Asked by Kevin Stringer in FilmmakingDocumentary FilmsAsk Me AnythingCelebrities
Answers with Lesley Chilcott?
September 10, 2019 8:35PM
What does a documentary mean to you personally?
I think now-a-days a documentary can be anything. When I was younger, I saw a documentary called Cane Toads and it was this hilarious doc about how these Cane Toads were brought in to solve an over population of the cane beetle in Australia. What happened was the cane toads started replicating at such a fast rate that little girls started adopting them as pets, as did others. They started growing to this enormous size and they started taking over. It was this human introduced element to the area that ended up not solving the problem at all and created a whole other problem. The beetle was infiltrating sugar cane so someone got this idea from another country but instead they over multiplied and became this whole disaster problem on their own. So, it was so funny and so strange because I didn't know documentaries could be like that. It really affected me because I was like "Wow vérité is great and vérité is what makes great documentaries but you can do reenactments, you can follow crazy people around, you can tell stories that I would have never known about, like the Cane Toad story." ...And that opened up a whole world to me. I feel like documentaries now can be about anything. We are seeing so many inventive documentaries especially in the last 5 years.
So it seems like you're sticking with the "women empowerment" theme. Is that a coincidence, or is there a reason you're attracted to this theme?
It's mostly a coincidence. I had been researching the Technovation for the last two years and I thought about covering it last year, but when I learned about the ASOMOBI women, I jumped on that. This being Technovation's fifth year, I wanted to cover the contest. So it could be a coincidence; however, 2014 seems to be the year of the woman in terms of statistics and studies being released on how many women there are in engineering, Fortune 500 companies, even filmmaking. There are all these wonderful articles, and on good days I feel like we've made so much progress. Yet, when you look at the numbers closely, especially in certain fields, we haven't made as much progress as we would like. I think it's an excellent theme.
Who teaches them to code?
There are regional and local mentors and teachers. So some of them are computer science teachers and some are local engineers and leaders from high tech startups and other companies that are recruited by Technovation. They learn on a program called App Inventor that was designed by MIT Media lab specifically for people who don't know how to program, so it teaches you that from scratch.
Do you have any new documentaries in the works?
I'm starting a new documentary in January and it is tentatively called #GirlsinTech. It follows groups of high school girls from around the world while they compete in this competition called Technovation. Technovation is where you form teams of 4 or 5 girls and you get three months to create an app that solves a problem in your local community. So last year a team from Moldova won, and no one from Moldova had ever even participated before. They created an app that helped track Hepatitis A in the local water supply. Every year girls from all over come up with these incredibly creative apps that solve a problem. A lot of girls in high school think they can't computer program and they learn how to do that during the competition. They learn how to create something that other people can use that solves a problem and in the process...they are transformed. They learn they can do things that they thought they couldn't do...they learn they can have a lot of influence, they can change things. When you're 16 years old, you don't have a lot of control over your life and this is one way to have more control. I think it will make an interesting story.
September 10, 2019 4:59PM
Speaking of, what are 3 documentaries that you think everyone should see within their lifetime?
So many great ones so I'll have to go with what I'm feeling today. Today, I would say 3 very important documentaries to me are "Salesman" which was what many consider to be the first documentary by the Maysels. "The Thin Blue Line" for its inventiveness...that was the first time I had seen reenactments and original scene filming. And then there's a documentary that's out this year that for me is nearly a perfect film. It is called "The Overnighters" and hopefully people will hear a lot more about this film. The director went and embedded himself in Willitston, North Dakota and stayed there off and on for a year and filmed everything that was going on with an oil boom and how it affected everyone, good and bad. He really was there long enough that people forgot that he was there and "The Overnighters" is literally about everything. It's an amazing film.
What do you like to do when you take time off from directing?
I'm trying to spend a week more each year in Costa Rica. We have a small tree farm there and I am able to learn more about the local community and the land and the life of various trees. I am able to have a little bit more time for writing, which is what I do on the side.
