Q & A with Shelley Rogers, director of What's Organic About Organic?

The documentary What's Organic About Organic? is being screened at various places around the metro area, including the Mercury Cafe tonight. I caught the film at the Nomad last night, at an event that was a Boulder local-food orgy: surprisingly good turnip green pesto on baguette and duck confit salad from the Culinary School of the Rockies with Peach Tree Distillery's line of spirits; Angela Simon, who helped organize the event and works with Grant Family Farms -- featured in the film -- also offered up some chocolate truffles and other sweet snacks.

The food was better than the attendance: Only about 25 people turned out to hear producer and director Shelley Rogers and co-producer and farmer Marty Mesh discuss their movie.

The movie itself was effectively low-budget, putting focus on the words of the various farmers and ranchers profiled. Most exposed the differences between a consumer's idealized vision of organic and the realistic problems and ramifications of the organic agriculture system.

While it might not have the big-time feel of Food Inc. or Fast Food Nation, this documentary does a good job of showing the mindsets of its characters (farmers). It has a homey, grassroots feel that conveys a clear message from genuine people.

I got a chance to chat with Rogers, who talked about how organic became important to her, where social justice falls in with this, and what her goal was for What's Organic About Organic?.

Westword: Can you tell me about your film career thus far?

Shelley Rogers: This is actually my first film. I went to NYU for grad school studying media, culture and communication, and ended up doing an independent study looking into the organic label. I started out skeptical as to what is it, exactly. The more I researched, the more I realized that I needed to do interviews with farmers. I took a course in the film school about socially relevant documentary production, and the film started there. It set me on a path to learn a lot more about it.

WW: So were you drawn to organic food in the class, or has the issue been an interest of yours for a while?

SR: Well, I've always been interested in environmental issues and food in particular, but not necessarily organic. But my mom was a nutritionist, so we'd do a lot of cooking and garden and canning in the summer. In high school and college, I worked cooking in restaurants. It was there, on the second day of a job, I got a case of zucchini out and I started to wash them. The owner asked what I was doing, I told him, and he said, "Stop, we don't have time for that right now." I was astonished by the corner-cutting and realized that people don't think about where their food was before it ended up on their plate. I was always interested in what it all meant.

WW: So could you explain the title of the movie? I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be an indictment of the term or a rhetorical question or something else.

SR: Well, the title proves that there's power in an open question. It's intended to be open to interpretation and it's supposed to be provocative.Not to encourage negativity, but to ask, "Do you know what it means?"

WW:How many screenings have you done and what do you think of the experience?

SR: Oh, I don't even know. We've probably done around 75. We've been in distribution since June of last year, but it's definitely a grassroots effort.

But I've learned that film distribution is just as flawed as food distribution market. Filmmakers and farmers have similarities. The distributors look for investments and risk from the farmer or the filmmaker, then they make all the profit. I had to look to the organic movement for inspiration during this process. And partnering with the audience to share the message is our only hope. We don't have thousands of dollars for a campaign, but I think that makes it on some level valuable in that it really makes people have a connection with the film.

WW: So the grassroots movement is obviously tough. There were about 25 people for the Boulder screening. Was this disheartening? Is it usually like this?

SR: No, that wasn't normal, I was actually kind of surprised as well. It was probably the smallest one we've had on this tour. At the end some Boulder residents came up to me and said, "I'm so shocked that this place wasn't packed, this is Boulder!" But I think sometimes, the strongest responses are in rural areas like Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi, because those people are hungry for this info. Maybe people may take it for granted and assume they know already. That's just my theory. At this point though, you can't be upset by every little thing.

WW: With that, what is your goal with the movie?

SR: I want to generate awareness about what it means to support organic agriculture with the health of citizens and the health of farmers. When you support organic agriculture, you're supporting healthier means for food production. The farmers aren't exposed to toxic chemicals. I think a lot of times people buy organic because it's healthier for them and their family, which is fine, but there is a much bigger picture than an individual family.

WW: Marty Mesh (a co-producer and executive director of the Florida Organic Growers) mentioned the social justice side of organic agriculture. Is this something you're trying to draw attention to, or was it supposed to be more of a forum for farmers awareness?

SR: It's definitely about social justice. The social justice component of org agriculture is very important. I think the first pieces of the puzzle in social justice is to have a healthy environment in which to work and not be exposed to toxic chemicals. I think the next phase of the food movement will be more about social justice and understanding what that means. It's about trying to come up with some way to quantify and measure it. The Agricultural Justice Project is working to to make meaningful standards to evaluate.

WW: Is there any extra info you'd like to pass along?

SR: We're definitely open to people hosting screenings, it's how we promote ourselves. We may come back do another tour along the front range in the fall because we've learned a little about the market and we'll have some different ways of going about it.

For more information about the movie, including how to host a screening of your own, check out the movie website.

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