Hunger is an issue that we’ve grown accustomed to—perhaps too accustomed to—seeing on our television screens in tragic and, often exploitative, montages during daytime commercial breaks. At just about every bodega in most major cities, there’s a register-adjacent tin with a coin slot wrapped in a cardboard printout that promises your spare change will reach a starving child somewhere across the globe. At the risk of being reductive, we’ve become desensitized as a nation to this plight; we accept it as a universal problem that will always exist and will never be completely eradicated.
But there’s a domestic branch of this crisis, right under our noses. The wealthiest (well, depending which economists you ask) country in the world, and somehow the number of Americans who are “food insecure”—a complex term that casts a wide net regarding how we define what is simply too complicated to be called “hunger”, and takes too many hidden forms and variations, such as obesity, to be immediately recognizable—exceeds 50 million.
A Place at the Table
Jeff Bridges, Raj Patel, Tom Colicchio
(Magnolia Pictures; US theatrical: 1 Mar 2013)
Where we’re also not accustomed to seeing or thinking about hunger is at the cinema, home of the $13 admission fee, land of the $6 soda. But that’s precisely where filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush are tackling it head on in their simultaneously gut-wrenching and inspiring documentary A Place at the Table, which chronicles but a tiny sampling of the millions of Americans who, simply put, don’t know where their next meal is coming from (and those able to scrape by on the limited resources are made available to them are ingesting empty calories that provide no fuel or nutritional benefit).
Executive produced by iconic chef-lebrity Tom Colicchio (also, Ms. Silverbush’s husband and father to her two children), featuring rousing interview segments with Academy Award winner and, advocate in the fight to end hunger for over 30 years, Jeff Bridges, and a poignant original soundtrack by T Bone Burnett, A Place at the Table is a striking piece of filmmaking, one that utilizes both narrative craft (Silverbush’s feature debut On the Outs won both the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award at the 2005 Slamdance Film Festival, the first to earn both prizes in the history of the fest) and the “let it speak for itself” frankness and vulnerability of nonfiction cinema (Jacobson’s 2007 film Toots was honored with National Board of Review’s Top Documentary Award and was praised by the New York Times as a “first-rate portrait” of saloonkeeper Toots Shor).
PopMatters sat down with Jacobson, Silverbush, and Colicchio for a passionate discussion about the documentary’s central concerns, the journey of its three-year production, and its place both as a piece of filmmaking and a potentially explosive document that may very well instigate serious policy change in America.
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I’m curious about the decision to release this documentary in theaters, as opposed to a major television network or streaming via YouTube, for example. Documentaries are notoriously under-seen and you can’t expect the same screen numbers or marketing push as, say, Iron Man 3.
Tom Colicchio: Though I have to say, Iron Man 3 looks pretty good…
Kristi Jacobson: I’m a documentary filmmaker and Lori is a narrative filmmaker. We strove to use what we could both bring to the table—[laughs] sorry, that’s going to happen a lot, I promise—and [each wanted] to bring our filmmaking to another level. We envisioned making a piece of cinema that people would see in the theater. The cinematography and the music are important but of course the stories are the heart of it. But essentially we see this as the film’s launch. A theatrical release, and it being available OnDemand and through iTunes, is just the beginning of what will be the film’s life. So if you are in a market where there is no theater, you can still access the film through OnDemand and iTunes and of course it will be released and re-released in various formats. At the end of the day, we wanted to reach as many people as possible. If having a theatrical release brings attention and the audience to the theater and gets people to recognize it as a piece of cinema, then we feel we’re doing a huge service to the issue.
Tom Colicchio: We’re also fielding requests from various communities and organizations that want to screen the film. They’ll all get access to show it to show it for free after the release. Without a doubt.
Lori Silverbush: That’s also a huge part of the social action campaign that surrounds this film. We have gotten grants to show the film all around the country at the most grassroots level, so that means community groups, churches in rural areas, places that would not normally have access to this. We are making a very concerted effort. In fact, if any of your readers want to bring it to their schools, community centers, to anywhere they should let us know because that’s something we want to see happen. [Vist http://www.takepart.com/place-at-the-table for more information]
Kristi Jacobson: That’s always been a priority for us as filmmakers, but you’re rarely in the position that we are which is to be partnered with Participant Media, for whom this is also a major priority. There is an entire team of people at Participant Media who are ensuring that people in communities who need to see this film will get to see it for free.
Lori Silverbush: A parent who is a friend of ours, came to an early screening and said “I really want to engage my child’s school on this,” and she got together with the administrators, and Participant is now making it available for school children to come see the movie and then start a dialogue around it, start workshopping and brainstorming around it, and potentially start a model for the entire country in terms of how we talk about this in school.
Kristi Jacobson: And faith based groups too are showing huge interest. I know we’re talking at length about this [laughs] but it’s exciting.
Good, because I left the screening scared that enough people wouldn’t see this film. I also left with a heavy heart and conscience, a profound sense of shame in the system and some personal guilt.
