INTERVIEW: A Place at the Table

place-at-the-table-smA Place At The Table presents a shocking and prevalent reality; 50 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from. This reality is in every community, every city, everywhere. The greyness of it is what makes it so easily ignored. These are people with homes, apartments, families, maybe even jobs, but are so financially strained by basic expenses or unfortunate circumstances that every day is an onslaught of survivalist decisions. The film is excellent in its balance of real life drama, statistical analysis, and exploration of the socio-political factors that either instigate or veil the problem of Food Insecurity.

Director/Writer Kristi Jacobson and subject Barbie Izquierdo were gracious and generous interviewees on their press tour for A Place At The Table, which opens March 1 at the Ritz at the Bourse. Christy and Barbie sat down with Cinedelphia for a candid and illuminating discussion about their film, the issue of Food Insecurity, and their lives.

CINEDELPHIA: Could you introduce yourselves for anyone who might not be familiar? Anything you think would be relevant as a preface to the lives you lead now.

BARBIE IZQUIERDO: Im Barbie Izquierdo, I am a mother of two, 25 years old. I will be a student in January, studying criminal justice at Esperanza. They are a branch of Eastern University, in the North Philadelphia Hunting Park section.

C: So you’ve officially enrolled?

BI: Yes yes, I start in January. I’ve been officially accepted and I actually have a scholarship because of the movie.

C: Well that answers one of my later questions which is “what are you doing now?” Congratulations though. I’ve been out of school for only a few years now and I want to go back.

BI: I never would have thought at 25 I’ll be getting a scholarship to go to college… I love how at the end of the movie I’m like “It’s my dream, I wanna go to college” and its amazing to say, because of that movie I am living my dream.

KRISTI JACOBSON: I’m Kristi Jacobson, I am co-producer and director of A Place at the Table. I’ve been working in and making documentaries for 15 or so years. And, um……is that enough? Haha……and I’m much better at asking questions than answering them, as Barbie can attest.

C: I’m better at answering than asking so this should be interesting. I’m curious to know, was this always going to be a film, or did this begin with any other intentions like a book or a blog, a web series, etc?

KJ: From the earliest conversations that Lori, my co-directing partner and I had, our intention for this was always to be a feature length documentary. One that we hoped a lot of people would see, and I think that we are positioned to hopefully meet that expectation. Because we were producing it independently and scrappily and on a shoestring at the start, we were then fortunate to find Participant Media as a partner and now Participant and Magnolia will be releasing the film nationwide. Barbie knew us when we were scrappy, hahah.

C: Maybe tell me about how you guys met then? And I want to tie this in the overarching process of making a film like this; such as how do you meet who you feature, select who you interview, and scrutinize those options.

BI: It was weird for me. I was participating in the Witnesses to Hunger program. Basically Doctor Marianna Chilton gave 40 mothers in North Philadelphia a camera and asked us to show our lives through pictures. In my group, there were about 12 to start, I believe I was the first mother and then it became another 15. So slowly what Marianna did was take the first group and merge us with the second. We’ have these meetings where we could all meet each other and share stories amongst ourselves. In one of these meetings Christy walked in. She had a camera and was like “We want to record you guys. We love what you are doing, and the fact that you want to change your situations.” I don’t know how she picked me out of those 40 mothers but it went from sitting in a room with a bunch of girls being recorded to them being in my house and me brushing my teeth with the camera right there in my face. But it was a great experience.

KJ: We came to that moment in that meeting through. Sometimes finding “characters” for a film like this is very difficult, and sometimes…less frequently….it’s not difficult. And in this case we were really fortunate because early in our research we read an article about the Witnesses to Hunger and Doctor Mariana Chilton. She was in Philadelphia and we were in NY just a train ride away. We visited and met with Marianna and learned more about the Witnesses to Hunger program. Lori and I to this day continue to be inspired by Marianna’s approach to activism and making a difference in this area, but we were really grateful for the invitation to witness, experience, and film the meetings because it contributed in two ways. One was that Barbie emerged clearly as someone who was comfortable in front of a camera and courageous in terms of sharing her story. But also, it was a lot of education around “What does it mean to be hungry?” “How does it impact children, what are the day to day realities?” You can’t learn that in a book. It fast-tracked our understanding of the issue. There were a number of women that we filmed from Witnesses to Hunger, but over time we found ourselves sticking with Barbie, and realized that her story could really resonate with a lot of people across different backgrounds and in different cities across the country.

C: And then you go on to show that through all these other “characters” throughout the film.

KJ: In some sense, meeting Barbie informed where we would go next. By that I just mean, we knew that hunger is in every community in America, and it particularly shocks people to learn that it’s in Anytown, USA. It’s a little less shocking to learn that it’s in, say, an urban center. So it was important for us to share that story. Statistically, there isn’t a community without hunger, but where do you go? There’s 50 states. Ultimately it was about building up a strong network of activists who were helping us understand the complexity of the issue and also revealing who is deeply affected by it as opposed to who you see in the media. After that it is about instinct and allowing the story to present itself to us. An event in Denver, Colorado about child hunger became an important networking experience and resulted in Coburn, Colorado being a focus of the film.

