Interview: Sandy McLeod on “Seeds of Time”

Posted on May 19, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Copyright Kino Lorber 2014
Copyright Kino Lorber 2014

Seeds of Time is a documentary that seems like a terrifying science fiction story. It is about the efforts of Cary Fowler, funded by Bill Gates, to find, preserve, and store seeds from plants necessary for all life forms on the planet, as over 90 percent of the plant species we use for food have become extinct in the last century. For the best and worst reasons, most of our food now comes from modified plants (and the animals who eat them), created to be more efficient to grow and ship — and to be able to be patented and thus a better investment for agribusiness.

Seeds of Time is in some theaters now, and anyone can bring a screening to any community via Theatrical On Demand film distribution service Gathr®, which is free if it “tips,” meaning enough tickets are reserved.

I spoke to director Sandy McLeod about the film.

How did you come to this project?

I had been sent an article that was in the New Yorker by two friends and I was reading it one morning at breakfast. My husband was on the speaker phone and I’m reading about Cary Fowler and I hear my husband talking to a guy named Cary on the phone and I don’t really think much it. But I read a line in the article that says Cary Fowler was given $30 million to collect the seeds through the Gates Foundation and I hear my husband ask this person on the phone. How much were you given by the Gates Foundation? And I hear the person on the other end say “$30 million.” And when my husband hang up the phone I said, “Was that Cary Fowler by any chance?” and he said, “Yeah, how did you know?” So I ask my husband if he could introduce me to Cary and that summer I read Cary’s book which is called Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity/. I realized that there are so many things in that book that I had no clue about even though at I’m a foodie and I know quite a lot about food, and it is of fundamental to having an intelligent conversation about the status of the food system today. And so I went to Memphis and I interviewed Cary and he really blew my mind. I realized that if this was something that people really need to know about in order to have an intelligent conversation about food and that I was going to learn along with my audience. So I felt like I was a good guinea pig for them.

The extinction statistics are staggering. How do you respond to people who say, “Well, that’s Darwinism. It’s just natural selection, right?”

It’s not in this case because we actually domesticated those plants and we ate those plants and we had tremendous diversity and a lot of different kinds of fruit and vegetables that we no longer have. In fact 93% of all the fruit and vegetables that were in the United States in the last 80 years has gone extinct. So that is huge, that’s a tremendous number and with agriculture now facing so many difficulties including limited lands, limited water, low availability of fertilizers, population expansion, and now climate change, having lost that diversity means that there are less tricks in the tool bag to let genetics be able to give to the farmers to work with to have a radish that’s going to survive, to have heat tolerance or drought resistance or all the things that farmers are starting to feel in terms of what’s happening with the climate. So that loss would have continued if Cary hadn’t done what he did. It’s an ongoing battle. Seed banks are still becoming extinct and if they’re not backed up, those seeds will go with them.

The scenes in the seed storage facility between Norway and the North Pole were like something out of a James Bond movie. What was it like to film there?

Well, it was very cold there. It was 50 below and 30 below in the vault. and I didn’t fully appreciate what that would mean. I have a lot of cold weather gear because I’ve shot in a lot of strange places, very cold places but I’ve never really been in any place like that. It’s very other wordly. It’s ironic that we store all those seeds up there because nothing could ever really grow up there. There’s a very short season where it’s day all the time and then the rest of the year starts again and it is very, very cold. And in my exuberance as soon as I go there I wanted to go to the seed vault and I jumped out of the car and ran up the hill and found a shot that I wanted to get and I very quickly realized that my nose hurt. I didn’t have anything on my face. You have to cover everything up. You can’t really run around in those kinds of temperatures. And it was funny because when we went into the seed vault which is 30 below it actually felt really warm to me. If you decide you’re going to shoot outdoors you have to stay outdoors all day because once you bring the cameras in they have to go through a thawing process and the lenses fog up. But we were lucky in a way that we’re in a modern enough time where we weren’t shooting film, because the film can break under those conditions. Also, it’s a really expensive of place to be. All the food that’s there has to be brought in and hotels are really expensive there so we couldn’t really stay there very long but we ran around as much as we could, while we could.

Your opening shot is so beautiful. It really invites you into the film even though it’s going to be a scary and disturbing stories. So tell me a little bit about the cinematography.

