I’ve finished the assembly cut!

Back in March, I wrote with optimism about the tangible progress the film was making.  It is now December, nine months later, which is the longest I’ve ever taken between updates.  That gap isn’t because I stopped progressing — a LOT has happened in nine months — but I admit I’ve been reluctant to write without being able to say I’d hit a concrete milestone.  And, now I can say that.  On December 13, I completed the first major step in editing The Hands that Feed Us:  I finished the assembly cut.

What’s an assembly cut?  For the first time, I have the whole story in one place.  It clocks in at around 10 hours, but, given a long attention span and some breaks for food and water, I could, in theory, watch the film from start to finish.  The skeleton is in place.  I can tell which parts have a few bones missing, which have grown too large, and which need a bit more nourishment.  For the first time, I have a sense of whether my eight months-worth of raw footage is capable of telling the story I have in my head.  I can tell which elements do and don’t work, which parts are boring, and which parts I’m really, really excited to refine because I know they contain truths that don’t get spoken of.

And that’s not all.  In the last nine months, I’ve filmed four new interviews, hired an assistant editor, attended the National Farmers Union Convention, and received enough funding from the Canada Council for the Arts to properly finish the film.

The interviews feature David Suzuki (who needs no introduction), Ian McSweeney, from Agrarian Trust, J.P. Gervais, chief economist for Farm Credit Canada, and Katherine Aske, a young researcher currently working for UBC Farm.  All will be important for the film, but I’m most excited about Katherine Aske.  Katherine’s research is about what drives farmland prices, and I was gratified to learn that she came to the same conclusions that I did:  Farmland prices are so disconnected from what farmers can earn that the market is distorted, and prices are being determined by speculation and loose lending policies from banks.

Up next:  Rough cut

The next step is obvious:  Finish a rough cut of the documentary.  This means trimming the 10 hour assembly edit down to the 90-minute ballpark that is standard for feature films.  I’ll also write and record a voiceover, and start to interweave the interviews in the assembly cut with live-action visuals that documents what the farmers I visited were actually doing.  The film will go from being a jumbled collection of soundbites to a much more visual experience that gives the audience something to watch as well as listen to.

The timeline to complete the rough cut is much more aggressive than the meandering two years I took me to produce an assembly cut:  Three months.  This is partly because the footage is finally organized enough that I can work on short, pre-made sequences rather than trying to find the clips I need in a haystack of 45 interviews.  And it’s partly because, thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts, I have the ability to pay an editor (not to mention myself) to keep moving the film forward.

Canada Council has given us funding!

In late August, in the midst of a personal tragedy when work on the film had almost completely fallen apart, I got a piece of good news:  The Canada Council for the Arts approved a $60,000 grant to finish the film.  Needless to say, I accepted.  Is it enough to finish the film?  That’s a question I don’t really know how to answer.  I’ve put so much of my time and labour into the film already that it’s hard to contemplate it in terms of a paid job.  For me, it’s not that kind of film.  What I can say is that it should be enough to cover the hard costs of finishing the film.  These costs include things like music rights, editing that is beyond my technical capabilities, and a lot of legal and administrative costs that are necessary to make the film acceptable to broadcasters.

But the biggest impact of the grant is that it allowed us to hire an assistant editor.  I met Luke Skillen on a shoot for The Nature of Things, where he jokingly volunteered to help out if I needed it.  Two weeks later, it wasn’t a joke.  My producer and I decided that hiring an editor was the best way to move the project forward, and, after speaking with several potential editors, Luke’s name floated to the top.

