Sometime in early November, I sat down in front of my computer, and, for the very first time, watched a cut of The Hands that Feed Us that genuinely felt like a real documentary. I’ve been working with the footage for years now, so it’s not like I don’t know what’s in it. But I’ve been narrowly focussed, working scene by scene, section by section, and I hadn’t watched it start-to-finish since January 2023. Back then, the film basically a 10-hour sequence of soundbites, and it didn’t contain much visual content. What I saw in November was a bona fide film.
It has a beginning, middle, and an end. It follows my journey travelling from farm to farm, from West to East. It chronicles all the lessons I learned, and the farmers I learned them from. Each farm has its own section, and I learned something different along the way. You can watch Amara launch their farm stand, Klippers send the first peaches of the season to their on-farm restaurant, Nathan Eshpeter deal with hail insurance, a government inspection at Overview Farms, and calves being born at The Farm with the Good Food. Somehow, all these anecdotes are held together by the single question that has obssessed me since I started this journey back in 2017: Can our farmers afford to feed us?
I’m still not satisfied I have an answer to this question — my answer in the film is that I was asking the wrong question, which is the truest answer I could find. It is a very powerful question: It has sustained my curiousity and obsession for years. In the rough cut, I’ve managed to boil it down so I think people can feel the urgency that has driven me. The film is still obviously unfinished: The introduction and conclusion are both quite rudimentary, and the later sections make a lot more sense than the earlier ones. But the basic documentary is there. Finishing the film is now just a matter of fixing problems and polishing what I’ve already done; I don’t have much “creation” left to do; there aren’t many decisions left that will impact the central message and story.
Finishing the film is now a matter of ticking items off a more-or-less finite list of problems to fix. This list is the basis for the next step: The fine cut. Some of these are simple problems, like adding missing titles or finding appropriate visual material to match an interview. Others go deeper: The film is structured around my journey of discovery, so I am a “character” in the film. Right now, it’s hard for the audience to figure out what makes my character tick. I have written a voiceover, but I haven’t shared enough of myself that people understand how the journey changed me. So, one item on my list is to look specifically at my “character arc”.
If all goes well, I will have a fine cut by the end of April. After that, things get a bit technical. The step after fine cut is “picture lock”, at which point the film is more or less done in terms of content. Then, a whole host of technical adjustments can be made that only make sense when the timeline of the film isn’t going to change. Foremost among these is the field that was my primary expertise before I decided to do everything myself: Sound. Sound includes a dialogue mix (making sure all words can be heard clearly), sound design (making the film sounds like what is happening in the picture), music, and an overall sound mix that combines all of these elements.
Last of all, the film is “coloured”: Exposure is corrected so that shots in the same place look the same, and each scene is given a “look”. For a documentary like this one, the “look” tends to be realistic. I’m trying to show reality, after all. But reality is more subjective that we like to think: I’m trying to share how it felt to be on the farm, and that is inherently subjective. As an example, I arrived at Amara Farm at the start of Spring, and my memories there are of new life. So, I expect I will emphasize the greens in Amara Farm because that is how it was when I was there (which the footage already shows).
All of these steps are important to the filmmaking process, but none really impacts what the film is about. None of the remaining work has any bearing on how much money farmers make or how they make a living. In that sense, my work is done already (perhaps it has been since I stopped filming in 2020). In theory, everything I have left is routine filmmaking. I hope — and the word hope doesn’t capture how much I need it to be true — that this also means I can finish it reliably and on time in the next six months.
The process of editing this film has exhausted me in many ways. I’m exhausted mentally: I sit down at my desk to work on the film every day, and sometimes I have a productive day, sometimes I get pulled away by the inevitable distractions and procrastination comes with being in front of a screen. Recently, I’ve been lucky to get four hours of productive work out of the day. I’m exhausted creatively: Writing the voice-over for the film is one of the most difficult creative tasks I’ve ever taken on. I’ve had weeks where my accomplishment was five paragraphs of voiceover: three or four sentences a day. The end result is good, but it’s an exhausting and discouraging way to work. I’m exhausted physically: My physique is wasting away. In the first three months of 2021, I went from the best shape of my life (after working on farms all of 2020) to the worst, from sitting in front of an editing computer for days on end. I haven’t been properly active since then. I’m exhausted financially: When I finished the rough cut in November, I had to dig into my savings to pay my rent. In all honesty, this last isn’t a complaint: This is the first time I’ve needed money since I started working on the film in 2020. I’ve essentially taken four years off to do this project, a project that has always been a labour of love and that I started on the basis of a trade of my labour for room and board. It’s amazing I’ve lasted this long. But, financial exhaustion as much as anything else is telling me I need to finish up.
When I hit the road in 2020, this was my COVID project. It was the perfect time to do something I cared about instead of sitting on my thumbs in lockdown. I intended to film for all of 2020, and expected I would have a finished film by mid-2021. I’ll be three years overdue by the time the film is finally ready. I’m happy I’ve put the time in, and I’m not done with the project by any means, but I do need it to be done! I need a break, and I need to move on to the things that mean the most to me: Putting the documentary out into the world, and using it to bring about change. I need to take the film on tour and go back on the road, as I’ve been talking about since I finished filming.
Looking back, I’ve been tired all year. I’ve had my nose to the grindstone, showing up every day, never giving up, but wearing myself down to finish the project. There are two times in the last year when I did have energy. One was trip to Nova Scotia for Lunenburg Doc Fest. After the festival, I had almost a week to drive around the province, visiting farms and talking to farmers about the project. These were long days, but I was inspired. I had energy, and I came back full of the optimism I needed to finish the rough cut. The other was the National Farmers Convention, which happened in Ottawa at the end of November. This was a different environment: We were stuck in a windowless hotel basement, but I was surrounded by farmers talking about the exact issues that this project is about, and making plans for how to solve them.
I think this observation about where I found energy holds a reminder for me. In May of 2022, after several attempts to blend some form of farm work with editing the film, I realized that the film wasn’t getting done. I moved back to Vancouver where I knew how to function as a filmmaker — or so my reasoning went. On that front, I’ve been successful: The film has progressed. In Vancouver, I know how to make this film, but I’ve lost touch with my reason for making it. I’m anxious to get out of city, and I don’t intend to stay any longer than I have to in order to finish.
And on that note, perhaps my next newsletter will be about where I go next…
- The fine cut. Then, picture lock, sound, music, and colour. The final cut.
- Raise funds for taking the film on tour. I have some ideas about this; somehow I need to find energy to put them into practice without compromising the work of finishing the film.
- My work this year with the NFU invovles building the BC Region membership. This will lay the groundwork for taking the film on tour next year, and building membership nationally.
- Moral support. As you can probably tell, I need encouragement.
- Patience and anticipation. This project has been a long time coming. I will be done soon, and when it is, I’ll be turning my attention to more concrete ways that I need help!