Farm Film Festival is from Friday, April 17 to Sunday, April 19 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco. It is presented in association with Bi-Rite Market and the Roxie Theatre.

We asked the founders/directors of the fest to tell us about their inspirations, passions and how they find the movies. Sarah Nelson is Executive Director of the nonprofit 18 Reasons, and the fest’s Director of Programming is Mischa Nachtigal.

SarahandMischaEatDrinkFilms: You have been working with food justice projects throughout your career. Tell us about first ones you created, the Market Match and Veggie RX programs.

Sarah Nelson: I have worked on both food education and food access for the past seven years, starting with programs to help low-income customers stretch their dollars at farmers’ markets through programs like Market Match and Veggie Rx. My original Market Match program launched at three farmers’ markets for one month in 2008 and increased food stamp redemption from at those markets from $500 per year to $1000 per month! The Market Match idea has since spread throughout California, and is now spearheaded by the Ecology Center in Berkeley, who just received a $3.7 million grant for the program. Veggie Rx links fruit and vegetable incentives with diabetes clinics who could track health outcomes like weight loss, and helped patients of the clinics we worked with lose weight and access more fruits and vegetables.

EDF: How did you become involved in 18 Reasons? Tell us about some of your programs, especially Cooking Matters.

SN: In 2011, I launched a nonprofit to focus on hands-on cooking and nutrition education. Through our Cooking Matters program, we engage professional chefs and nutritionists as volunteers, teaching free classes in low-income communities throughout the Bay Area. In 2013, we merged with 18 Reasons, and now offer hands-on cooking classes, workshops, and dinners with farmers and winemakers in our 18th Street classroom, in addition to our Cooking Matters program, which now reaches over 2,500 adults, kids, and teens every year. Our programs empower home cooks to cook delicious, creative food on any budget.

KidChefsEDF: What inspired you to start the Food & Farm Fest? Was it totally your idea?

Mischa Nachtigal: It was an idea that evolved when I first met Sarah. She said she wanted to do a film festival about food, I mentioned that I love film festivals and that she should host it on a farm. When we met up a few months later, we talked about pairing food to the films. Hopefully one day we’ll host a screening on a farm!

My parents have always been involved in food, and my mother used to put together film festivals back in Washington, DC. I’ve been around the intersection of food and film my whole life.

EDF: How did you find 18 Reasons and decide to collaborate with this important nonprofit?

MN: We met through a mutual friend, Tim West, who knows everybody in the food world in San Francisco. 18 Reasons was called Three Squares our first year and only became 18 Reasons after they merged, but ask Sarah about that. 18 Reasons runs a cooking matters program and that’s what the festival helps support. It’s an important program that helps families shop and cook healthy food. Cooking is not just nutritionally beneficial, but emotionally and creatively as well. 18 Reasons gets that and it’s a joy to support them.

EDF: Sarah, how did you become involved with the Food and Farm fest?

SN: In brainstorming creative ways to raise funds for my nonprofit, the idea of a film festival popped up. I couldn’t believe a city that loves food and art so much didn’t already have a film festival devoted to food! I met our programmer, Mischa, through a friend, and he immediately committed to the project. It turned out that Sam Mogannam, the owner of Bi-Rite Market, and Diana Fuller, president of the Roxie’s board of the directors, had also been dreaming about starting a food film festival, and they came on board as our festival’s first partners.

EDF: How does the festival benefit 18 Reasons?

SN: The festival is one of the many ways we raise funds for our Cooking Matters program. The money we raise goes directly to buying food for our free cooking classes and groceries for families to take home at the end of each session. Through the festival, we also meet many new friends, supporters, and volunteers.

CookingMattersShoppingEDF: Have you been a film lover for a long time?

MN: Since as long as I can remember. I’ve studied them, made some very amateur ones, and I always watch films: new and indie, narratives and docs. Going to film festivals is a pleasure of mine and there are so many big ones I haven’t been to yet!

EDF: Are you passionate about movies too?

SN: My freshman studies class in college was called Film & Literature in the ’30s, which I assumed would be a lot of reading rewarded by a film or two at the end of the semester. I knew nothing about film studies at the time, and was delighted to discover a new film every week! I went on to study film theory and what he called the “rhetoric of film” with the late, great Gil Perez, and have been lucky to live in a great city for independent film lovers since 2008.

EDF: What are some of the first food-related films that made you think about the intersection between food and film?

MN: There are the obvious ones: Like Water for Chocolate , Tampopo , Babette’s Feast , but even before I was into art-house films I’ve always been drawn to food scenes in “regular” movies: everything from E.T. and E.T.’s predilection for following Reese’s Pieces, to the scene in Hook with the make-believe feast that ends with Robin Williams cutting a coconut in half.

SN: This may sound a little crazy, but I studied the surrealist genius Luis Buñuel in college and was always interested in the way he used food in films. From the dinner-party classic The Exterminating Angel to Land Without Bread , a documentary about a place so destitute it seems like another adventure in surrealism, food plays a powerful and pivotal role in many of his films. Food is a great visual that can be treated as a basic human need or the basis for an elaborate social dance.

Exterminating Angel


Food and farm: Scenes from Luis Buñuel’s classic The Exterminating Angel .

EDF: How do you go about seeking out the films for the festival? Are there certain criteria for a movie to be seriously considered? And about how many films do you consider each year?

MN: This year we used a submission software, called Film Freeway, which was fantastic. They helped us get over 350 submissions from 50 different countries. It was crazy. Unfortunately about half (or more) of those weren’t even related to food or farming, so we had to not consider those. These were just shorts too! For features we follow the festival circuit and try to watch as many as we can before making a selection. We’re a small festival, so we don’t always get the films that have just hit Sundance or Tribeca, but we make up for it by finding classic gems or underdog films that you probably wouldn’t normally get a chance to see in a theater.

