Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Maryland to Montana: Learning from Cafeteria Man

Baltimore. Thanks to shows like The Wire and Homicide, the very name of the city has become a nod to the tough issues facing contemporary American society. So when director of Cafeteria Man Richard Chisolm (who has, among other projects, worked on both of those shows) learned that chef Tony Geraci had been hired to overhaul the Baltimore public school system’s food and nutrition services, he was intrigued.

“I was drawn to the audacious optimism and energy of this guy on paper,” Chisolm says, “and figured it was worth meeting him, etc. if for no other reason than to challenge or affirm my own cynicism about the city I have lived in for 30 years. More than the food aspect, I was interested in the prospect of social change against formidable odds.”

Chisolm’s approach to his material in this, his first independent feature-length documentary as a director, is also audacious and energetic. “I consciously decided to put aside my own expectations and personal agenda with respect to what I'm shooting,” Chisolm says, embracing the synchronicity that led the crew, unable to obtain a sit-down interview with Michelle Obama, to instead get permission to film the First Lady’s meeting with Geraci and a number of other U.S. chefs. “It was a culminating gem of a scene, and much more authentic and meaningful to our film than an interview would have been.” Of the overall process of creating the film, he says, “I was also very driven by my own liberation from the typical tiresome formulas... It was exhilarating to follow a real story without a road map, but also difficult and sometimes stressful. In the end I feel the film has a certain power by embracing the messiness of actuality that is well worth the work and risks. I've always found an improvisational jazz analogy to be mentally useful here in shooting documentaries.”

This audacious energy is music to the ears of people like Bonnie Buckingham, Executive Director of the Missoula Community Food and Agriculture Coalition. When approached by BSDFF to sponsor Cafeteria Man, she saw an opportunity.

Missoula, with its Garden City nickname and bucolic setting, is obviously very different from Baltimore. But both Buckingham and Chisolm hope that Missoula can learn from Cafeteria Man.

“Any audience could then choose to extrapolate those elements that apply to their own communities,” Chisolm says. “But more importantly, they could be inspired to consider the voices of children in making change and see the obvious merit in having visionary change agents like Tony (perhaps home-grown) lead their own efforts. We also tried to truthfully convey how extremely difficult and complex the work can be so that people in a place like Missoula would be prepared for a challenge.”

Buckingham is already working to meet that challenge. There are similarities, as she points out: “a lot of issues with volume and consistency, short growing seasons that don't coincide with the school year... issues of procurement and processing... there are some policy pieces that need to be brought into the schools in order to open them up.” Together with Garden City Harvest, the Food and Agriculture Coalition is not only leading a Q&A session at the festival, but has also arranged meetings between Geraci and key Missoula public school officials.

Challenges aside, “We're very excited that he is coming, he's an incredibly dynamic person with a can-do attitude and we think it'll be a lot of fun,” Buckingham says.

Cafeteria Man will be shown at the Wilma on Thursday, February 23 at 4:45 pm.

Article by BSDFF Promo Team writer Carrie Laben