Synchronicity and Serendipity: Director Tomas Reyes Discusses Documentary, 'Beyond Food'

(still from trailer)

Reyes talks with PopMatters about the motivations and ambitions for creating Beyond Food and the evolution of American attitudes toward food and health.

Beyond Food

Director: Tomas Reyes Varela
Cast: Tomas Reyes
US Release date: 2017-07-18

Beyond Food (2017) follows chef Tomas Reyes and his co-director Juan Paredes on a journey across the US to challenge mainstream health advice. Their road trip is documented through in-depth interviews with a diverse group of people, including amongst others: Big wave surfer Laird Hamilton, actress Mariel Hemingway, businessman and author David Asprey, President and founder of Biocybernaut Institute, Inc Dr. James V. Hardt, neurochemist Steven Fowkes, neuropsychologist Mario Martinez and physician, exercise physiologist and health strategist Dr. Justin Mager. In citing its challenge, Beyond Food paints a picture of individual empowerment through food and a broader healthy lifestyle.

Private chef and founder of Delicious Thought, Reyes also serves as Director of Research and Content for a Think Tank exploring regenerative practices in agriculture, food production, soil management, medicine and ecological anthropology. In conversation with PopMatters, he discusses the motivations and ambitions for the documentary, while reflecting on the evolution of attitudes towards health that have led to an individual freedom to pursue a creative lifestyle.

What was the motivation behind the documentary?

We had a very clear motivation to tell a complete story of what amazing health looks like today in the US, or at least attempt to do that. The specific goal was to move the conversation of most food and health documentaries away from pushing the dietician agenda, or scaring the audience one more time. Instead, it was to paint a picture of how there is this group of very different people living amazingly healthy lives, and each with their own unique approach.

There is only one health, yet it is so individual because it feels very similar to each one of us. When you feel healthy you don't feel tired, you're not sick and you don't have brain fog. There are all these similarities of what it feels to be healthy, but creating that level of health for each one of us is completely different. I'm sure your health is completely different to my health, and so is the way we get there. From the beginning that was the main driving force.

I've perceived a shift in the emphasis placed on a healthy diet and lifestyle over the years, and there's now a growing focus to create a conversation around mental health, which is impacted by lifestyle choices. How do you think the social perception towards health has changed over recent decades?

Dramatically! I think we've changed so much as a society, and even globally from what we experienced at the end of the 20h century, to where we are now. That goes along with the story of the documentary, which is called Beyond Food, because if you want to experience amazing health, then you don't just eat well. Some people are obsessed with pushing one diet and saying that’s what makes you healthy. But as you were saying, being healthy has to do with your mental and emotional health.

I feel it's part of a global movement of reconnecting with nature and cycles, and having a more dynamic relationship with our life as opposed to a cookie cutter relationship. This is what we saw happen in the second half of the 20th century, where the majority of people had nine to five jobs, were subject to a certain lifestyle and if you were different, you were either a rock star or some maverick crazy person. Today I feel there's a little more acceptance and people are more open to being free, creating their own lifestyle and managing their own time -- being a little more creative with their own life. I feel having that brings a tremendous amount of pleasure, as opposed to having something that is more rigid and imposed.

Picking up on your use of the word pleasure, my own pursuit of a healthier lifestyle has led me to realise that a more proactive engagement with food, health, and lifestyle can be a source of pleasure. This is something I sense in others who spend time cooking and preparing their own food rather than buying processed meals. Yet is there still a stigma attached to a healthy lifestyle that goes beyond food?

Absolutely, and because we are complete hybrids and there's no diet for every single one of us. This is exactly the point that we are trying to communicate. I'm a multicultural and genetic hybrid; we are all mixed and live in different places. We travel around the world and therefore our gut bacteria gets inoculated with all these different foods from around the world.

The first documentaries like Food, Inc. (2008) were so important. If people haven't seen that they must watch it because it exposes the reality of feedlot meat production in the US, which is completely unacceptable in my view. It's slavery and it's damaging to the lives of the animals and the environment -- the same for agriculture.

But essentially there's a journey, a sense of adventure in the discovery of your own health that's filled with pleasure. If you start experimenting and you move away from the fear of, Oh my God, I need to do this diet and you just listen to how your body feels, because if I feel bloated or I wake up and I feel tired, then I'm not going to eat that again. But if you're not experimenting, then you're not having fun.