Working with someone else forced me to translate my outline into terms that someone else could understand, and gave me a reason to meet deadlines.  Having someone to talk through the nitty-gritty details, scene by scene, is something I didn’t know I needed.  Luke has used his considerable intelligence to offer critical feedback without bringing pre-conceptions about what the film “should” be about.  This is a rare and valuable trait — there are so many common “narratives” about farming and our food system that people have a tendency to assume the film is just going to reinforce the beliefs they already hold. They think it’s a film about “food sovereignty” or “big ag” or “regenerative agriculture”, and then assume that because they know a bit about those issues, they know what the message of the film will be.  And, while my journey certainly touched on all of those themes, the film I’m making doesn’t fit neatly into any of them.  If it did, I wouldn’t need to make it.  So, it’s been a relief to work with someone as open-minded as Luke, and the film will be better for his willingness to let the words of the farmers in the film ring out.

Looking ahead:  Taking the film on tour

Now that the resources to finish the film are in place, I’m starting to think about how it will be seen, and, especially, how it could create change.  It’s quite hubristic to think that a mere documentary could change the deep economic challenges that farmers face.  How can a 90-minute film solve an economic crisis that is four decades in the making?

It can’t.  But perhaps it could be a catalyst for change.  In the 1920s, a young American lawyer named Aaron Sapiro was invited on an extended speaking tour across Saskatewan and the great plains.  Night after night, he spoke to thousands of farmers about the virtues of co-ops and how they could be used to give farmers control of their economic destiny.  Sapiro’s legacy was the Saskatechewan Wheat Pool, and similar co-op pools in all the prairie provinces.  The wheat pools were powerful, dominant organizations that were owned by farmers, giving them a measure of control and a cut of the profits in an industry where individual farmers were powerless.

I find the story of the wheat pools very inspiring, and I want to use Sapiro’s work as a model for a tour of my own.  Once the documentary is complete, I intend to take it on the road for a year, bringing the film to every small, rural community that will have me.  I want the farmers in those communities to see the film, but, even more, I want them to talk about it.  My goal is to show the film to 15-20 people at a time, in groups that are small enough that discussions are discussions, not lectures or speeches.  And, after the evening is done, I want those discussions to keep happening, so that eventually they turn into action.

That mindset took me to Saskatoon in November, where I attended the annual convention for the National Farmers Union, the NFU.  My goal was to convince the NFU to be a partner for the tour, so that, after I’ve hosted my screenings, I can offer a place where the discussions can turn into action.  The NFU is perhaps the most glowing example of a member-led organization I’ve ever encountered.  It has a 50-year history of advocating for farmers, and, unlike most industry groups, the policies it advances come directly from its farmer members.  The “union” in its name isn’t an accident; it truly is a union in the best sense of the word:  farmers elect delegates, debate resolutions, and implement those resolutions through working committees and public action.

At the convention, I was able to pitch the idea of the tour publicly, offering to use the film to recruit new members for the NFU.  This is an obvious benefit for the NFU, and it also gives me what I’m looking for:  A way for people inspired by the film to work on the issues it raises.  Access to farmland and the massive expense of buying it is one of the biggest issues that the NFU is working on.  The issue has its own committee, the farmland committee, which I joined.  When I pitched the idea of the tour, the reaction in the room was audible; it was very well-received.  And, although no commitment has been made yet, I’d be very surprised if a partnership of some kind doesn’t arise.

What’s next?

  • Turn the assembly cut into a rough cut, record a voiceover, and weave all the individual pieces into a more cohesive whole.
  • Continue to seek completion funding, as well as pitching the film to international partners so the film has a home outside of Canada.
  • Continue to talk with the NFU (and other potential partners) to plan a screening tour when the film is complete.

How can I help?

  • Keep your eyes and ears open for ways to fund the film tour.  These could be community development grants, industry awareness programs, or partnerships with organizations that are already working on the issues in the film.  Think creatively, I’m open to suggestions!  If you have an idea, send it to devon@thehandsthatfeedus.ca.
  • In addition to partner organizations, I’m also hoping to identify individual farmers and community leaders who would be open to hosting a screening / discussion in their community as part of the tour.  I want to visit all parts of Canada, so small, distant communities are very welcome!
  • Keep an eye out for future newsletters when I’ll hopefully have some footage I can tease…