Where does your passion for directing documentaries stem from?
My passion for documentaries comes from back in my early production days. I produced TV commercials (and now I direct them to support my documentary habit) and I would make PSAs (public service announcements) from time to time. They were very rewarding because you would use the same creative skills to work towards something good or to tell an important message or story. From here I transitioned into documentaries. What is particularly rewarding for me is that you get to spend time with people you wouldn't normally get to spend time with. You learn about different communities and cultures. You earn the trust of the subjects that you are interviewing. And once you've had the experience of being able to share someone's truth, it can be a political story or a non-political story, but once you've been able to share their passion, their story or their ideas, you see how rewarding an experience it is. Being able to tell stories in this way is very fulfilling because you're able to share something from someone that maybe they didn't have the opportunity to share, or maybe they were afraid to share, or maybe they didn't realize their same issue is being faced by so many other people in the world. Once you're able to do that, it becomes very addictive.
September 10, 2019 4:57PM
Your documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" calls on viewers to act together to solve the crisis of global warming. What are 3 ways you strive to combat global warming throughout your everyday life?
I try to do little and big things. I think the best thing you can do is to think of every dollar you spend as a vote. I try and purchase products with the least amount of packaging as possible, I drive a hybrid, and for the most part my husband and I share one car. I am a vegetarian because your food consumption is one of the biggest ways you can contribute to reducing global warming. This is because meat production tends to be not only hard on animals but wasteful and much more polluting than when whole grains and vegetables are farmed instead.
In your opinion, how can a cup of coffee transform a life?
As I made the film I actually kept saying, "Can a cup of coffee really change a life?" and I think a cup of coffee really can transform a life. If you think about how many people picked the coffee, sorted the coffee, processed the coffee (which is removing the pulp and separating it into the coffee beans), dried the coffee, took the outer layer off the coffee, roasted the coffee, exported the coffee, or in some cases shipped the coffee and then it was roasted at the local roaster... there's just so many people who are touching your coffee before it gets to you and the majority of them are women. We were joking around in the edit that we were going to call it the quiet revolution of women in coffee, because you know the women of ASOMOBI are just one of many stories like this. There are women in Burundi, in Kenya, in India, and in Brazil who are all doing the same thing. So it's kind of this quiet movement among women that is happening.
What did you learn when directing "A Small Section of the World"?
I learned about this wonderful group of entrepreneurial women at ASOMOBI whom I had not known before. I also learned a tremendous amount about coffee. I didn't know that 125 million people around the world rely on making coffee (and 500 million work in the industry as a whole). I also didn't know that 70% of those are women and when women are able to learn to negotiate prices for themselves, or how to grow higher quality coffee, or they take a position of leadership anywhere along the chain -- it becomes a direct route to betterment for them. Women reinvest 90% back into their families and their community whereas men reinvest about 40%.
What process did you go through when directing "A Small Section of the World"?
My husband and I have a small farm in Costa Rica so when I first heard about these women I thought, "Oh my gosh, they're going to be near us in Costa Rica!" But it turns out they are 8 hours away. If you ask your average Costa Rican where the village of Biolley is, no one knows, so it's that remote. They're not going to know where it is until you say it's in the Talamanca Mountains, it's in the Buenos Aires area, it's next to La Amistad National Park...then people realize where it is. The process was interesting for me because it was in Costa Rica and I spend a lot of time there, so I had a certain comfort level even though I didn't know the area. A big part of the process for me is forming a bond with the people I'm filming. Getting them to trust me so that they will tell me not just their successes but their failures along the way. I was concerned because my Spanish is so limited that it would be hard for me to rely on an interpreter and I found out once I spent some time building trust that it ended up not making a difference. They told me their truths and they shared their individual stories and that was really rewarding because that had been a concern for me. And they are taking English lessons now and I am taking Spanish lessons.
