[22 April 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Nearly every produce vendor I met was a first generation immigrant. They were an amazing array of ethnicities and cultures—the United Nations of vendors.
“This is an American story,” narrates Edward Norton at the start of The Apple Pushers. What makes it American, he explains over images of New York City streets, is its focus on two vexing issues, immigration and obesity, issues that are bound up in that most perennial of American fixations, money.
Mary Mazzio’s documentary—screening as part of the Do Something Reel Film Festival—focuses on five immigrants whose pursuit of the American Dream has led them to fruits and vegetables. Specifically, they sell fresh produce from street carts, their opportunity the result of a city health department initiative, an initiative that on its face seemed smart and righteous, but one that ran into objections by city council members. Namely, John C. Liu, who makes an appearance here in an effort to justify a position the film plainly rejects.
Liu’s inclusion potentially makes The Apple Pushers an odder and more complicated film than its broad outlines suggest. The council members who support the initiative make something of an obvious case, that the rise of American food deserts is damaging not only for the poor individuals and communities who don’t have access to affordable healthy food, but also for the broader US economy and social fabric. Unhealthy populations drain resources when they’re in need of care, due to their lifelong exposure to “too much bad food and mind-bending amounts of cholesterol.”
The film doesn’t get into debates over health care and the insurance industry, but they’re part of the intersecting equations; neither does it engage precent studies that question common wisdom concerning food deserts. Rather, it makes the argument that increasing obesity in the US results from the glut of fast food joints and scarcity of grocery stores, especially in poor neighborhoods (not to mention the marketing campaigns that ensure McDonald and Dunkin’ Donuts prominent placement in consumers’ minds).
The film pairs this argument with another one, that immigrants—documented and not—are not only typical members of the populations afflicted by food deserts, but also that they’re an ideal means to address that affliction. Conscientious and ambitious, they’re a resource instead of a liability, eager to improve the lots of their families and their communities.
The immigrants who tell their stories in The Apple Pushers are exemplary good citizens and hard workers (and hardly need the narrator’s clichéd phrasing: “These are the harsh realities immigrants face to make it in America”). They follow the rules, they do their best to collaborate with surrounding (and competing) businesses, they’re parents and providers and, in the case of Jake, an Iraq war veteran. To support the case, the film makes assorted appeals—emotional and intellectual—and deploys an array of beautifully composed images (bright green apples and super-red strawberries in tantalizing close-ups, terrific handheld shots of vendors on streets or on the boardwalk in Staten Island) as well as expert talking heads.
It also makes clear what’s wrong with the counterargument, courtesy of John Liu. His presentation characterizes the “circular” thinking of the anti-green carts position, there’s no demand for fresh produce but if more fresh produce is offered y the cart vendors, they’ll compete with the fixed site vendors. Combine this illogic with the familiar presumption that “poor people are too stupid” to understand the value of healthy food, and you see how the US food industry has evolved over time, its focus on profits trumping all else.
As Liu fails to make his case convincingly, he allows viewers another sort of confirmation: government (at least as this city councilman, in 2008, represents it) creates problems rather than solving them. Of course, the good council people, like Christine C. Quinn, and pro-green carts speakers at the hearings, like NYC Food Policy Coordinator Ben Thomases, and the NYC Coalition Against Hunger’s Joel Berg, indicate the ways government can actually benefit constituents.
The film cuts back and forth between the city council machinations (“City council meetings are not for the faint of heart,” notes Norton) and the vendors’ own experiences. After watching the council members snipe at one another about drinking too Starbucks, it’s hard not to be moved by Sarahi’s description of her difficult passage from Mexico (she was briefly caught on a border fence, and frightened when her fellow travelers “took off running”) and Gloria’s recollection of how painful it was to leave her children behind in Ecuador.
As these stories lack illustrative footage or photos, the film provides some occasionally odd filler: animated dollars falling from a bright blue sky or a clip from a Georges Méliès film to help with Sarahi’s hopeful description of her destination as a “princess’ castle,” an actor mimes Jake’s father’s description of a local bully as a “Mafia guy,” and Shaheen is introduced by way of grainy TV footage showing badminton, the career he wanted to pursue while a boy back in Bangladesh.
Such imagery, however distracting or incidental, underscores the variety of the vendors’ experiences. And that’s the most resonant point of The Apple Pushers, that differences, not conformity, produce the most vibrant communities.