These “Taro Patch Feet,” photographed during a lo‘i clearing project, express the Ingredients Hawai‘i message: Get back to the earth.
Image: courtesy Robert Bates

Film meant to spark discussion

In scenes as gorgeous as a Koolau sunrise and as juicy as a ripe guava, Robert Bates and Brian Kimmel’s documentary explores the problem of feeding people well, healthfully and sustainably in the new 30-minute documentary, Ingredients Hawaii.

The Oahu-centric project reports on developments in culturally and ecologically-sensitive farming and gardening in interviews with farmers, chefs, home gardening advocates, agricultural students, a company that designs rooftop gardens and another that collects unused produce to disseminate to those in need. The interviewees speak simply, warmly and eloquently of the value of farm-to-table efforts in their lives.

Ingredients Hawaii is meant to be the first in a two-part series covering all the islands, if the budget can be found. The project was supported by grants from the state Department of Agriculture, Whole Foods, Kamehameha Schools and the Hawaii Council on the Humanities, but the filmmakers were never able to raise even one quarter of the proposed $200,000 production budget. Bates and Kimmel bankrolled three months of editing from their own commercial filmmaking company just to see the project finished after two years.

The documentary was premiered March 4 to a standing-room-only crowd–including many of those featured in the film–at Mamiya Theatre. They heard what they already knew: Many Oahuans were surprised to know how much farming there is on this heavily populated, largely urban island. “I didn’t know this was here,” farmers and food purveyors hear again and again.

To a degree–and depending on how much you know and care about these subjects–the film restates the already much-stated: that we still import more than 90 percent of our food here; that the loss of agricultural lands has many important downsides; that farming and gardening (as vocation or avocation) are valueable, clean, healthy occupations.

Chef Ed Kenney of Town and Downtown@HISAM, whose restaurants champion “local, organic when possible, with aloha always,” speaks in the film of a range of topics: not just his restaurants, but his personal commitment to gardening at home with his children. The kids do much of the work, bringing in their harvest each evening for family dinners. He praised those who, as they seek to change people’s ways, accept them as they are, even if that’s an energy drink and musubi for breakfast.

The audience watched children at Waikiki School tending their garden. The youngsters decide what will be planted, evaluate the crops and winnow them down to the most desirable choices, plant some more, weed, mulch, harvest and, yes, eat. The effort proves that kids will eat healthful food, said garden coordinator Debbie Millikan. “We have this idea that there’s kid food, and kid food is pepperoni pizza and hot dogs,and that’s not true.” Her students actually clamor for kale smoothies.

Interns from Waianae’s MAO Organic Farms talk about their dawn-to-dusk work (one scene shows them harvesting by means of head lamps). Student Kuulei Samson said tatsoi and arugula used to be foreign to her, as was stoop labor. But, she said, “it gives you something to do when you got nothing to do.” In this simple statement is contained the philosophy underlying MAO: to raise up a community that has been downtrodden, dead-ended, riddled with drugs, crime and boredom.

Unanswered in the film is this: If a cadre of prominent chefs, innovative farmers and savvy business people have been hoeing away at this row for more than 20 years and haven’t budged the numbers, what good is all this? What are we going to do about it? What next?

Bates, developer of the award-winning TV series Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter, says this lack of casting forward was purposeful: “My belief is that people are going to enter into this return to local food production and farm-to-table efforts in whatever way they’re comfortable with. There’s no dogma in this for us.”

Bates, for example, gardens a little but is more of a “picky farmers’ market, community supported agriculture (CSA) basket kind of guy.” His partner has a huge front yard garden.

“Some people who watch the film are going to want to engage in policy discussions. Some are going to want to run out and learn how to become a CSA member of MAO Farms,” Bates said. Bates and his friend Stephanie Chang, for example, were moved to found [Abundance.com], where people can go to report that they’re overrun with starfruit and are dying for some zucchini in exchange or whatever in an “I have . . .” “I want . . .” format.

Said Bates: “We designed the film to kind of tease people into action, whatever that’s going to be.”

Ingredients Hawaii is the successor to Bates’s Ingredients, which focuses on four seasons of farming in Portland, Ore., his former home, but also includes interviews with nationwide movers and shakers. It’s available on Netflix, as Ingredients Hawaii will be next year. WalMart stores just ordered copies for 400 of its outlets as part of an Earth Day (April 22) promotion.

Bates is particularly enthused about film nights: “People get together, watch the film and it becomes a springboard for them to discuss their own concerns and opportunities in their own districts and communities.”

Upcoming showings

“Food for Thought,” free screening and discussion, Thurston Memorial Chapel, Punahou School, Wed., 4/4, 6:15pm, sponsored by Punahou School and Slow Food Oahu. Limited seating, free campus parking; [punahou.edu]
Kauhale film series, MAʻO Farms, $20 film, talk-story, light dinner; [email: info], 696-5569
For information on how to host an Ingredients Hawaii film night or–coming soon–download a copy or buy a DVD, go to [ingredientshawaii.com].