C: Once you got financing from Participant did the situation turn and people were eager to join the project, or was it always an outward seeking thing?

KJ: I think that the groups working to end hunger and food insecurity were incredibly helpful throughout the process. Finding people with the courage to share their story is always a challenge. It seems to always be about letting your true self emerge and let people know what you are about and what you are trying to do.

C: Barbie, was it ever a question for you when this reality presented itself, were you on board from the start? Like “Sure, you can film me brushing my teeth.”

BI: It was crazy at first. I felt like a movie star, or like I was on The Real World. I remember in NY one day, we were walking to a church and this guy saw the camera crew following me and was like “Oh my god, I can say I know you!” But it was just because the cameras were there. It took someone who didn’t have any self-esteem or confidence and made me feel important. At the same time there were moments like “Ugh, not today! Just leave me alone, I’m tired and stressed out. We all know I’m hungry just leave me alone!” But I stuck by it and understood that people will have to see that, especially those days where I’m frustrated. I don’t have to hide it. It was an amazing experience and I would do it all over again.

C: I hope you do! Documentaries more than fictional films invite a craving for “What happened next?! How did things change?” So I’m wondering, Barbie, how you’ve been able to shape your circumstances since getting a job, or if you have a better sense of how to balance such a strained lifestyle.

BI: Setting money aside has never really been a realistic possibility because I’m a single mom and my kids are growing. I cant say “these are the clothes you’re getting and you wont need any for eight months” it doesn’t work like that. Maybe if they were teenagers, where things are a bit more stable, but they are growing so fast. Its all about prioritizing. I shouldn’t really have to say that it’s more important to be warm than have water, you know, but for the majority of my life I have had to make these decisions. I went from deciding whether to feed myself or pay my bills to, “ok now everyone is eating but I have to take a little bit from this a little from that, I have to go without a phone….” I always had to adjust. It was hard, but I was always in survival mode. You adapt and respond. Every time I come to a screening of A Place At The Table my life is different. By the time I came back from the Sundance show which was like a dream, I lost my job. So three months later I have nothing. I have to get back on a program again so I can have food stamps but I’ll lose my house because I can’t pay my bills… The will to live is something amazing, but I know I have the drive to adapt.

C: If there is anything I sympathize with it is THAT. The constant adaptation to survive and the constant anxiety of how will I make ends meet? Im not a single mother of two obviously, but I know that feeling that grips you in a panic because there is no buffer, no safety net.

BI: I think one of the biggest things people take for granted is stability. When you don’t have it, it’s the one thing that you yearn for. I’m 25 years old and I just want to be able to take that breath and say that finally my feet are planted on the ground. This is my foundation and I can build and grow from this. It seems like every time I get my feet wet, “Nope! We’re taking that away too.”

KJ: You speak to the masses because its so true. That ever elusive stability.

C: While I was watching the film I felt three things: Rage, Horror (maybe because it was october) and its that REAL kind of horror, and I was ravenous. I was so hungry! Halfway through I just grabbed a whole bundle of celery and a jar of peanut butter.

KJ: Haha, that’s going to be on the poster: RAGE! HORROR! HUNGER!

C: I think it was the Statistics that got to me. Stats can often be misleading, but some of the ones you show in the film, like 50 Million Americans are Food insecure? I mean….do these numbers scare the crap out of you too?

KJ: Yes! For two reasons. As a filmmaker, how do you make the numbers mean something? They take some digging to find. They aren’t on the front page everyday calling out at you. First, the horror of the numbers is upsetting, then the burden of the filmmaker is for the outcome to be that the audience FEEL shock and horror at those numbers as well as be moved by the story. The big struggle in a film like this is the balance between story and fact. The stories without the context will be compelling and moving but will they outrage you to the degree that you are now, having seen the finished film that merges both? Probably not.

C: Would you recommend any sources for interested people to use so that they can stay in the loop about thee issues?

KJ: There is a book inspired by the film, which is going to have the same title. It’s not just a regurgitation of the film, but rather a conversation that follows the film and after. People in the film, and others not in the film contributed essays and articles. There is the film’s website. There is also the site for the campaign. The campaign itself is called Take Your Place. It will connect you to different avenues and resource. We are building the first even local/state/national database of hunger action groups as well as tipoffs to upcoming policy issues/debates involving hunger, food, etc. There is a book called Sweet Charity by Janet Poppendieck which is still a relevant text.

A Place at the Table opens March 1 at the Ritz at the Bourse.

Official site.

Author: Aaron Mannino

Aaron Mannino is a Philadelphia area artist, film enthusiast, and some other things. He has made contributions on film analysis to the publication Korean Quarterly. Visit his blog or his website for writings and art-ings.

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