I come from a feature film background. I used to do continuity on feature films and I’ve worked with a lot of great cinematographers. And so I’ve learned what good lighting looks like and how to frame the shot. One of the biggest problems I had on this film was that I couldn’t have the same cinematographer with me all the time. I worked with lots of different people, so I had to keep trying to keep the look unified. It was really challenging but so far most people don’t seem to notice that. And because it’s about seeds, first of all I wanted people to see how beautiful seeds can really be because they’re so tiny we don’t really look at them. These two guys in London did a beautiful book of photography on seeds and I had seen it and they let me use some of those images in the film. They’re amazing when you look at them and, they are beautifully engineered, they have incredible subtlety and nuance and diversity. So finding things like that to shoot was really, really fun and we went to a lot of great locations. Peru is a beautiful country and the Peruvian farmers are incredibly beautiful people. They dress up in their indigenous gear and they look phenomenal in the film. And we were shooting in the Sacred Valley, which is a very lush mountainous part of Peru and which is incredibly photogenic. We were lucky and the film lends itself to lots of lush imagery.

How has working on the film changed the way that you shop?

I eat a lot more fruits and vegetables now than I ever had and I really look for things that were unusual. I’m interested in tasting new things. I’ve always been pretty healthy eater, except probably when I was in my teens. But I appreciate diversity in the supermarket now more than I ever have and I also appreciate what the farmer does more than I ever have. I really do appreciate actually having a relationship with someone that I know who’s growing my food.
It’s something really…that feels really connected to me and I like knowing what can grow seasonally where I lived and when it becomes available. Even though I live in the city, I live in a loft so I do grow some herbs on my fire escape. At least I can participate in that way and know what’s sort of growing around me. I think it’s healthier to do that.

How do you think of the people who were in their 20s today see these issue different than the last generation?

I have godsons in their 20s, and they are really much more interested in the land and their food, than I was when I was their age. Even though I was interested in it I was, I mean, I would go to the health food store and that sort of thing. One of them is taking a permaculture in class now. One of them has to come a really good chef and is interested in this new ideas of more nutrition per acre and how acre and how do you that instead of being so concerned about yield per acre. So I think that they are more aware because they see the issues that they’re about to confront. There are economic issues, though, too. I mean the whole farmers market phenomenon and I know that’s a certain…it has a certain…I know that Walmart is sourcing a lot more food locally and trying to make organic food more readily available. We need to have more democracy in our food. Consumers can help drive that. I know a lot of the big companies are trying to make healthier products now they see that they sell and that people are making a lot of money on this stuff. So I don’t think most people realize how powerful their dollars are and they can cast a vote on the food that they want by not buying what they don’t want to eat. And I know that their people who don’t know we have that choice because they’re in a hurry and they don’t have time to think about it. I think we should be responsible about what we do because it definitely influences the powers that be. They’re in the business of selling things and if they can’t sell them they’re not going to make them. So we can help drive that.

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Directors Documentary Environment/Green Interview

Movies for Earth Day 2015

Posted on April 22, 2015 at 8:00 am

Celebrate Earth Day with some of these great films about our planet, its beauties and its challenges:

1. An Inconvenient Truth Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary makes a powerful case for the dire effects of climate change — and an even more powerful case for our ability to prevent more damage before it is too late.

2. Crude from director Joe Berlinger, shows the complexity of the legal issues surrounding international environmental exploitation.

3. Flow: How did a handful of corporations steal our water? The California drought makes this compelling documentary about corporate payoffs and abuses essential viewing. Director Irena Salina told me: “the World Bank knows how to spend $100 million but it does not know how to spend $1000 a million times. For me, that is the essence of the problem. That could not describe better what I’ve seen around the world.” You will never want to buy bottled water again.

4. Silent Running Douglas Trumbull, who created the special effects for “Star Wars,” “Blade Runner,” and many other movies, directed this outer-space story about a botanist caring for the last remnants of plant life from Earth. It features three of the most adorable robots in movie history, named after Donald Duck’s nephews: Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

5. Dora the Explorer – Save the Mermaids Even the youngest children can learn the importance of caring for our planet and there is no better way to begin than this Dora story about saving mermaid friends from a garbage-dumping octopus.


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Environment/Green For Your Netflix Queue

Interview: Jean-Michel Cousteau of “Secret Ocean 3D”

Posted on April 2, 2015 at 3:51 pm

Copyright 2015  3D Entertainment Films
Copyright 2015 3D Entertainment Films

Jean-Michel Cousteau has carried on the legacy of his famous father, Jacques Cousteau, who first allowed the world to see the creatures that live in the water, through deep-sea diving and his pioneering underwater photography. Now his son has used the latest technology to show us another world previously unseen, with tiny animals and colors as bright as any garden in full flower.

