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On Tour: Shelley Rogers finishes her tour with some adventures in St. John, USVI

13 Jan

When I wrote on my Facebook page that I was packing up for a trip to the Virgin Islands, comments rolled in from friends expressing a mixture of glee and jealousy. Indeed, I had visions of a glamorous jet-setting trip with my partner and collaborator, Marty Mesh (he’s also a featured character in What’s Organic About Organic?). We have fun both living and traveling together and connecting with audiences has become our favorite part of the filmmaking process. Who wouldn’t want to go to a tropical island to do so? Marty also has a good friend of over 30 years who lives there, so it was the perfect opportunity to squeeze in a visit with her and spend some extra time in paradise.

The beauty we encountered was indeed stunning. Our first days for the screening and events on the island of St. John were spent in the main town of Cruz Bay, a community with no traffic lights and only one round-about. It’s an intimate, friendly place where you can tell the locals from the tourists because all the locals know each other’s names.

When lugging our bags from the ferry to the quaint little Cruz Bay Boutique Hotel, I noticed a certain unfamiliar twinge of pain in my lower back and recalled that on our first flight at 6 a.m. I slept in a somewhat twisted, weird position, but I ignored it, thinking it would go away overnight. Unfortunately, it got worse. I was in denial, though, and was determined to make the most of my island surroundings, so we hiked to Honeymoon Beach the first day to soak in some sea breeze before the screening that evening. After a somewhat excruciating experience getting to and from the beach (it normally would have been an easy trek), I reserved some time to lay horizontal on the bed in the hotel, since I really wanted to be in good form for the screening that night.

The evening proved to be memorable, even though I was in a bit of a fog. It was a packed house for the St. John Film Society cinema, so I was incredibly grateful that Marty was there to tag-team conversations with me and take the lead, since I was feeling the delirium that comes with hours of pain. Our hosts, filmmaker Andrea Leland and Kathy Guidi, gave us a warm welcome and we were accompanied on the post-screening panel by a local farm couple, the folks behind Josephine’s Greens. It was great to hear from them. Clearly, it is a tremendous feat to grow vegetables here—the soils are poor, the bush can take over quickly if it’s not constantly cut back and pests include hungry and agile iguanas that can get to nearly anything they want to eat. Josephine is the only commercial grower in St. John and her market is mainly local restaurants. Of course, she can’t supply the whole island in local food, though; so much of what is consumed is imported. Marty has worked with Extension folks in St. Thomas before and has certification staff in the Dominican Republic, so he talked about the effort to develop the local food economy among the Caribbean islands.

The audience was effusive and friendly and asked many great questions. Our friend, Arlene, commented that she was shocked that so many from the neighboring community of Coral Bay made the trek over the mountain to come see the film. After riding around the island in Arlene’s car the following days, I gained a deeper appreciation for the traveling that folks made to come see the film. Every road on the island is curvy, steep, and bumpy. It makes San Francisco seem like a kiddy roller coaster. And St. John roads are doubly bizarre because you drive on the right side of the road!

We also visited the Gifft Hill School to share the film with the middle school students. The school has an environmental focus that the students dubbed the EARTH program, Education And Resiliency Through Horticulture. The school has cooperation from Iowa State University, so they’ve built a beautiful edible garden there, complete with passion fruit that the students love to pick (often times before they’re ripe!). Even though I was mildly concerned that they weren’t paying attention during the screening (always the filmmaker’s nightmare!), I was impressed with their questions during our discussion.

We also had a treat of a visit with the organizers behind the St. John Film Society over mahi sandwiches at a local restaurant called the Fish Trap. There, I discovered that fellow filmmaker Andrea Leland started the film society in order to generate more intellectual stimulation for the island. She also told us about her fascination with Caribbean culture and how her work has focused on and explored it in depth.

The rest of our trip was filled with beaches, snorkeling, sunshine, a full moon, rum, a sailing trip and rescue remedy, an ice pack on my lower back. I finally numbed it enough that I could move around and enjoy our vacation time. Jet setting? Check, but the glamour experienced was unfortunately coupled with a twinge of a documentarian’s back pain reality. Yes, truth is more dramatic than fiction sometimes. Luckily, I’m happy to report I’m on the mend, with nothing but fond memories of our island film adventures and gratitude to the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation’s support of filmmakers and communities throughout the region.

