In 2012, in an act of civil disobedience, dozens of urban farmers gathered and took over a piece of land called the Gill Tract, an area once dedicated to agricultural studies and owned by the University of California, Berkeley. Occupy the Farm, which screens Tuesday, April 7 at the Sie FilmCenter, explores the history of this strip of fertile farmland in Northern California’s East Bay; it also documents the Occupiers’ race to save the last portion of it from commercial development and the complicated relationship between public institutions like UC Berkeley, for-profit company interests and the communities stuck in the middle. In advance of the screening, Westword spoke with the film's director, Todd Darling, about how and why he chose to make Occupy the Farm and what he hopes comes from community movements like the one it profiles.
Westword: The film begins right as the Occupy the Farm action is taking place. How did you get involved with this group or know that this action was going to take place, and why did you want to document it?
The film does kind of start right away — there's so much to the story, so there was sort of no other choice about how to do it from how I was looking at it. But how it all came about is a little bit funny. I been working in film and TV for a while and I worked on a TV show called Laguna Beach for MTV. I was one of the directors and earliest employees on the show and based on that, a friend of mine suggested that I do a TV show about urban farmers in Oakland. I didn't know anything about the topic at all — this was about the time that the economy had collapsed and I began researching it.
I found a lot of young, intelligent people making a very resourceful life for themselves — growing their own food and living in a cooperative or communal fashion. They were really supplying the only fresh food in urban communities of color where there was no other fresh food; there was nothing but liquor stores and corner stores where you could get pork rinds and soda pops. In West Oakland, for every square mile there are 22,000 people and zero grocery stores. The same statistic is repeated in Richmond and East Oakland, in South Central Los Angeles — just all over. These people have simply been left out of the food distribution system and it's not an accident. It's way too pervasive. The urban farmers had come up with a really creative solution to it, as well as providing themselves with a really interesting way to live on next to no money.
So we pitched this idea for a TV show around Los Angeles and we just kept hearing that (the subjects) were interesting people and a great story — but the idea fell with a resounding thud. The people we spoke to could care less, basically. These farmers and people involved were not train wrecks, so it wasn't interesting. I was depressed because I thought this was a really interesting scene and a really interesting problem they were attacking and they were living in an interesting fashion — they were cool.
Months later, the Occupy movement happened. I'm out in front of city hall in Oakland and lo and behold, there in the kitchen of Occupy Oakland are some of the same people we met doing the research for the original show idea. It dawned on me right there — these people, the urban farmers and the Occupy people, are going to get together and when that happens, that is going to be a movie. This won't be a TV show; it will be a feature film because it will be an epic story. I told friends: I don't know who, I don't know where, I don't know when, but it's going to happen — and when it does, I'm on it.
Six months later, these people who I didn't know showed up on this piece of land and occupied it. I received a text about it and called up a couple of friends and got over there right away and followed it. Having done the background research of where this was coming from, I pretty much knew it would be a long story — so I was sort of committed from day one. I knew I was making a movie about these people before they knew I existed. I sort of hung around them a little bit — there's was no guarantee they were going to accept having me around. I didn't expect to necessarily be welcomed with a camera but fortunately, it worked out. So that's how it happened.
In the film, you yourself are in the middle of some of these tense moments where it gets pretty scary with the police. Obviously, this was something we saw a lot of and continue to see similar footage of as police and protesters working on various social issues clash across the country. But was the threat of danger — even when covering something as peaceful as farming — something that deterred you from filming?
I was never too worried about something happening to me directly — but, of course, if you're making a film you don't want to get arrested because it stops your work. So that would have been really my only concern. I wasn't nervous and, in truth, none of us who were working on the film ever felt in too great of jeopardy. That's not to say we felt totally safe, but it was manageable. I mean it is what it is; you have to have your eyes open. But the other thing that I think is worth noting is that you see the kind of force the police came down with on people for farming, and this is indicative of how much force was used against Occupy in Oakland and in many places around the country — the sort of militarized police force that we've seen this summer in Ferguson was already in evidence in Oakland.
