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Local filmmakers fund documentary with newest form of philanthropy

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A borrowed mini-van and rations of peanut butter and rice were enough to start Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette on their months-long roadtrip filming urban agriculture around the United States. It’s taking a little more than that to turn the documentary dreams of these two Omahans into the reality of Growing Cities: A Film about Urban Farming in America.

The Growing Cities dream began for then-college students Susman, 24, and Monbouquette, 24, during their winter breaks from Dartmouth and Willamette in 2010. A student of ecology and environmental studies and a lifelong gardener, Susman was talking about visiting farms to expand his personal knowledge of urban agriculture. Monbouquette, majoring in rhetoric and media studies, saw the journey as an opportunity to make a film. With this convenient crossroads of passions, the childhood friends decided to document the explosion of a movement where growing anything from a tomato plant on a patio to a chicken on a city rooftop is considered farming. “Film is a powerful tool,” Susman said, “and there’s no other documentary out there about the growth of urban agriculture on a national scale.”

In January 2011, Susman and Monbouquette began lining up farms to visit around the country. “We did leave some room in case someone was like, ‘Oh you guys should check out this other place while you’re out here,’” Susman said. “And there was a lot of that.” No doubt that’s how they managed to film over 80 farms in 15 states over the course of three months.

Monbouquette’s mother, Wendy, donated the family van for their use, and grants from Dartmouth as well as individual investments from family and friends funded the roadtrip. Susman and Monbouquette, with friend Brent Lubbert wearing the hat of production manager, took off for Denver with film equipment and a significant stash of rice and peanut butter. “It was a combination of bringing our own supplies and living off the land,” Susman said. “We were doing bare bones.”

From the beginning of May 2011 to the end of August, the trio couchsurfed with friends, family, and strangers through Nebraska, Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. September found them in San Francisco transcribing over 140 hours of footage. By November, they were back in their hometown of Omaha to organize the production of Growing Cities: A Film about Urban Farming in America.

Any number of agendas can come up in connection with urban agriculture, and the filmmakers learned that each farmer approaches the concept in a unique way. Susman recalled one particularly passionate individual. “Malik Yakini, from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. He knew about food, he knew about politics, he knew about race relations. Sort of intimidating at first, but so open and welcoming.”

“Then you had someone like Tree in San Francisco,” Monbouquette remembered. “You go from a justice activist to this ’60s hippie who’s so laid back. And then there was Turner in New Orleans, teaching kids in the Ninth Ward about food justice.”

“That’s what makes this so exciting,” Susman said. “So many different people are doing this for so many reasons. Urban farming can’t necessarily solve all these problems, like food justice or lack of food access, but it can help.”

So the footage is ready, but how to turn hours of film into a moving documentary with a strong narrative? That little chore requires hiring a professional editor, covering licensing fees (the filmmakers do indeed have a business arm: Elmwood Motion Pictures, LLC), and paying for graphics and music. All this to the tune of $75,000.

To raise that kind of money, Susman and Monbouquette decided to try out Kickstarter. A site dedicated to creatively raising funds for artistic projects and consumer products alike, Kickstarter is in the news lately for pulling in big numbers. Consider independent musician Amanda Palmer, who blew past her $100,000 goal in May and hit one million dollars by the end of her month-long Kickstarter.

While Elmwood Motion Pictures, LLC, has friends, it has slightly fewer than Ms. Palmer’s 22,000+ backers. Susman and Monbouquette decided to aim for $35,000. Because, you see, there’s a catch to Kickstarter: If you don’t have enough pledges to meet your proposed goal by the end of your Kickstarter (anywhere between one and 60 days), you don’t get any of it. Not one cent. Your backers are never charged for their money, and you are left to figure out another way to raise your lucre.

To boost chances of hitting their mark, “we researched a ton,” Monbouquette said. “The common themes of successful Kickstarters were a good video, some humor, getting to know the creators, and doing some kind of social good.”

Good prizes help too of course. Since Kickstarter isn’t technically raising donations (the pledges aren’t tax deductible), creators offer different levels of rewards to their backers. Growing Cities’ prizes scaled with the pledge ($50 had a variety of prizes to choose from: an herb box, heirloom seeds, a mushroom kit, or a tour of one of the farms visited in the documentary) up to $1,500. That generous backer received an original painting created by Alex Southworth and inspired by Growing Cities.

But even with “sweet prizes!” as described on Growing Cities’ Kickstarter video, a fundraiser can be dead in the water without a fan base. Realizing this, Susman and Monbouquette began building their online presence before they launched their Kickstarter in April of this year. “We did a lot of social media and a mailing list to connect with people,” Susman said. “We probably got $10,000 of our Kickstarter via our Facebook page.”

With 802 backers and $39,602 by the Kickstarter’s end on May 16, the potential is there to build on that fanbase and create again. “It’s kind of crazy to think of doing another project like this,” Monbouquette admitted. “Or anything else ever,” Susman added with a laugh.

The pair hopes to wrap up editing by the end of 2012, and their fingers are crossed to show Growing Cities in film festivals beginning next summer. In the film’s trailer, released in April, Eugene Cook of Truly Living Well farms said, “We’re not asking people to grow everything. We’re saying grow something.” By introducing a nation to the concept of urban farming via Growing Cities, Susman and Monbouquette seem to be taking his advice.




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