Post and photos by Shelley Rogers, OSIP touring filmmaker
Thanks for all of your time and energy, Shelley! You were our one of our very first brave filmmakers to head out on tour. We appreciate all of your words, and look forward to hearing about your future projects! Hope your back feels better 🙂

On Tour: Shelley Rogers in Wilmington, DE

17 Oct
Upon arrival in Wilmington I was exhausted, but I was eager to meet my host and the incredible force of nature that she suggested I meet: Francine Covelli, of Francine’s Organic Kids.  She and I had already connected on the phone and on Facebook, so I was glad to be putting a face with a name.
When we all met up for appetizers before the screening, Francine’s eight-year-old stepdaughter, Azura, immediately sat down and asked me, “Are you famous?” I laughed heartily at the notion that a documentary filmmaker like me could be famous, but the whole question led to a very interesting conversation about the distinctions between narrative fiction films, both independent and blockbuster, and documentaries, which typically reach a smaller audience, but serve an important role in our cultural landscape.
The screening and Q&A at Theater N sparked an interesting conversation, in which nearly the whole audience participated.  One question was about the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). I talked about the short-sightedness of the biotech companies—how they now engineer the crops to contain “Round-up,” but as weeds are already evolving to be resistant to that pesticide, farmers are forced to use even more toxic chemicals to deal with the “super-weeds.”
I also mentioned the lack of evidence that GMOs actually yield more. I noted the unfortunate circumstance that many farmers in developing countries find themselves in after they borrow money to purchase GMO seeds and the chemicals that must accompany them, how in the meantime they destroy their seed heritage (most cultures save their seeds for generations), and then ultimately find out that the yields are no better. The farmers then face a mountain of debt and the integrity of their seed stock may be permanently jeopardized. Biotech companies have also been known to threaten and take action against farmers who have patented genetic material on their land, even though the farmer did not buy them or intend for it to be there
I explained that because there are no requirements to label GMO foods, we are all likely eating them unwittingly; and if we want to avoid eating them, the only way to do so right now is to eat organic food, since it prohibits the use of GMOs.
But there is a significant grassroots effort to label GMOs—complete with a Right to Know march from NYC to Washington, a viral “Just Label It” marketing campaign (click here to sign petition), and a class-action lawsuit questioning the legitimacy of the patent.  There is hope, but it’s an uphill battle.
The day after the screening, I headed to Francine’s little farm and learned that Francine’s Organic Kids was part Covelli’s heart & soul—a local initiative partnering with schools to provide hot, healthy, organic lunches, delivered daily.  She combined educational workshops for children, families, & educators with the food business.
While eating fresh eggs from her hens and delicious homegrown tomatoes, we found that we have much in common—even including the brief hiatus we each recently had to take in order to care for ailing parents. She hopes to reinvigorate the business, but for now Francine is focused on Farm Table dinners, bringing the community together and out to farms.  We even brainstormed about a weeklong series of dinners and films that we could do!
The funniest twist of irony of the tour came from this visit to Wilmington, though.  Upon returning home and rifling through emails, I came across one from an audience member whose wife had bought a DVD at the screening there.  His email was full of interesting conversation and very kind compliments, but also a simple request—would I mind if he mailed me the DVD cover to autograph and mail back for his wife? I thought autographs were strictly under the purview of the famous!
Of course, I happily said I would accommodate… Even if fame and glory are not fate of most documentarians, I’d much prefer authentic veneration that comes from genuine connections.
Post by OSIP Touring Filmmaker, Shelley Rogers
Photos by MAAF Staff

On Tour: Shelley Rogers in Oswego, NY

30 Sep

While the climate in Oswego, NY on the shores of beautiful Lake Ontario was by far the coolest air I’ve felt on the tour thus far, the people there were contrastingly warm.

My visit began with a dinner hosted by SUNY-Oswego’s brand new faculty member, Jake Dodd and his wife Kristy. Jake is the new film professor there, hired to teach production courses for the burgeoning, blossoming department. As Jake explained, the production part of the program there was built as a result of student demand. In fact, until Jake and one other professor was hired this year, students were making films with whatever tools they could get their hands on—undaunted and inspired by their tenacity and passion.

I knew it was going to be a place I would like, not only because Jake and Kristy were cool people, but also because it was clear that this film department was founded on three qualities I value and respect: grassroots innovation, a lack of pretentiousness, and full-on chutzpa.

When I met Professor Amy Shore the next morning, my hunch was confirmed: this place is special.  Amy is a rarity in the Cinema Studies world—down-to-earth and honest with a dash of hilarious vulgarity.  As we drank coffee and ate bagels downtown, we traded tales from New York University, where she did her Doctoral work and I did my Masters. We both delighted in our shared admiration for George Stoney and both rolled our eyes equally when remembering the “theorist” folk who like to speak in complicated sentences that make no sense and write papers for people in their “inner circle.”  Indeed, I was in good hands.