At the point when Occupy the Farm was happening, there were literally still people in the hospital from Occupy Oakland. Lawsuits against the police were in the tens of millions of dollars. There was so much controversy about it that the police were a step slower to using that overwhelming force to its maximum effect. They had been sort of put on notice that people were watching — there had been a couple of things that had happened in the fall, like six months prior to this, that the police were still in serious trouble for. So I think that the farmers got a little bit of a break from it. On the other hand, the fact that this did come out of Occupy Oakland and Occupy, they tended to move more cautiously. Even though, as you see in the film, they showed up with a hundred well-armed riot police, they were moving a little more cautiously, I think.
You definitely see that in the film, the slow movement of the police, but there's a point when UC Berkeley orders the cops to move quickly and it's sort of surprising. Up until that point, the communication between the school, the Occupiers and the police is open and fluid.
Obviously, (the school) keeps their counsel and I had been on the telephone with them all the time trying to craft the story on all sides. But at a certain point they just clammed up and wouldn't tell me what was going on and I can't really speak to as to why (the school) made that decision. My guess is, when [the Occupy farmers] cross a certain line, [the school] just went full blast. A lot of people compare this to People's Park, which happened 46 years ago — it was a similar situation in terms of a piece of land being fought over that was owned by the university that was public. In that incident, the National Guard was called out and people were killed. It was the biggest civil disturbance in the history of the United States up until that point. So comparing it using that yardstick, the farmers were much more — in a long-term sense — effective. It didn't get to that point. No one died.
One thing that I really like about the story is that there is a very hopeful element to it that I think audiences respond to. For me, as a witness to it, I have to say it was a political action that had a lot of hope and joy to it and there's something to be said for that. They were doing something that was creative and hopeful and has some potential for the future. I mean, it's not like all is said and done; history keeps moving along, it doesn't just come to a stop.
Absolutely. It was a very emotional movie from that standpoint — seeing children and families from the neighborhood being able to be involved in the cultivation of food as a form of protest. But it was also very motivating; it made me think about how possible this kind of movement could be in any neighborhood in the U.S.
One of the things that struck me about this story immediately about this story was that everyone who was at that piece of land, they could have rode their bicycle there. It ended up being really important to us on a national, emblematic level, but also on a hyper-local level. There is something very tangible about it — like, yes this is something that you can do. You don't have to be anybody special to do this. That's kind of exhilarating for people.
I know that you don't go into making a documentary with some idyllic belief that the audience will see Occupy the Farm and start farming, but what do you hope comes out of the film being seen?
A couple of things: I do hope that when people see the film that they take a look around at the public resources that are close to them and look at the things that are being misused or abused or misdirected and stand up for them. In small communities, the post offices are being closed and sold — in my community here in L.A. in Venice and Santa Monica, they sold the post office. The post office was the beautiful building from the '20s or '30s and now they've sold it off and moved the post office to basically a closet in a parking lot. It was like, who benefits from this? There is this whole struggle across the country of this privatization of public resources, and it affects everybody.
In my heart of hearts, that what I hope people look at: the post office, the university, the school — if it is a public institution, it should not be turned to private interests so someone is making a profit on it and it's not serving the people. If someone is making a profit on a public resource, there is no way that a public resource is going to function as well. It's impossible.
The second thing is that people do, on the food level, look around their neighborhood and think, I can turn my back yard into a garden. There might be a vacant lot and people see it as, oh, why don't we just start growing food over there because there is no one doing anything with it: Just get your neighbors together and do it. I think that's a really positive thing to do. You can grow food, meet your neighbors and create relations between you and people in your neighborhood that you maybe didn't really know before. I saw that happening at the farm and I'm seeing it happen in other places now where I've visited. You can see how doing something like gardening together constructs relationships between people — and it is kind of wonderful.
See Occupy the Farm at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, April 7 during DocNight at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets are $10, or $7 for Denver Film Society members, and can be purchased by calling 303-595-3456 or visiting the Sie's website. Members of Denver's Urban Farmers Collaborative at Sustainability Park and Produce Denver will be leading a discussion about the film after the showing. For more information on Occupy the Farm, visit the documentary's website.
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