Getting a Front Row Seat at Occupy the Farm: The Movie

By Glen Martin

Todd Darling’s documentary has continued to gather buzz and bookings since its blockbuster Berkeley debut last year. And now it’s rolling back into the Bay Area as part of am extended series of screenings. See it at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater on March 31, or check the schedule for a showing near you.

Todd Darling has always been something of a seeker—and that includes seeking gigs. After taking his degree in communications and public policy at Berkeley, Darling decided that freelance journalism was a good vocational fit. He went to Portugal in the 1970s and covered the Carnation Revolution, the military coup that overthrew the Estado Novo, the dictatorial regime that had controlled the country since the 1930s. He dispatched pieces to the Pacific News Service and the Berkeley Barb, but determined that news writing wasn’t his métier. So he returned to the States and enrolled at UCLA’s film school.

In the early 1980s, Darling made Ano Nuevo, a documentary on Latino immigrants working on a ranch near Ano Nuevo State Park in Santa Cruz County. That effort was screened at Sundance, picked up by PBS, and won the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Eric Severeid Award. For better or worse, Darling found himself hooked on the (sometimes) carefree lifestyle of the itinerate videographer. He worked as a freelance editor, director and cameraman for a slew of local TV news stations, made another documentary on the downside of deregulation (A Snowmobile for George), and directed a popular MTV series, Laguna Beach: The Real OC.

So when Darling heard about an urban farming initiative in Oakland, he thought it might be grist for his mill (or rather, camera). But nothing really gelled when he looked into it. Then he investigated Occupy Oakland actions that were going on at the time, and noticed that some of the urban farming folks he had met earlier were participating. Among the things Darling heard discussed were possible civil disobedience actions at the Gill Tract.

“At that point I realized this could be my film,” he says.

The Gill Tract is a parcel of land in nearby Albany that was purchased by UC Berkeley from the Edward Gill family in 1928. Chunks of the holding have been developed over the years: University Village occupies more than 52 acres. But a significant portion of the tract has long been used for agricultural research, including organic farming and biological pest management. That ended in 1998, when authority over the tract’s remaining agricultural space—14 acres—was transferred from the College of Natural Resources to the Office of Space and Capital Resources.

Even before the Great Recession, Berkeley had been entertaining plans for the Gill Tract that didn’t include growing organic zucchini. Located smack in the center of the densely populated East Bay corridor, the property was worth a great deal of money. But the pressure to develop the tract took on an especially keen urgency following the 2008 crash, when about $250 million in state funds were cut from the University’s budget.  Capital Resources announced plans to develop the property for residences and a shopping center anchored by a Whole Foods store. The deal would be worth upward of $100 million.

Occupy the Farm - The Film - Official Trailer from Todd Darling on Vimeo.

Enter Occupy the Farm, an ad hoc group of community activists and urban guerrilla farmers. On April 22, 2012, about 200 activists marched onto the Gill Tract and commandeered it, securing their beachhead by planting a whole bunch of vegetables. Darling was there with his camera to record the event—and the next three weeks of the occupation. Then he filmed subsequent weeks of irrigating and weeding, and later, UC police evicting the occupiers (and arresting some in the process).

He also filmed subsequent re-occupations, when the farmers harvested their crops. Also, he shot lengthy interviews with both occupiers and University officials, as well as Albany city government meetings, where occupiers handled out pickles made from Gill Tract cucumbers to city council members.

Darling ultimately put together a documentary on the Gill Tract wars, and it’s proving quite a hit. Occupy the Farm premiered November 7 at the UA Berkeley 7, and was the cineplex’s top-grossing movie for the week of its run. Regal Cinemas (the company that owns UA Berkeley 7) was so impressed with the showing that it booked the film into 20 theaters the following week. Darling is using the booking website Tugg to set up further screenings. Although The New York Times’ review complained that the director was too “dazzled by his granola heroes,” The Village Voice deemed the movie “riveting from start to finish.”

Darling didn’t make the film on a shoestring. It was more like a frayed thread.

“I just started filming,” he says. “I borrowed gear, and stayed with my friends. When my funds were exhausted, I went back to TV work, and then I raised some money on Kickstarter. Finally, we found a producer, Steve Brown, who contributed enough so we could finish it. But all that isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for this field. That’s how a lot of documentaries get made.”

Certainly, the film is highly engaging, even if your interest in farming stops with the parsley on your plate at Ruth’s Chris steak house. Darling presents a point of view—he’s obviously sympathetic to the occupiers—but he doesn’t get drearily didactic, and he afforded University officials and faculty ample scope for comment. Some took advantage of it: UC Berkeley Public Affairs Director Dan Mogulof, for example. Others—John Wilton, the Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance, and George Breslauer, the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost—demurred.

It is clear, however, that no UC official was anxious to take this particular tiger by the tail. Mogulof was articulate and reasoned in his defense of Berkeley’s administration, noting that it is the obligation of University officials to manage assets, including real estate, in ways that maximize benefits to the institution. Further, Mogulof said, the presence of the occupiers threatened ongoing agricultural research underway at the tract.

But it was a tough PR fight to win. The University officials seemed defensive—even dyspeptic. They are (like this writer) white, middle-aged men, a cohort that engenders little public empathy and less sympathy. The occupiers, on the other hand, were mostly young, charismatic and highly telegenic. Some were darling children, tagging along with their parents, vegetable seedlings clutched in their cute, grubby little hands, beatific smiles on their cherubic faces. From the perspective of Darling’s lens, there’s no question who comes off looking better—both literally and figuratively.

“It was a chess game,” Darling recalls. “One side would make a move, and it would be countered by the other side. The farmers were extremely flexible and creative in their responses. They never went in a straight line, and it threw the University off.”

The University’s case was not strengthened by a number of faculty members who supported the occupiers. Miguel Altieri, a Berkeley professor of Agro-Ecology, was an especially ardent booster of the impromptu Gill Tract farm, observing it could serve as a template for more ambitious urban agricultural projects. Altieri cited a study that concluded there are 1,200 acres of abandoned land in Oakland, all of which could be cultivated to provide 400,000 people with 100 pounds each of fresh vegetables annually.

And Jeff Romm, a professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, also put a positive spin on the actions.

“I’m impressed with the execution, and I’m hopeful [the University] becomes responsive to the opportunities created here,” Romm says in the film.

But not all academics shared that view, including Damon Lisch, a researcher who was conducting corn genetics work at the Gill Tract when the occupation occurred.

“The idea that you’ll somehow convince all the people in Oakland to go back to the farm, that’s the big idea, [but] I don’t see it,” Lisch says, obviously worried about the impact of crowds of alt-culture farmers traipsing around his experimental maize patch. “I don’t think it justifies what they’re doing.”

Certainly, the occupation altered the narrative the University had assumed would play out for the Gill Tract. That was glaringly evident when Whole Foods, apparently discomfited by the public’s perception of corporate wheeling-dealing and worried about a threatened boycott by local activists, pulled out of plans to establish a store at the site.

Ultimately, both sides claimed victory. The University still plans to develop the south side of the tract, but a 1.3-acre experimental urban farm is now operating on the north side, sharing ground with a quarter-acre urban gardening project supervised by Altieri and a 2.57-acre plot devoted to corn genetics research.

“It’s clear that Occupy the Farm caused the University to change course,” concludes Darling. “They claim otherwise. But I can’t see it that way.”

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