Amy then took me to campus where I met a small group of students to talk about filmmaking. I showed them the latest rough cut of a commissioned piece I’ve been working on called The Rye Bread Project. To my delight, they thought it was coherent and mostly that it was good.  They had great suggestions about potential sound design enhancements and moving a clip from the end up to the beginning. They had suggestions for expanding it into a series, ideas for funding sources, and thoughts about how the website could host more video clips for enhancing understanding of “rye issues.” It was a treat to have a focus group of such caliber to offer constructive criticism, sympathetic advice and cogent insights. I was duly impressed.

The crowd at the theater that night was lively and big.  They asked great questions that really pushed beyond the surface.  One question from a student stood out; he said, “With the onslaught of constant advertising from all the unhealthy food establishments, how does organic food have a fighting chance?”

My response was mostly about policy—we have to demand more from our legislators. While it’s great that Michelle Obama put in an organic garden at the White House, her husband’s administration is still in the pockets of the agribusiness and biotech industries.

And while it’s important for us to each do what we can with our own food choices every day, it’s not enough.  What we’re up against is too big and the agribusiness executives have too much at stake—it won’t be easy.  It’s only been 60 years since chemicals were introduced to food production and they’ve done a lot of damage in a short time, but in just the past three decades organic food has come from a fringe, niche market to be 4% of the food and beverage market. Of course there is the other 96% of the market that uses toxins, so we clearly have a lot of work to do, but we can’t do it by ourselves—we need our politicians to hear us and respond.

Following the Q&A session in the theater, I had some wonderful, lingering conversations with students and audience members in the lobby.  I really enjoyed hearing about students’ film projects.  The budding program seems like it’s growing in all the right directions and is providing a vibrant, welcoming, creative environment in which the students will thrive.

My final moments in Oswego were great, too.  The couple who own the Bed & Breakfast where I was staying attended the screening and decided to buy organic beer on the way home and invited me to have a nightcap with them.  They even bought organic English Muffins and bananas for my final breakfast there.  It was satisfying and flattering to know that the film moved them to action right away!

 Post by Shelley Rogers, OSIP Touring Filmmaker

On Tour: Shelley Rogers in Norfolk, VA

23 Sep

As I write on the train to Wilmington, DE, I’m puzzled by the odd state that only several days of nearly non-stop, purposeful and meaningful travel can produce—I’m between exhaustion and exhilaration, gratitude and wonderment, coming and going… And while I’m fighting off road weariness, yet unable to sleep, tired of schlepping around bags and wishing I’d somehow packed lighter (even though I’m still pretty sure that everything I brought was necessary and sadly realized the other day that I don’t have enough socks)… I’m filled with appreciation.

I’m on this amazing tour. I get to meet audiences and connect with them. What a gift.

My introduction to the kind folks at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, VA happened a few weeks before my arrival there when the Websmith, Gary Marshall, emailed me to request some photos that weren’t downloading properly from my website.  He sent a list of file names that intrigued him, one of which was called “Shelley.poultice.”

I figured that photo file required a bit of an explanation, so I sent him this story to elucidate the scene where it was taken:

“The poultice picture has a ‘nice weed’ story to it.  As we were shooting the apple harvest upstate, there were lots of insects buzzing around with all the sweetness in the air. Unfortunately, as I was shooting a hornet stung me on my hand! Luckily, though, John Gorzynski (farmer featured in film) quickly climbed down the tree, picked some plantain (a wide leafed weed that grows nearly everywhere there’s grass) and directed me to start chewing on it—the saliva of the stung person combines with the plant bring out a special, individualized remedy.  We placed the chewed up leaves on the sting and within a matter of minutes the throbbing stopped and I was able to continue shooting! As another farmer in the film said to me once, “Who says weeds are just weeds?”!!”

To my delight, his reply said:

“Thank you very much, and I’m looking forward to meeting you in person.  I’d add that I’d bring you something organic from my front yard for you to snack on during your visit, but Hurricane Irene pretty much blasted everything but my carrots, and my fall crops are still seed wannabes at this time.

Wonderful story about the poultice. Many, many years ago my grandmother from the hills of Kentucky did the exact same thing for a howling little kid. Me.”

I knew that if there was a fellow person there with a poultice connection, I was in for a treat.

When I arrived in Norfolk, I threw my bags down, quickly changed my clothes and headed right over to the Chrysler Museum to check out the scene.  After meeting the Education Director, Jennifer, and the Projectionist, Donna, we tested the DVD and I could relax. I went to make the make the acquaintance of Gary and found a warm, amiable friend who was willing to take me around on a brief tour of his favorite galleries in the museum.