It is inspiring to see the mothers of ASOMOBI pass their skills and resourcefulness along to their daughters. How do you think the ASOMOBI women will transform coffee culture in future generations?
I heard about the project last year in October and realized that it was coffee picking season...so I thought if we're going to do this we need to do it right now. So I actually was shooting on the East coast and hopped on a plane with my cameraman and headed straight to Costa Rica. My husband, who acted as our translator, and producer met us down there and we drove to this very remote area. On my first trip, we got up at 5:00 in the morning and went out in the fields with the pickers and it was amazing how fast their hands move and how fast they can pick this coffee. We learned that you pick the coffee cherries when they're bright red and I did a quick survey of friends and colleagues and asked who knew that a red cherry contains two coffee beans? Except for one or two people, hardly anyone had an idea that coffee came from a cherry that grows on a tree. And then I started thinking how separated we are from where our food comes from. It is a staple for many people to have 2 or 3 cups of coffee a day and they aren't aware of the work that goes into it. Of that work that goes into it, they don't know how much of that work is done by women. Worldwide 70% of the work is done by women. These women at ASOMOBI decided to put themselves in positions of power. Instead of just doing the physical work, they decided to own the mill and to export the coffee and to sell the coffee directly. Within a very short amount of time they reinvested the money back into their families and their local community. On my first trip down there I met Samanta, who was a daughter of one of the early associates. She was buzzing around with her computer and I said "What are you doing?" and she said, "I am doing my college thesis on ASOMOBI. This is where I want to work when I have my degree." So she embodied the goals of all that the women were trying to do...make a better life for their kids and send them to college. And now, Samanta graduated last month on November 7th and she's running the mill at ASOMOBI.
September 10, 2019 4:54PM
"A Small Section of the World" explores the ASOMOBI women of Costa Rica and their involvement in global coffee production. Can you explain what exactly the ASOMOBI coffee cooperative is for those of us unfamiliar with the program?
ASOMOBI is an association of 30 women in the Talamanca Mountains in Costa Rica. They formed this association in the 90's after a coffee crisis. The price of coffee actually fell below what it costs to farm the coffee, so a lot of the farmers abandoned the fields and all the men left the village in search of work. Some went to the USA, some went to Nicaragua, some went to San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica) and the women were left there with their kids. They thought "Okay what are we going to do? Do we wait for money to come in the mail? Or...we all grew up around coffee--what if we could figure out a way to grow higher quality coffee? What if we build our own coffee mill so that we don't have to rely on other millers and then we can command a higher price?" A lot of the men initially were not supportive of this but the women knew that they had to do something and so they decided to form this group. They said, "We could sew. But what are we going to do with the sewing circles? The nearest store is an hour away." So they decided let's teach people how to grow higher quality coffee. So that's what they did and they failed at first. Before the mill, they had a small roaster. They burnt the coffee the first time they tried to roast. Then, the first coffee beans that they dried themselves was full of mold and they had to throw it all away. And they just kept trying and trying and they got more educated as well. And finally a couple of years later they were ready with their first batch of coffee that they thought was good. Grace Mena had been helping and training them, she is the female exporter in the film, and she educated them. Later, she took their coffee and sold it to illy caffe in Italy. So, they never gave up and they have been selling to illy and continuing to improve ever since.
September 10, 2019 4:53PM
Why is "A Small Section of the World" a must-see for both men and women?
I am glad that this question exists because reading that the film is about women's empowerment, it may not come to mind for men to jump in and to see this film. But from screening this film in Costa Rica and many places in the US, and even Dubai now, men are just as moved by women when they see this film. When I was trying to come up with a title, we were joking around and someone said "Are you going to call it #WomenWhoHateMen?" And I said no, because almost all of the men that initially left the village in ASOMOBI have come back and they are now very much a part of the association. The whole community has changed and grown because the ASOMOBI women built their micro mill on top of the hill and started buying coffee from all the local farmers in the film, so men seem to be equally affected and inspired by the film.