ONE PLANT AT A TIME
Occupy the Farm Comes to the Big Screen
By Rachel Trachten
“We decided it was time not just to call on UC Berkeley to do something different with the land, but to actually do something different with the land.” These are the words of farmer Gopal Dayaneni, featured in the new documentary Occupy the Farm about activists who in April 2012 created an urban farm on Albany’s Gill Tract land owned by UC Berkeley. Directed by Todd Darling and produced by Steve Brown and Carl Grether, the film opens on Friday, November 7 and shows through November 13 at the UA Berkeley 7 on Shattuck Avenue.
This powerful and engaging film presents the voices of activists, University administrators and professors, community members, City of Albany officials, and police. Viewers learn about the competing interests for the land (14 acres in total), particularly the farmers’ imperative to grow fresh food for local residents versus the University’s research and real estate development plans (including a Whole Foods Market and retirement housing).
The film offers a peek at the day-by-day challenges and victories of the occupation: 200 determined volunteers weeding and tilling a full acre on the first day; the group’s frustration when the water is turned off, followed by calm resolve as volunteers hand-carry huge containers of water; tense interactions with police; and the sheer joy of harvesting cucumbers. The farmers see themselves as the next step in the Occupy movement, with a shift from encampments and protest to positive, peaceful action and education.
The documentary raises important questions about the responsibilities of a public university as the steward of farmland in close proximity to food deserts where fresh produce can’t be found, but liquor stores are plentiful. It disputes the assertion by former UC Professor Damon Lisch that he is conducting “basic research” on corn plants at the Gill Tract, instead presenting the view that the research generates agribusiness income for the University. Although the story is seen primarily through the eyes of the activists, the variety of perspectives creates a window into the many layers involved.
More than two years after the initial occupation—with intervening arrests, lawsuits, petitions, City Council meetings, and the Whole Foods decision to pull out of its lease agreement—a tentative peace has been reached. The Gill Tract Community Farm website calls itself “a collaborative community project between the UC and the community, focused on issues of food justice and urban farming.” About an acre of land is devoted to an urban farm where community volunteers are warmly welcomed and the harvest is distributed for free to local nonprofits and individuals.
The film pays tribute to the energy and passion behind the movement. “When I saw urban farmers joining forces with activists from Occupy Oakland, I sensed an epic story about food justice,” says Director Todd Darling. “We ‘occupied’ the occupation with our cameras and followed these smart, passionate farmers as they defended the land with courage and creativity.” Occupy the Farm also opens this month in New York and Pasadena. Read the Edible Silicon Valley interview with Todd Darling and Steve Brown: here