As an art history major in college and a lover of nearly all things art, I was elated to see such a stunning collection. They have the Gaston Lachaise sculpture. Man, who is the counterpart to MoMA’s Woman, who is the subject of my mentor/professor George Stoney’s film Gaston Lachaise: Flesh in Ecstasy!

After hearing stories about Gary’s horticultural heritage (his grandmother tilled her own garden until she was 85 years old!) and his front yard vegetable garden that has inspired his neighbors to start composting and growing, too, it was time for the screening.

A nice crowd filed in (our youngest audience member at 4 months old!) and the lights dimmed. After the credits rolled and I opened the floor to questions/comments, the first audience member to speak stood to say, “My heart is beating out of my chest and I am speechless.  Thank you for such a wonderful film.” Floored by such a heartfelt compliment, I did my best to graciously thank her for her expression and more comments and questions came forth: “Where can we buy local organic?” “How do I find a coop to buy from?” “I liked that you didn’t shy away from talking about ‘big organic.’”

We had a nice discussion about “big organic” and I admitted how easy it is to get on the “down with corporations bandwagon,” but I also cautioned folks not to dismiss the potential good that can come when big players get involved in organic production. The environmental impact of widespread organic methods is significant.  Of course, we should still support local, organic first—indeed, in order to build healthy, robust regional food systems we must prioritize direct relationships between farmers and citizens—but in order to change the status quo, we have to change the whole system, not just part of it.

The best moment in Norfolk came at the end of the night when Education Director, Jennifer, her husband, Greg, and I sat on the porch of The Page House Inn drinking port.  Jennifer told me that that the museum guards who had to keep watch in the theater lobby fought to be able to take turns sitting in the chair outside that still had a view of the screen! And that the people at the front desk asked if they could leave their post to come to the theater!

Holy moly. I had no idea this film meant so much to people, but I will forever treasure that. When I think about all the years of struggle and grind it took to make the film, to know that urban museum employees are fighting for the chance to hear the stories of organic farmers makes it all worthwhile…

Jennifer told me as she was leaving that she has plans to have a staff screening so that all the museum guards and people at the front desk will finally get to see it, too, uninterrupted.

Post by Shelley Rogers, OSIP Touring Filmmaker.

Photos provided by Jennifer Schero of the Chrysler Museum.

On Tour: Shelley Rogers Checks in from Lynchburg, VA

21 Sep

A walk through downtown Lynchburg, VA reveals a vibrant Southern town on the up swing of a cultural renaissance.  It’s clear to me, after having grown up in a small town in East TN that attempted a downtown revival in the 1990s, that Lynchburg has a special “je ne sais quoi” that rivals the attraction of places like Asheville, NC and Savannah, GA.  Clearly, the Lynchburg community has what it takes to innovate its historic buildings, maintain the character of its history, and draw both tourists and locals alike to its streets filled with antique malls, restaurants and a lively outdoor farmer’s market.

An anchor point in this landscape is Riverviews Artspace, where my film What’s Organic About Organic? screened on Friday, September 16, 2011. At lunch that day with Riverviews Director, Mary Ann Racin and Exhibitions and Programs Manager, Erin Stover, I discovered that from the humble beginnings as a shoe factory warehouse, Riverviews has become a cornerstone of the arts community in Lynchburg, complete with juried exhibitions, a beautiful gallery, an annual film festival, studio space rentals, and more.

Before the screening, Erin invited a host of local farmers and artisan food producers to have a Harvest Happy Hour in the gallery. The evening featured tasting samples of scrumptious grass-fed meat from Lund Angus Beef, yummy jams and relish from Dancing Chick, and delicious goat cheeses from Night Sky Farm.  Also displaying their wares and sharing information was Idle Wild Farm.

Then, in a downstairs stonewalled screening room that felt like a wine cave, guests sat in plush chairs for the film.  As the filmmaker, I was relieved when the audience laughed at all the right places and thrilled when, as the credits rolled, farmer Lucy Overstreet sitting next to me turned and said, “I loved your film and I even learned a lot!” Coming from a farmer, I felt like that was a great compliment!

The discussion afterwards was complete with astute questions and kind compliments.  For example, “Is it really true that agro-chemicals were invented from the surplus of chemicals following WWII?” and “I loved the part in Harlem!” I even got some good old Southern hugs from some particularly appreciative viewers.  But the love in the air was mutual—Lynchburg is officially my new favorite place.

Post by Shelley Rogers, OSIP Touring Filmmaker.

Photos by Erin Stover of Riverviews Artspace.

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