Farming on Film: Mitra Sticklen documents life on the urban farm

A worker at Windy City Harvest; courtesy of Mitra Sticklen

A worker at Windy City Harvest; courtesy of Mitra Sticklen

“It’s not hard to make this stuff look good,” says filmmaker Mitra Sticklen, pausing in between shots of the bright green kale and collards on display on a stand at the 61st Street Farmers Market. “It’s beautiful stuff–beautiful footage.” The stand belongs to Windy City Harvest, an urban agriculture job training program of the Chicago Botanic Garden and West Side Technical Institute, whose participants Sticklen has been filming since last fall. With the working title “Growing Change,” the film was originally meant to be a ten-minute short documenting one season of the program. During the course of filming, however, Sticklen “realized that there were several stories going on that were inspiring and interesting”–the farmer’s market itself, for instance, as well as a number of other urban agriculture initiatives that have recently sprung up across the city. Now Windy City Harvest is the focus of a demo reel, whose June 5 screening at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center Sticklen hopes will help win her funding for a longer film or television documentary.

A graduate student in the UofC’s Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS), Sticklen had little experience with filmmaking when she began the documentary. She worked on a student organic farm as an undergraduate at Michigan State University and now studies the anthropology of food and agriculture, an interest she decided to try to translate into film. “I really wanted to show people on the South Side of Chicago all the things going on in the last year and a half,” she says. “There’s a lot people don’t know about, and the farmers’ market is a great place to get involved.”

Sticklen found ample support at Fire Escape Films, the UofC student film club, which supplied her with the equipment and training necessary to begin the documentary. In the winter, she enrolled in a class on documentary video taught by Judy Hoffman, who encouraged her to expand the project beyond her original vision. She also began collaborating with Christine Nielsen, another MAPSS student with an interest in urban agriculture.

“The documentary has been a great opportunity to make a lot of connections, and to learn and document the learning process,” says Nielsen. She expects to continue learning this summer, when she will be moving to New Jersey to live and work on an organic farm. Sticklen also has big plans for the summer: starting in mid-June, she’ll be running a blog about “how people in the city relate to food,” following the various paths from farm to plate, in part through high-definition video. The blog will also cover Sticklen’s work at Uncommon Ground in Rogers Park, an eco-conscious restaurant with the country’s first certified organic rooftop garden.

Sticklen and Nielsen see their work as a way to spread the word about a growing movement that may still seem insular to the uninitiated. “A lot of people in the university tend to read and write articles in peer-reviewed journals–they’re in this kind of ivory tower,” Sticklen explains. “I want something accessible to the average Chicagoan, to highlight all the wonderful opportunities popping up around the city.”

Windy City Harvest is just one such opportunity, but it’s an appropriate starting point for a film that is meant to engage a broader audience for urban agriculture. Most of the participants in the less than two-year-old program–including adults who are unemployed or have criminal records–come to it with little prior knowledge about agriculture, much less of the urban or organic variety. “I knew nothing about growing,” admits Ricky Ross, a graduate of the program who joined during its first season in September 2007. Now, after learning how to farm organically, he says he realizes “there’s more to it” than it might seem.

For Ross as for others, urban agriculture is much more than an esoteric hobby. “People often think about farming as something that only a specific group of people are interested in,” Nielsen points out. With “Growing Change,” she and Sticklen hope to show all the different reasons people choose to pursue it, in a way that is also visually captivating. “It’s incredibly beautiful subject matter to film–the plants and the people working,” Nielsen says. “It’s a pleasure to videotape and to look at the footage for hours and hours.”