Tom Colicchio: Well, no one should feel bad about his ability to feed himself. That’s not the film’s intention by any means. But to go back to your previous question, why the theatrical release: it’s getting released in 35 markets, which is huge for a documentary. So there are people running theaters and thinking, “I want this film.” It speaks to the potential the film has to reach and affect people.
Lori Silverbush: I feel excited and empowered. We can fix this. If there wasn’t a solution and we were just capturing this problem on film, I’d be a wreck. But the fact is that we can actually fix this and we can fix it within our current system if we just prioritize it. So much of the debate is people saying “That’s fine, but how are we going to get the money for this?” But I think the film shows that if we do fund existing programs really well, it’s an investment that ultimately saves us a fortune as a country. And I think we present arguments that both the right and the left can ultimately understand and support.
Kristi Jacobson: We’ve also found again and again after screening the film, people will come to relate or understand things about themselves that they didn’t prior. Clearly we’re filmmakers and we believe in the collective experience of seeing a film in a theater, and some of the most profound moments have been sitting in the theater with audiences, hearing audible gasps at certain points in the film, and of course the conversation that follows.
Lori Silverbush: Absolutely. And we’ve had this amazing experience with Q&As where someone will stand up and say, “I know I sit here and I look fine but I’ve had this experience as well.” This reinforces that this is not about “The Other,” and you’re not going to see in this movie a zoological example of something. When 50 million people are impacted by a problem it’s far more pervasive, and people just like you and me are facing this problem or have experienced it.
We’ve been conditioned to think of hunger in a certain way, and the film is certainly successful in making that definition and that image more nuanced, more inclusive. In terms of the filmmaking, this is simply a gorgeous movie. Cinematically, I was awed by those breathtaking aerial shots that open the film, all that landscape, from mountains to city skylines, even the trailer parks. Not to mention the music that accompanies it. How were you able to reconcile the desire to craft a film that holds up as an actual film with the very purposeful job you had of making sure the issue was clearly represented?
Kristi Jacobson: Well, the issue itself is what motivated us to make the film. A recognition and understanding of how pervasive the problem was paramount, but at that point the filmmaking instincts take over and it’s about going on the journey and finding the people who are experiencing this every day and who can tell the story far better than we can.
Lori Silverbush: For me, the two were never in conflict. I work in fiction filmmaking so this was a departure for me. As a screenwriter and feature director, I’m always thinking about story – where’s the story, what is the most compelling story. We showed three examples, but everywhere we turned, we met people who had these incredible stories, and if I did do this as fiction, I don’t think people would have bought it! “That’s too unbelievable.” So the stories themselves were so compelling that the real challenge was making sure there was enough real estate in the film for them to be able to tell their own stories and let people in on what their lives were like. To create balance, you have to include to have context and facts, but you also have to carve enough space to let these incredible people tell their stories… you could just watch it all day. And, of course, there were stories we couldn’t include that were riveting.
Tom Colicchio: And they’re both terrific filmmakers. From the very beginning, they wanted to make a film that would stand up as a film. That was something that was discussed. The issue is not at odds with that at all, and they were really fortunate to team up with Participant Media, and their direction, their goal was “this has to stand up on its own.” In fact, they looked at the original budget and said, “This isn’t enough.”
Kristi Jacobson: They upped our budget! How often does that happen? That’s where those beautiful aerial shots came from. And because we had amazing cinematographers [Daniel B. Gold and Kirsten Johnson], we were enabled to reach our potential as filmmakers and hopefully serve the issue well. We also did a lot of research but we never said at the beginning, “we have all the answers, let’s go find the stories that reveal that.” It was in fact the opposite. And that I think is the most important process of any filmmaking journey. A case in point would be Barbie [a young single mother of two from Philadelphia, who is one of the main subjects of the film]. The unexpected twists and turns that her life took enabled us to pay attention to a real problem in our federal safety net in terms of how it addresses people who are trying to get out of poverty, but because of how the events happened in her life we were able to explore that organically.
Tom Colicchio: Also when you’re allowed three years to explore the issue and make the film, it gives you time to weave those stories together.
Kristi Jacobson: Yes, time makes the difference.
What is the process of finding and choosing your subjects? I’m also wondering where the line between filmmaker and, well, human being becomes blurred, or perhaps merges. I’m thinking in particular about Barbie here: how and when do you remain a neutral lens? When and how do you intervene, if at all?
Kristi Jacobson: There were times in the making of this film that were extraordinarily difficult because capturing someone’s struggle on film is not an easy thing to do. We believe and feel as filmmakers, and certainly in our relationships that we built over time with the subjects in the film, is that their courage in sharing their stories, which at times means sharing a lot of vulnerability and emotional turmoil, that at the end of the day we are hopeful this will have an impact and that we together are working towards that goal. But you know, we’re humans, and certainly responded as any human would in those situations at times.
Lori Silverbush: It was really hard. It was really upsetting. I’d be lying if I said we kept this journalistic distance at all times. We knew our subjects well enough to know that if we did help out, it wasn’t going to compromise their integrity and it certainly wasn’t going to change the story we had to tell, because the little bit we could help wasn’t going to change their lives enough to rob us of our story. I don’t think anybody would be able to see a woman with two children who has nothing, literally not a scrap of food in the house, and say, “Well, good, we got our shot” and leave.