I spoke to Cousteau about his latest film, Secret Ocean 3D.

He wanted to work with IMAX 3D, in order “see the behavior of things that I’m flying or swimming over all the time since I started diving when I was seven years old, fifty nine years ago. And I would be very frustrated not to be able to see the behavior of tiny little things. So they put together the prototype cameras which are allowing us now to focus in slow motion on the behavior of small creatures and see what they are doing to feed themselves, protect themselves and be of course in relationship with other creatures. So for me I am now for the first time in my life able to see things on the big screen which I cannot see when I’m under water.”

I was especially fascinated with the tiny animals who look like flowers and the squid who could instantly change color to match the environment. “The flower-like creatures are found mostly in the tropical environment. The beautiful one that you see in the show are in the tropics in the Caribbean and in Fiji. Then there were these beautiful worms which are called Christmas tree worms. The squids were in Southern California. Squids and octopus can change their color, their texture. They have no bones so they are very bendable. They can hide. They are really amazing creatures. The bad news as you probably have heard on the show is that they die every year. After they reproduce they are gone. I am totally convinced that if they didn’t die they probably would run the planet today because they have real brains and are very clever creatures.”

There is a creature that looks like a pile of sticks. In the film, we learn that it has no head or brain but can regenerate its limbs. “We have seen those creatures but usually we don’t see the same one during the day and then come back and see the same one at night. Thanks to science and scientists we are able to learn about these creatures because they capture them and they analyze them. So the instinct that they have to capture food and bring into their mouth when you realize they have no brain is just for me it’s fascinating. I’m just like a kid every time I see them. So we were very patient, we saw it. As a matter of fact we saw two of them during the daytime and we decided, okay we have to wait and come back at night and we did and they were still there. And we were able to film them.”

What surprised me most in the film was the information about the tiniest creatures, plankton, and the part they play in keeping the rest of the world breathing. “Plankton are really the foundation of life in the ocean. And you have two kinds of planktons, the big which you see which are very spectacular, many different types of species and then the tiny little ones which drift. And the big ones are animals. They are called zooplankton. And then the tiny little ones which are plants, they are phytoplankton. Now the zooplankton is feeding on the phytoplankton. They need that to feed themselves and to grow and they are what you call the foundation of all life in the ocean. Without them there would be no life. So being absorbed within the food chain, they migrate towards the surface every day. And they are very very active at night and of course there are a lot of creatures that are coming by and feeding on them, both the plants and animals. And it goes all the way up the food chain all the way to the big creatures whether they are fish or mammals, whales or sea lions or tuna. Totally every creature is dependent on these unbelievable plants and animals which are the foundation of all life in the ocean. As a result of all that about half of the oxygen that is being produced comes from the ocean. And every other breath of air that you take you are getting it thanks to the ocean. So we are totally connected and dependent on the quality of life in the ocean. Unfortunately we didn’t know that before. Now we are learning and we are learning very fast thanks to what I call communication evolution. There are people all over the planet now who are asking questions now about these creatures. We need to learn very quickly and pass on the information to the decision-makers and the future decisions makers which are the children, the young people. They need to understand that we need to stop using the ocean as a garbage can. Because all of that decomposes and it affects the food chain, it affects the plankton, it affects the creatures which are concentrating those chemicals in their system and accumulates them, and concentrates as the creatures are getting bigger and bigger up the food chain. So we are hurting that environment which means we are hurting ourselves. At the end of the day it is not just the fact that we fishing or we catching more than nature can produce. We have learned that a long time ago, we are not hunters and gatherers we are farmers. So we need to do something with the ocean but we cannot farm creatures that are disappearing and you cannot farm in the ocean where you have the storms, hurricanes and so on.”

Jean-Michel told me that his father pushed him into the water with a tank on his back when he was seven and the water is home to him. “He kept telling me, ‘People protect what they love,’ and I kept telling him, ‘How can you protect what you don’t understand?’ So thanks to my dad I have this thirst for discoveries and wanting to protect what we don’t understand.”

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Animals and Nature Directors Documentary Environment/Green Interview

End the Year With Films About Justice

Posted on December 30, 2014 at 8:00 am

Bill Moyers has an excellent list of 2014’s best documentaries about the struggle for justice, covering issues from healthcare to the environment, politics, the collision between national security and privacy, domestic violence, human rights, and marriage equality. All are highly recommended.

