In the new documentary Edible City, goats amble past the Jack in the Box on San Pablo Avenue. Carrots grow near freeways. Guerilla gardeners plant vegetables in front of Frank Ogawa Plaza, then, a year later, take over the Gill Tract Farm in Albany, armed with chickens and seedlings.
The film, which is screening around the Bay Area and online at EdibleCity.net, chronicles the urban farming renaissance over the last few years — the gradual takeover of empty lots and their conversion into organic gardens as a natural and practical response not only to Big Ag, but to urban problems like food scarcity and obesity.
“I need to constantly remind myself that the world has always been crazy,” says Antonio Roman Alcala of Alemany Farm in the film. “… Because you look around and it seems nuts. I went from ‘I’m going to escape to the country, I just need to learn how to grow food first’ to ‘The only place we’re going to solve these issues is the city.’”
Filmed mainly in the Bay Area, the hour-long film is dominated by some of the pioneering urban food activists and farmers that work and live here, including Willow Rosenthal of City Slicker Farms, Jim Montgomery of Green Faerie Farm, and Joy Moore of Berkeley Alternative School.
Although some of the discourse, particularly about industrial ag, will be a rehash for those who have read The Omnivore’s Dilemma or watched Food, Inc., the portrayal of the intersection of agriculture with inner-city problems is fresh and inspiring. There are a lot of first-hand glances at everyday people trying in small yet tangible ways to change the world around them: converting liquor stores in West Oakland into organic food markets, or gently teaching cocky high school students where strawberries come from.
Part of what makes the film interesting is the documentation of urban farming at a time when people didn’t know it would become as popular as fixies and vinyl records. Shooting began in 2008, before urban farming went mainstream. Farm City, Novella Carpenter’s bestselling memoir about raising pigs and ducks in West Oakland, wouldn’t be published for another year. Sunset magazine hadn’t started to feature yuppie chicken coops in its photo spreads. Hipsters weren’t wearing Tretorn duckboots to Pizzaiolo — yet.
“We wanted to do a ten- or twenty-minute thing on urban agriculture,” said the film’s director, Andrew Hasse, in a recent interview. “But we just kept getting deeper into it.”
What began as a ten-minute short about Slow Food Nation snowballed into a feature film, due in part to the strong network of food growers and activists in the area. “Everybody in the movie we met through word-of-mouth,” said Hasse. “It was really cool — one person would say, ‘You need to talk to this person’ who would lead me to another person, to another. It was like this treasure hunt, and every single person we met was an amazing character. It was like we were documenting a family.”
Money for the project flowed in through Kickstarter and other community fundraisers. “As a filmmaker, your options are to get a financier, or to crowd-source it, which was fairly unusual a few years back,” explained Hasse. “It’s amazing that we got the money independently.”
Community response to the film has been positive. “People that know Joy and Jim, they told me that their spirits were really captured. And that was really important to me. I wanted to show who these people are, and why they are magical,” said Hasse.
“And my nine-year-old neighbor said, ‘You know, it didn’t bore me.’”
Two screenings are coming to Berkeley in the coming months: on Thursday, August 2, at Local 123 cafe (2049 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley), and on Thursday, October 11 at the Hillside Club (2286 Cedar St., Berkeley), a larger event where people in the film will be in attendance. Or you can watch it for free anytime on EdibleCity.net.