Kristi Jacobson: And we discussed it a lot. At the end of the day, we did what we felt was right.
Lori Silverbush: And we were grateful that they let us. The way our country talks about it, sadly, it’s humiliating and shameful for people even if they had nothing to do with bringing it about. So we felt a lot of gratitude that people allowed us to witness such a vulnerable and painful moment. We decided to not let it go to waste either, we were really going to turn it into something that would hopefully turn it into a lasting policy to change that situation. We found our characters through any means possible: we were in touch with the people who are at the frontlines of working on ending hunger because they have the most direct contact with the people going to the food pantries and soup kitchens. We met people all across the country whose stories, sadly, we couldn’t tell. We badly wanted to include the issue of senior hunger, which is a major crisis right now. We wanted to show Native American hunger. But we simply did not have the ability to get their stories in there.
You’d need many more, separate films to capture all that, I’m sure.
Kristi Jacobson: Absolutely. And there were times when we thought, ”We have to get all this in there!”
Lori Silverush: It was so hard to strike a balance, and we certainly regret the stories we couldn’t show. We only had 82 minutes to tell a very, very broad and complex story.
Kristi Jacobson: An important part of the process was getting out there. It begins with research and conversation. Then it was about spending time – we observed and filmed many people, going to gatherings, understanding the issues that many courageous men and women were dealing with. You can’t write what we found until you’re on the ground. We also both felt because of the vulnerability and because of the shame associated with the issue and the courage of the people who shared, you feel an obligation to get it right.
PopMatters: Tell me about the quick clip from Top Chef in the film. It’s the only direct reference to our nation’s obsession with food and cooking-based reality shows. That particular episode featured contestants trying to - and many failing miserably - cooking nutritious school lunches for children using the financial resources provided to schools. For example, the clip portrayed a chef adding 2 pounds of sugar to the pudding she’d made for the children’s dessert and seemingly not understanding why that was problematic.
Lori Silverbush: Well, we obviously had a great opportunity to use footage to point to this national obsession without having to call it out directly. We thought we could economically get some of those things across by using that particular clip, which has a great moment with our friend Gail Simmons. She tells the chef, this is the challenge that people face, to get nutritious food together for this paltry amount of money. The back and forth of people’s reactions lent it self well to the spot that we had, and that’s why we used it because it held a much larger, much more complex truth.
Kristi Jacobson: And the opportunity to inject humor in a documentary is always welcome. We were also able to tell what could have been a much more complicated story that would have taken more time and real estate in the film.
Tom Colicchio: Also, it calls attention to the problems with the school lunch program. That’s what it was really there for.
Tom, you speak in the film about your upbringing, in particular, your mother and her commitment to feeding not only you but also students in the public schools. How that relationship to food ultimately shaped you as a person and as an advocate for ending hunger in America?
Tom Colicchio: Food was always important growing up. We had to be at the dinner table. It wasn’t an option. Food was my mother’s way of showing she cared for her family and she took a lot of time and effort and pride to make sure we had good food at home. She managed a school cafeteria in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which is a very blue-collar town. We never really knew what she was doing, my brothers and I. We just sort of figured this was her social time, she was getting out of the house, because she didn’t start working until we were young teenagers. We never thought she was actually doing anything noble. It was just a school cafeteria. I went to the school too and I’d see her at lunchtime and she’d complain about work, you know.
It wasn’t until we tried to get her to retire, though, that I really began to understand. I sat her down one day, and I said, “Ma, you know, this house is paid for”—my father had passed away long before and she had a pension – “you don’t have to work anymore.” And she said, “No, I have a few more years left. For a lot of the kids who are coming into my cafeteria for breakfast and lunch, I know this is the only thing they’re going to get to eat today. And I have to fight just to get fruits and vegetables in this lunchroom, and I know if I’m gone, that’s it, it’s going to go completely institutional.” And it has. When she said that it was like a thunderbolt, like jeez, I never thought that what she was doing was connecting with kids on a nutritional level and that she really cared about this. And this got me thinking about the school lunch program in general and what effect that has on kids in need. Just knowing how much she cared about this, yeah, it definitely left a huge impression me.
Lori Silverbush: Kristi and I were both lucky enough to grow up in families where our parents prioritized getting us healthy food. I never realized until I made this film how much I took it for granted and how it had given me such a tremendous leg up. We have this cherished American myth of “I did it all myself” and “pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” but millions of people, who do have jobs and do work hard, still have to choose if they can eat that day. You’re a more advantaged American in every way, I think, if you simply get enough to eat, are nourished enough to be able to learn and grow. I was in that category and I’m lucky. I feel a responsibility as someone who did have enough to make sure things change for those who don’t. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Tom Colicchio: And you can’t just pick yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have bootstraps to begin with. That’s why we need to be having this dialogue, and this film hopefully will get people talking, because it needs to happen. It needs to keep happening.
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A Place at the Table is now playing in theaters, on VOD and on i-Tunes everywhere!