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Documentary Environment/Green Lists

Dolphin Tale 2

Posted on September 11, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Copyright Warner Brothers 2014
Copyright Warner Brothers 2014

The warmest, wisest, most pleasurable live-action family film of the year is “Dolphin Tale 2,” even better than the 2011 original. This really is that rare movie for the whole family.

The first film was inspired by the true story of Winter, a rescued dolphin who was able to thrive in Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium after an innovative new prosthetic tail helped to protect her spine and allow her to swim. She has been an inspiration to millions of visitors in person and via webcam, especially to wounded veterans and other adults and children with disabilities. In the original, directed by Charles Martin Smith (Terry the Toad in “American Graffiti” and Farley Mowat in Never Cry Wolf, a sensitive loner named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) bonds first with the wounded dolphin and then with the staff who care for the marine animals, especially aquarium head Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.) and his pretty daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). Ashley Judd played Sawyer’s mother, Kris Kristofferson played Clay’s houseboat-dwelling dad, and Morgan Freeman played crusty Dr. McCarthy, who figures out how to make the prosthetic comfortable and stable.

Everyone returns for this follow-up, and this time Charles Martin Smith does triple duty as writer, director, and actor, appearing as a strict but not unsympathetic USDA official responsible for making sure the facility meets federal standards in caring for the animals.   He may refer to Winter at CMA1108, but he is trying to do what is best for her.

The kids have gone from middle school to high school. They are now experienced marine animal specialists, and spend most of their time at the aquarium, much of that in the water. We see how capable and knowledgeable they are when they assist in the rescue of an injured dolphin they name Mandy and a sea turtle ensnared in fishing line they dub Mavis. And we see how deeply they care for the animals when the veteran of their dolphin population, a 40-year-old deaf dolphin who is “paired” with Winter, dies suddenly. This is more than a sad loss. Dolphins are deeply social creatures. If Winter cannot or is not willing to be be paired with another dolphin, she will die.  The USDA inspector says that if they cannot find a friend for Winter in 30 days, she will have to be moved.

Mandy’s arrival seems providential. But then the best thing happens, which is also the worst thing. They are able to restore Mandy to health.  But that means that she can no longer remain in captivity, which is just for animals who can no longer take care of themselves.  The motto of the facility is three words: rescue, rehabilitate, release.  “You didn’t build this place to keep animals,” Clay’s father reminds him.  “You built it to heal them and let them go.”  The wrenching task of weighing those competing considerations is sensitively presented as a moral issue, an economic issue, and as a part of growing up that Hazel and Sawyer must understand.  It is an issue of more complexity than we normally get to see in family films, and it is presented with exceptional insight.  A scene where Hazel follows Sawyer’s mother’s advice to speak to Clay the way she would like to be spoken to is a small gem that got some appreciative laughs of recognition from the audience. Smith knows his audience, though, and expertly seasons the storyline with cute animals, especially Rufus the pelican, who is back for more comic relief. Even with Rufus, though, the slapstick moments are just part of the story.  His protective concern for Mavis is genuinely touching.

A storyline about whether Sawyer will accept an opportunity to take a special semester at sea is less intriguing.  But Gamble’s quietly sincere and thoughtful performance grounds the film, with Zuehlsdorff (who provides a sweet song over the closing credits) more ebullient, but never less than completely real and in the moment. The completely natural performances of the two leads perfectly matches the sun-drenched naturalism of the setting, utterly at home in the water, interacting with the dolphins, or struggling to grow up. When Dr. McCarthy sits down next to the conflicted Sawyer to hand him a family heirloom, Sawyer says knowingly, “I’m about to get a lesson here, aren’t I?” He is, and we are, too, but it is a good lesson and it goes down easy. So does the film, ambitious in scope but light in presentation. And it is no disrespect to the movie to say that the best part is the closing credits, where we see Wounded Warriors and other people with disabilities coming to visit Winter and Hope for inspiration and, somehow, a sense that they are being understood and cared for.

Parents should know that this film includes mild peril, some scenes of animal and human injuries and a sad animal death.

Family discussion: What was the lesson of the watch? What were the best reasons for releasing Mandy? For keeping her? Did they make the right decision?

If you like this, try: The original film — and watch Hope and Winter online

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Animals and Nature Environment/Green For the Whole Family Inspired by a true story Scene After the Credits Series/Sequel Stories About Kids
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