Once you start replacing all that fear and judgment with curiosity, and you are able to enjoy the process, then I'm sure if you have tried Paul, you discover levels of mental clarity or lightness, physical strength or energy that you didn't know you had. It’s like someone Photoshopped reality. There’s so much more contrast and saturation, where everything looks or feels more lively. But there’s a lot of work to do in that department to take the conversation to a higher level.

In UK state schools, foreign languages are only taught in secondary education, as is cooking. I often question why neither are a part of a primary education curriculum, as these are the ideal years to learn a language and begin experimenting with food.

I grew up in Paris, and the best memories I have from childhood are those three weeks of the year around May to June when we’d travel somewhere in France. We would have half a day of class and half a day of discovering the local crafts and food, the landscape and the farms, how ingredients were grown and cheeses were made, or even how to sail. Those are some of my most precious memories from elementary school. They definitely marked me and were fun times when I reconnected with nature.

It's in our relationship as human beings to nature that we create beautiful things. Nature doesn't make a spectacular meal, that's what we humans do. Nature provides the amazing ingredients, the raw material.

Looking back on the experience of making Beyond Food, how did your expectations compare to the realties of the experience?

Well, we didn't really have specific expectations other than our overarching objectives. It was a project that started and was driven by synchronicity and serendipity. I was in New York doing research on food and health, and my co-director Juan was in LA doing research on biohacking. We met in LA and thought, no one is telling this story that is so important -- we need to do this now. He had just divorced and I was ready to leave New York, so we thought: Lets do it, and so we started e-mailing and calling all the people we had been researching.

If we had planned it and fundraised, then it would probably not have worked out as well or gone as smoothly with everyone we wanted to talk to. We were curious what they had to say about how they create amazing health, and they said: “Yeah, come on over. Let's sit down.” We had great conversations and the challenge in terms of expectations was that we expected the editing of the documentary to be easier. We had 40 hours of footage with 30 people, and only 12 people made it to the final cut in order for us tell this story the right way. So I could do it again and I do hope to continue with this work, and there will probably be other series' rather than just this one documentary.

Have you observed any geographical patterns to the ideas or attitudes towards food and health across the US?

Well, we in a way skipped the Midwest, which is the area that's more famous for not having such great food, or being so health driven. So we were mostly in New York and West Palm Beach, Miami on the East Coast, Montreal, Canada, then Seattle, San Francisco, LA, and Phoenix. What was interesting was we went to Idaho to visit this grass-fed beef ranch, which was fascinating because those ranchers are foresters by trade, who then became ranchers. They wanted to create a classic beef ranch that was as wild as possible. Over the years they've changed the way they raise their cows, letting the cows choose which grass to graze on -- they are 100 percent grass fed. It 's such a beautiful ecosystem and when you see that, you realise what's wrong with feedlots, which is the other extreme.

On the road, it's very challenging to eat the way you want, and you have to step up and remind yourself that you can ask for certain things, and make choices that are good for you. But it was a journey and an adventure, and there was nothing else going on in our lives so we would sometimes choose not to stop at a restaurant on the freeway, but stop at a supermarket and buy some ingredients and improvise a salad. It was all very dynamic and in the US in general, there's a beautiful movement to reconnect with good food -- seasonal ingredients, local organic food or even bio-dynamic vegetables that is so important for this country. I know the mainstream population in the middle of the US and some other places are still struggling, but that's always changing, and I'm very optimistic about it.

You speak of the film as a journey. What are your hopes for the film as it engages with an audience?

Firstly, I hope the documentary is an inspiration, and it has been an inspiration for many people in terms of being a breath of fresh air. The question everyone is left with is: ‘So what do I do now?’ My invitation is for the audience to see that you don't have to look outside and ask for some guru to tell you what to eat, but rediscover your own relationship with your food. Clearly, there are a few base elements you need to research and to learn why you shouldn't eat this or that, but we live in an amazing time in which knowledge is vast.

There are so many people doing great work not only with food but in science, making discoveries about the human body. It’s a fascinating time to be alive and it’s also a time of personal empowerment when you can know all about food, make your own choices and order amazing ingredients online -- it's just a click. It’s not only a growing knowledge of the foods that are going to help you support your health. Moving forward it's this exploration -- because it's accelerating the discovery of science -- that's reconnecting with nature and ancient knowledge. It's a great story, and there's so much education and exciting work to be done around the subject.

Beyond Food is available on VOD courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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