Ripe for Change
5:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 17
Contemporary Arts Center
Some films about food will make you hungry. Ripe for Change may well make you angry, though maybe a little hungry, too. Made with the tight production and deep, convincing context of a good PBS Frontline documentary, Ripe for Change is concerned with farm-fresh food, with crops that have distinctive taste and with farming practices and food policy that care for both human nutrition and ecological sustainability.
Though the film is set almost exclusively in California, by far the nation's most agriculturally productive state, there is plenty here that should resonate sharply with local audiences. For instance, Ripe for Change visits one neighborhood in Los Angeles that is home to some 25,000 people but just one grocery store. The grassroots solutions the film shows in action should be an inspiration for New Orleanians fighting against similarly pathetic situations. Berkley-based chef and cookbook writer Alice Waters, an iconoclast of the healthy food movement, is shown both now as a commentator and in the '70s " early in her career as a firebrand insisting on locally produced, seasonal food for her restaurant Chez Panisse. The Edible Schoolyard program she started, which marries lunchtime nutrition, classroom education and hands-on gardening for school children, has recently expanded from California to the Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans.
The film features interviews with farmers who write poems about their favorite crops, and farmers who have abandoned conventional, chemical-based farming " including a man who doesn't want to risk his toddler wandering into fields that are hazardous from agriculture chemicals but which nonetheless produce the stock that fills typical grocery store aisles.
Most of all, Ripe for Change connects dots, demonstrating how a combination of government policy and industrial momentum is wreaking havoc on something as vital as our food. People should leave this screening pumping their fists in the air, and maybe craving a good peach, too.
Tootie's Last Suit
7 p.m. Wed., Oct. 17
Canal Place Cinema
Filled with beautiful images and threaded by an atypical story line for the subject, the documentary film Tootie's Last Suit, directed by Lisa Katzman, is a portrayal of Big Chief Allison 'Tootie" Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas, professional artisan and designer/sewer of some of the most beautiful Mardi Gras Indian suits. The film follows Montana during the last year and a half of his life as he deliberates about whether he will come out on Mardi Gras day and what kind of suit he will wear. The film contains extensive interviews with him, his family, friends and other community figures who comment on both Montana and the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. The film is slow to explain what a Mardi Gras Indian is, but when it works its way to the commentary of historian Maurice Martinez, Native American Reverend Goat Carson and street-culture authority Fred Johnson, it does an adequate job of the difficult task of defining who and what the Mardi Gras Indians are and how they developed. Katzman's work showing the majesty and sparkle of Mardi Gras Indian suits full of beads, feathers and rhinestones is beautifully lit. The variety of source media she uses throughout the documentary is excellent, bringing out old films, photos and home movies to indicate the depth and variety of the tradition and Montana's huge imprint upon it. It is a shame that the music Katzmann chose as a background to the film does not work. It is possible that due to licensing issues she was not able to obtain the dynamic music of Mardi Gras Indian culture, but the music she does use is too relaxed and doesn't suit the powerful characters, traditions and images that she shows.
The most interesting choice Katzmann makes, however, and one that makes this very different from other documentaries on the Mardi Gras Indians, is to focus much of the film on the relationship between Tootie and his son Darryl. It is obvious throughout the film that there are deep issues between the two involving both the Indian tradition and their personal relationship. The tension culminates when Tootie and Darryl hit the streets separately on Mardi Gras and Super Sunday, and it is never certain whether they will meet up and how they will treat each other if they do. Having the film deal with this subject does distract from defining and showing the Mardi Gras Indian culture, but it does make the people portrayed more human. Both Tootie and Darryl come off in the film as less than saints, and somehow, despite putting their personal business in the film, it makes them more sympathetic. " David Kunian