Sophie Constantinou (right) films children hungry for enlightenment in a series of webisodes.

De Michiel and Constantinou Offer Food for Thought

Michael Fox December 1, 2010

Helen De Michiel shuddered with impatience at the long documentary haul from conception to completion. We live in a time, though, with a distribution outlet perfectly suited to the wide dissemination of short pieces. Abbreviated production schedules, quicker turnaround, faster impact and response—what’s not to like? So De Michiel partnered with director of photography Sophie Constantinou, co-founder (with Sam Ball and Kate Stilley Steiner) of Citizen Film, on a catalog of webisodes to be followed by a one-hour documentary. The first batch of shorts went live immediately following Thanksgiving weekend; altogether appropriate given their theme is food.

Berkeley’s School Lunch Initiative was created in 2004 to teach children about food by way of integrating gardens, kitchens and classrooms. There’s also the small matter of improving the nutritional value of the food served in the cafeterias, and cajoling and inspiring students to make healthier choices. The working title of the Webisode series is Lunch Love Community: Stories for Changing the Way Our Kids Eat, and six are primed and ready to go out into the world with another half-dozen slated to be finished in the next two months.

Seated around a laptop at Citizen Film’s Mission/Potrero offices with the filmmakers, I recently watched several of the 3–5-minute pieces. De Michiel, who is credited as project creator, producer, writer and director and webisode series co-producer and director, described them as “on-the-go conversation starters” that all sorts of interested parties can not only link to but add to their Web sites. “They’re made to give to people freely, to use in their worlds. It isn’t user-generated content,” De Michiel noted.

The Labor of Lunch, an observational piece that eschewed narration, captured the myriad tasks of food preparation. The Whole World in a Small Seed focused on a single school garden and Flamin’ Hot served up an irreverent glimpse at the adolescent passion for the devil’s own snack, Cheetos.

I was surprised, I confess, that none of the pieces I saw had an overt social-issue message, or exhorted viewers to take action (or even modify their own behavior). That’s not their purpose, I was informed.

“The movement already exists,” explained Constantinou, the project co-producer and Webisode series co-producer and director. “These [shorts] reflect back and give people the tools to get other people on board.” De Michiel added, “The webisodes show us a new liberation in thinking about documentary in a new way, to open up a space [for the viewer], and not give you an either-or: ‘Do I take [the cause] on or not?’”

Clearly, De Michel’s 14 years as the co-director of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture gave her a front-row seat to the Internet’s emergence as an essential weapon in the arsenal of independent film and video makers.  (She recently left NAMAC to return to filmmaking on a fulltime basis.) Of course, we’re still in the early days of digital distribution, when pretty much everything is an experiment and strategies haven’t yet achieved the level of dogma.

“We’re in a lab situation, to see how communicable [this approach] is going to be,” De Michiel admitted. When I raised the question of measuring results in a way that goes beyond hits, she and Constantinou confirmed that that remains to be determined—and that it’s a matter of great interest to lots of people. “That’s a huge deal in the funding community, to figure out the impact,” De Michiel said.

Lunch Love Community is a pretty aggressive foray into the new world of Internet distribution, and one that promises to be an enormous learning experience for its producers. “This [approach] is strategic,” Constantinou said. “In three to five years, this game will have totally changed. This medium will have changed the terms of the content.” She elaborated, “This was a project that lent itself to [webisodes]. It wasn’t a single-character story. It was more of a community story, so the mosaic approach really worked.”

Not so incidentally, the Lunch Love Community segments boast top-notch production values. Sure, we’re talking about professional filmmakers, but the team was particularly insistent about setting their pieces apart from the sea of shoot-and-cut videos on the Web. “We’re getting used to bad filmmaking not upholding the standard,” Constantinou says. Or as De Michiel puts it, “How much craft and 20th-century cinematic passion can we get into this new form?”

At the same time, De Michiel is moving forward with the one-hour documentary about the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative and the various players behind its conception and ongoing success. The doc won’t be an advocacy piece, per se, De Michiel said, but an attempt to explore the question. “How does a community make change from different groups who may be at odds with each other but figure out a way over time?”

The Lunch Love Community webisodes launch publicly Monday, November 29 at www.lunchlovecommunity.org. The filmmakers will also screen them February 13 at the Pacific Film Archive.

Notes from the Underground
Congratulations to Inside Job director Charles Ferguson, the only filmmaker with Bay Area ties to be selected by the screening committee of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to the shortlist of 15 docs competing for the five Oscar nominations.

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