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By Victoria Sadosky

A glimpse over the rolling Illinois farmlands opens the film, Sustainable. You think you’ve seen this topic before, but keep watching. Instead of profiling sustainability through an economic or environmental lens, Sustainable refreshingly focuses on the people and communities who drive the movement.

Sustainable is the brainchild of Matt and Annie, a husband and wife duo who possess a passion for orchestrating change through filmmaking. As the film’s director and the founder of Hourglass Films, Matt Wechsler grew up working for his father’s production company, and later pursued documentary filmmaking: “It was inspiring to me, that I could create a film that could change the way somebody thinks.”

Although Matt was interested in cooking, it wasn’t until Annie introduced him to the local food scene and farmers markets that he understood the value of sustainability. However, Matt believes that individuals often misinterpret the term ‘local’: “To Walmart, local means anywhere in the country, to Whole Foods, within a seven-hour radius…We have people serving vegetables that are coming from places where they actually aren’t coming from.” Matt’s own interest in local food inspired him to pursue this topic, thinking “let’s define what sustainability is, let’s inspire the next generation of farmers, let’s change the movement and talk about it in a positive light and make it beautiful.”

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With the initial shot of sunlight rays casting themselves onto the farmland, the cinematography is at the forefront. According to Matt, possessing technical mastery of the camera took him over a decade to acquire. Although Matt didn’t inherit his grandmother’s particular talent (she was a watercolor painter), his own creativity is manifested through the camera: “I found myself enjoying the fun of finding where the light hits the land…Those of us who love being on a farm can see the beauty, but capturing that on film isn’t always easy. Our goal was to capture that beauty and make people want to visit farms.”

The film’s narrative revolves around Marty Travis, a seventh-generation farmer who created a model which bridged the gap between chefs and farmers. While Matt profiles various farmers, he returns to Marty in the successive season, an approach which aesthetically integrates seasonality. The film took two and a half years to complete, but it was this time-consuming approach which allowed viewers to become so immersed in the farmers’ lives.

“It was inspiring to me, that I could create a film that could change the way somebody thinks.”

Matt highlights the idea that sustainability concerns the land itself, the farmers, as well as our connection to them: “If you’re not engaging your community and making that link between the city and the country, that’s not much of a sustainable farm. Each one of us has a responsibility to take care of our land, but also to take care of the people who take care of the land and to connect with them and support them.” Frequenting the restaurants that source these ingredients can be a contribution. The film’s emphasis on extending sustainability to landscapes beyond the farm and placing it in a perspective with which individuals residing in urban environments can better identify is one of its strong suits.

Matt features chefs, such as Chicago’s Rick Bayless, who have forged a relationship with farmers to aid the movement. According to Matt, chefs act as ambassadors: “They bridge the gap between the chefs and the community.” Dan Barber, the chef of New York City’s Blue Hill, worked personally with farmers, creating a dish called “rotation risotto.” As Dan Barber explained in the film, “As a chef, I feel the responsibility to create something so delicious that you create a market for it…What does it mean to eat the whole farm? That’s where I think a chef, and ultimately a culture, can play a huge influence on a system of agriculture that sustains itself.”

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Although farmers rely on chefs for business, chefs depend on farmers to provide valuable produce. Matt emphasizes that all crops are not equal. You can have a farm growing fifteen kinds of green beans or thirteen varieties of peppers that taste distinct from one another, all adding something unique to specific dishes. Rick Bayless required Iroquois white corn for one of his dishes, and when Marty was finally able to grow it, Rick almost cried.

Matt is striving to demonstrate the importance of these ingredients from a cultural perspective: “To retain that heritage that he [Rick Bayless] held so closely when he traveled through Mexico and to bring that to his restaurant is really remarkable…Annie and I believe that everything you eat has a story [that] mentally puts you in the mindset for eating that food.” This idea was brought to life with the film’s Sydney screening. The event featured a sausage originally made by Swiss-speaking Italian immigrants (who emigrated to Australia in the 1850s), which had been unavailable for over a century.

Matt created Sustainable hoping that it would impact the viewers and have them reexamine their food choices and contribution to their community. The film has even affected Matt and Annie, who are now growing as much of their own food as possible. When a film has the ability to change the filmmakers’ own way of life, that’s pretty extraordinary.

Sustainable is currently being shown at film festivals throughout the nation and internationally, and will be released to the public later this year. Chapters may request a screening by emailing chapters@slowfoodusa.org.