EDF: Do you screen movies for the festival too? Are there certain criteria for a movie to be seriously considered?

SN: Mischa and I screen films together, along with friends, significant others, and any colleagues we can rope in. We are looking for films that celebrate food-related projects and people as well as films that challenge us to think more deeply about our food choices and the food system we engage in. Food or farming should be central to the plot of the film; other than that, we are open to the creativity of filmmakers.

EDF: The film selection includes both dramatic and documentary features plus two programs of exciting short films. Do you expect some of the movies to be shown after the festival to inspire communities? 

SN: We plan to bring the opening night shorts program to the fabulous Rio Theater in Sonoma County this summer, and are thinking that this might be the year we take the show on the road! We also host occasional screenings at 18 Reasons throughout the year, of both new and classic films.

FungiphiliaEDF: Your opening night program is always a varied collection of short films followed by a party with terrific local food and drink. Do you think there are some filmmakers in this program who will continue on to a feature film career?

MN: Yes. Madison McClintock (Fungiphilia Rising ) and Bridget Besaw (Seeding A Dream ) are brilliant documentarians and I’d go see any full-length film they produce. But most of these films are from people who produce mostly short films. I understand that people may feel like they haven’t “made it” until they produce a feature, but I think that’s sad. I love short films and I know people will turn out for a curated selection of shorts. I look at people like Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine from The Perennial Plate who have been making fantastic shorts for years, and Kevin Longa is just starting out on his journey to do something unique as well. Let’s celebrate the people in it for the love of the short film and let’s try to get audiences used to watching and paying for shorts. That’s the challenge for today’s filmmaker in my opinion. Shorts don’t have to be just a stepping stone, they’re an art form in their own right. And they are becoming ever more popular, as the opening night show is sold out. It will be at the Rio and hopefully can come back here.

EDF: And for a third year Sunday afternoon’s program is a selection of shorts devoted to “food, justice and urban agriculture.” Tell us about the impact of these movies and how they might be screened elsewhere to help communities and activists understand the importance of healthy food to improve their lives.

MN: These short films are about important topics: from diabetes and industrial food to food security and urban farming. This part of the festival is for people interested in seeing how these topics manifest in real life. I think awareness is really important and in a lot of cases it’s the first step in having true empathy towards another person, and film is the most emotional of all mediums – it’s one thing to read about diabetes and another to hear a haunting spoken-word poem about it.

Showing these films in San Francisco is preaching to the choir, but that’s not a bad thing: hopefully any community activists attending find films they want to share. Then the choir amplifies itself and draws in new listeners.

EDF: Tell us about the food being paired with the movies and who is working with you offering these tasty treats.

SN: We have so much great food at this year’s festival, ranging from a simple salad made with vegetables harvested from Alemany Farm, a beautiful urban farm in San Francisco, to General Tso’s Chicken made by Brandon Jew, the up-and-coming chef whose Mister Jiu’s will open later this year. Along the way we will feature ramen made by La Cocina graduate Aedan Fermented Foods, spicy tuna rolls featuring sustainable tuna from TwoXSea, a delicious spring pasta dish from the lovely Italian duo behind Oakland’s Baia Pasta, and of course no San Francisco food event would be complete without kale chips, ours from Urban Remedy. Bi-Rite Market is providing food for the opening night celebration at Four Barrel Coffee, and we will be pouring Linden Street Brewery’s finest. Bon appetit!

EDF: There are also feature dramas and documentaries, every one of them both entertaining and inspiring. What would you like audiences to take away from the festival?

MN: We want people to celebrate their food, the farmers that provide it, and think about the complex system that enables billions of people to live. There are a lot of issues, and we hope this festival makes people more curious to know more about the ingredients in their food, where they come from, but also, and maybe most importantly, that it’s important to take joy in the food-making process. Whether it’s farming, beer-brewing, or plating, food is an incredibly creative endeavor: an art form that anyone can take part in. The minute you stop thinking about food, or only think of it as a late-night fast food drive-thru window or a Food Network show, that’s when problems set in. Food is for everyone, and we all play a role in food systems. We hope the festival inspires people to take an active role in what they consume.


April 17-19, 2015. $15 per program.

Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF.

Horizontal RuleSarahNelsonSarah Nelson has worked on food-related projects in the Bay Area since 2008. She launched the Bay Area’s first Market Match, which gives farmers’ market customers who use food stamps extra funds to spend at the market, and a Veggie Rx program that helped diabetes patients increase their produce consumption while measuring positive health outcomes. Previously, she taught yoga and guided bicycle tours in France. In 2011, she founded the nonprofit Three Squares, where she launched the local version of Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters, a program of free, six-week-long nutrition courses, teaching people in low-income Bay Area communities how to shop for and prepare healthy meals on a budget. In 2013, Three Squares merged with 18 Reasons, where she currently is Executive Director. She is passionate about cooking, rock climbing, riding her bike, and, yes, her job. She lives in San Francisco.

Horizontal RuleMischaNachtigalMischa Nachtigal has loved food since a very young age: He would, at the age of four, sit at the kitchen counter and eat his mother’s spicy tomato salsa until his mouth burned. He grew up in Costa Rica, went to Bard College and has lived in San Francisco Bay Area since 2009. He has previously worked for the TED conferences, Twitter, and Upworthy. He’s currently a digital freelance consultant and a co-founder of San Francisco’s Food and Farm Film Fest. Mischa has been writing stories since he was seven. He’s heavily influenced by Adams, Bender, Borges, Crichton, Roy, Sedaris, Vowell, and whatever he’s eating. He also writes articles for Medium.

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