Today my guests are Meredith Driess and David O. Brown, archaeologists and co-producers of the 50-minute documentary, Agave is Life. The film is currently playing festivals and has won several awards, including Best Feature Documentary and Audience Favorite Award at the Moon Dance International Film Festival, Boulder, CO; Best Cultural Heritage Film at the Arkhaios Cultural Heritage and Archaeology Film Festival, Hilton Head, SC; and Best Feature Documentary Film at the Eugene International Film Festival, Eugene, OR. You can learn more at http://www.archeoproductions.com.
Welcome, David and Meredith, I’m pleased to have you here. Tell us a little about this new film.
AGAVE IS LIFE, narrated by Edward James Olmos, is the story of mankind’s symbiotic alliance with the marvelous agave plant, from which tequila, Mexico’s iconic distilled spirit, is derived. Told through the lens of archaeological and historical investigations, this colorful film with traditional folk music of the region and original music by Alcvin Ryzen Ramos, relies upon ethnographic materials, archival footage and interviews to explore ten thousand years of the human-agave relationship.
Once a critical resource for hunter-gatherers living in arid regions of the American Southwest and Latin America, and later playing a role in the rise of ancient civilizations, this buffalo of plants was a source of food, drink, textiles, fuel, and medicines. We learn that, over time, this unique desert plant became embedded in cultural identity, mythology, art, and rituals, but now it faces an uncertain future. Today, ancient folkways—from fiber craftmanship to traditional pulque and mescal production—are rapidly disappearing. While entrepreneurs and scientists work to turn the tide, a loss of diversity of both cultivated and wild species may be the ultimate arbitrator.
You are both trained archaeologists. How does that influence your film making?
Our mission was to make a film for a general audience, but to have the data scientific enough to intrigue our colleagues. That was a hard balance to maintain and I’m not sure we completely succeeded. In the end we pleased ourselves.
You shot on location. What was the hardest part of that?
The hardest part for me was juggling my crew, travel logistics, and interview subjects. We had a skeleton crew so it was up
to me to do almost all of the planning. I had help from David, Eric Bieri, our production assistant, and Sharon Edgar Greenhill, our co-producer. At the same time we had to be prepared to ask the right questions of our interview subjects, which included knowing our script and reading up on their scholarly work. We interviewed 23 people knowing we would not use everyone, but could learn from their knowledge. The expertise of our interviewees was invaluable. We learned a lot from them.
Also, in some cases we had to carry heavy equipment up steep slopes or along wooded trails and canyon rims. We filmed at night with lights, in the scorching sun, in the rain and in snow. Our crew was enthusiastic and seemed willing to do almost anything as long as I fed them. We had to be prepared to change plans on the fly if bad weather or other factors arose unexpectedly. With a documentary, nothing is set in stone.
How long did the whole film process take from conception to final product? What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome?
The whole process took 6 years. That seems like forever and it felt like forever but I had another full-time job during 4 or those years, and David had other projects going simultaneously. Roughly a third of that was spent on research and script writing, a third on film shoots and a third on edit and post production tasks. Our biggest obstacle was that we had to condense 60 hours of footage and tons of data into a one-hour documentary. And because we are archaeologists too, we were each invested in having, for example, a particular scene a certain way, but not always the same way. We dug our heels in and argued a lot. That was tough. Thank god our editors, a husband and wife team were not archaeologists. They helped break our disagreements by sometimes wiping out the entire scene in question, or changing everything around, which at times was shocking. But they helped shape the story and made the film better.
What motivated you to make this film?
When I was working on my film about the ancient use of chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods, I ran across a lot of interesting information about the cultural significance of the agave plant, including codex images and fascinating iconography. I knew if I ever did a second film it would be about the agave plant. So I started saving data then.
Also, I liked the idea of presenting archaeology to the general public by using subjects like chocolate and tequila to entice them. This was my concept from the very beginning, and since my focus in earlier years had been Mesoamerica, it was natural to consider topics like chocolate, tequila, popcorn, chewing gum, and the ball game—all of which have interesting histories and imagery. Even the lowly potato has a fascinating cultural history in both South America and Europe.
I started out by wanting to do a book about the cultural history of chocolate for a general audience but my brother, Grant Mitchell, a filmmaker, said forget the book, let’s do a film! That was in the mid 1990s when he was working on another project, but by 2000 we were well on our way. Everything I learned about documentary filmmaking I learned from him. He was a great tutor and we produced a pretty nice little film. I don’t really consider myself a filmmaker but ironically at this point I’m not sure I’m an archaeologist either. Except for some technical post-production work, Grant and I were a 2-person team in the field and a 2-person team in the edit studio. However, Grant took the lead and did the lions share of filming and editing since I knew nothing about any of it at that point. My memory of that project was that it was exhilarating, probably because the burden was on Grant and not me. The film came out in 2005 and then I co-authored a book with Sharon Edgar Greenhill with the same title, Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods, published in 2008 by the University of Arizona Press. The DVD is packaged with the book and can be ordered on Amazon.
Where can the general public see your films? How do you distribute them?
Right now we are in the process of entering our film into some film festivals, both nationally and internationally. Once that phase is over (we have a 2 year window) we will sign with a distributor. With the chocolate film we found there was a better market for archaeology-based films in countries other than USA. We’ve started negotiations with an international distributor right now but nothing is certain. As film festival responses come in, we will update this blog on specific details. So far we’ve been accepted to festivals in Italy, Colorado and New Mexico.
It’s been a pleasure learning about your work. Thanks for visiting my blog.