"Polyculture" is an agricultural term for planting multiple crops in the same area, in ways that allow the plants to naturally support each other's requirements, as in the wild. Polyculture techniques minimize the need for outside inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which tend to be derived from fossil fuels and have a negative impact on the environment. PolyCultures: Food Where We Live is a freshly-completed movie that portrays this method of farming and, in addition, uses the concept metaphorically to describe social efforts in greater Cleveland to re-establish a robust and healthy food system for people of all backgrounds and income levels.
PolyCultures is a crystallization of the phrase, "Think global, act local." A range of national and international experts, such as David Orr (11th Hour) and Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma), convey how the industrialized food system of the 20th century has provided very cheap, convenient food but also plays a major role in the massive ecological, social, and personal health problems that are being experienced around the world. Alternative styles of raising high-quality food with minimal environmental impact are shown in action, with the spotlight on what residents of Northeast Ohio (NEO) are finding to work in this climate and in their distinct neighborhoods. They must be doing something right, because Cleveland ranked #2 for local food and agriculture in the 2008 SustainLane U.S. City Rankings.
Cleveland itself is a central character in PolyCultures. Images of C-town range from the urban renewal of the Euclid corridor, to dilapidated warehouses symbolizing the loss of jobs, to the community gardens dotting neighborhoods such as St. Clair-Superior and Detroit-Shoreway that bring together people from all walks of life. The director Tom Kondilas and the writer David Pearl were both born and raised in greater Cleveland and became friends at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in 2000. In 2006 Tom formed LESS Productions, which stands for Lake Erie South Shore. David moved back from San Diego in 2008 to help LESS edit the compiled footage into a movie.
As the principle cameraman, Tom chose an active visual style for PolyCultures that was inspired by Cleveland's post-industrial grittiness. For example, quick pans and zooms help convey how City Fresh volunteers efficiently unload a truck of just-picked produce for distribution in a low-income area on Cleveland's west side. Stylized light and focus shifts are used to portray the countryside production of food, such as kohlrabi and sunflowers in the serene Cuyahoga Valley. Many of the interviews were conducted in the field, so sirens, whistling birds, and passing motor vehicles often accompany the perspectives of the wide variety of interviewees, further linking them to their rural or urban settings.
The speakers were arranged to tell the broader stories in seven "plots,” or sections, without interjection of a narrator. The glue between and within the plots is a polycultural blend of songs, almost entirely contributed by musicians with NEO ties. For example, members of Eagle & Talon and Girl Talk graduated from CWRU and are pursuing their music careers in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, respectively. The aesthetic of PolyCultures and its particular stories may be rooted in NEO, but their implications have potential far beyond Cleveland.
The movie was executive produced by Brad Masi, who directs the New Agrarian Center (NAC), which is based in Oberlin, where Brad attended college. The NAC oversees the George Jones Memorial Farm, which produces many types of food and educates various communities about the role that organic, rural farming should play in the modern food system. Interspersed throughout the movie are Jones Farm workers - as well as Australian permaculture designer Darren Doherty, organic farming researcher Deb Stinner, dairy farmer Harold Hartzler - advocating a return to tried and true agricultural principles of the past. In addition to that theme of agrarianism, economist Ned Hill and U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (among many others) discuss energy-related innovations that are highly feasible in NEO. They consider these advancements necessary if the advocacy community wants to bring local, sustainable food to the mass market and support the local economy in the process.
Another compelling theme of the movie is the resourcefulness that occurs when people analyze the details of their problems and find things there that could actually be solutions to those problems (and perhaps to others). Examples include turning vacant lots in the city of Cleveland into community gardens with soil derived from composting cardboard and food waste, learning to cook with new vegetables when getting them in a weekly City Fresh share, and using spent grain waste from the Great Lakes Brewery as a natural, effective fertilizer. As David and Tom continually discussed in the editing process when dealing with their footage’s technical issues, you have to "own the flaw" – not shy away from your problems, but find and bring out their creative potential.
On an abstract level, PolyCultures is very much about people acknowledging the problems that confront them and then taking the fulfillment of their basic needs more into their own hands. This is often best accomplished in a way that strengthens connections to the surrounding community, and doing that makes individuals, neighborhoods, and regions more resilient in times of peril. In addition, the movie touches on the evolving role of government, foundations, and non-profit groups in the push toward broader sustainability. Given the economic crisis and the range of health and environmental issues that presently face the world, the timeliness of PolyCultures: Food Where We Live cannot be overstated.