Michael Mullenniex 1:43 p.m., May 25
Meet Rebecca Tolin, Almost-Participant in Thursday's SDSU Filmmaker's Showcase
Rebecca Tolin and I first met in 2002 when I guested on an art critics' show she produced for KPBS Television. After a ten year hiatus, two chance meetings reunite us.
Rebecca began as a journalist on network TV before landing the gig at KPBS. She returned to school earlier this year to take classes in non-linear editing and documentary production. Her "homework" led Rebecca to the Wim Wenders Q&A I conducted last March. A few weeks later, while sipping a coffee in Kensington, we met again this time during Rebecca's morning constitutional. This time she had a film to hawk and I bit.
Those expecting Chicks in the City to be a comical riff on Kelly and Samantha, guess again. Rebecca's 10 minute short is more concerned with the dilemma urban agriculturalists face when wanting to raise farm animals in their backyards.
The film was submitted to the SDSU Filmmaker's Showcase, but as you will soon find out, some things aren't meant to be.
Chicks in the City notwithstanding, the SDSU student gala will run this Thursday at 7 pm in the Don Powell Theatre at the Performing Arts Plaza. Tickets are $9.00. Click for more information.
Scott Marks: When last we met, you were producing the now defunct KPBS nightly news magazine Full Focus. Are you still with KPBS?
Rebecca Tolin: No.
Good for you. Me neither. So how did you come to make a documentary short about local chickens and goats?
I made it through the SDSU Television, Film, and New Media Department. As a journalist, I had been wanting to make documentaries for a long time. The kind of news stories I was reporting for Full Focus have a lot in common with short documentaries. Both attempt to chronicle "real life" through visual storytelling. Documentaries allow more artistry, creativity, and freedom to move outside of the formulaic objectivity of TV news.
Was this your first attempt at documentary filmmaking?
Yes. And hopefully it was more than an attempt. I had produced and reported a lot of ten minute pieces, but I wouldn't call them documentaries.
Why document the local food movement and the plight of urban homesteaders wanting to raise their own farm animals?
These people are really on the front lines of the local food movement. They are people who grow their own chard and tomatoes and feel that's not enough. They want farm animals right where they are which is in the city of San Diego.
Please tell me they don't kill the little chicks and kids? That's why we have the Ralph's.
Not in front of our cameras, but one of our subjects, Bill Tall who owns City Farmers Nursery in City Heights, produces 90% of his own food and he's no vegetarian. He will on occasion cook up one of his homegrown chickens. And why not? His chickens roam freely in the open air with beaks intact, compared with the vast majority of chickens that we eat in this country that are raised in pretty deplorable factory farms.
I was surprised to learn that by your own admission, you are a recovering vegetarian.
The truth is, I would prefer to be a vegetarian for environmental reasons, and I was for eight years, but I got kinda' hungry for meat. I don't eat a lot of it -- and when I do eat chicken and fish I try to buy organic -- and value and savor that meal. It's Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. A lot of us crave meat now and then and we want to support practices that are healthy for the animals and the people who eat them.
I love me some meat, but have problems with backyard slaughterhouses.
The vast majority of urban farmers are raising chickens as pets. They love these animals and say, unlike cats or dogs, they can collect fresh eggs from them every morning.
How did you find your subjects?
Local foodies are a friendly, close-knit band of people. We started with Brook Sarson who had her own little urban homestead in City Heights. She told us she took in three chickens from a friend who got a threatening letter from the City of San Diego. That lead us to the Dunn family in University Heights who had to give up their chickens due to a neighbor's complaints. That was before the city passed this new ordinance that allows residents in single family homes to keep chickens, miniature goats, and honeybees.
It's very well shot and edited by David Corrales.
David is an extremely gifted young film student. He's a senior at SDSU making mainly narrative films. He did a beautiful job on this documentary and I expect really big things from him.
Alright, Ms. First-time Auteur, how do you feel while watching the finished product?
(A broad grin breaks across her face.) It makes me happy! I think it's a charming, offbeat look at people who live authentically, close to the land, and are finding local solutions to a toxic food system. I secretly pine to have rows of zucchini and stalks of corn growing in my own backyard garden, but for now I have yet to grow a single vegetable.
You don't have a green thumb?
It's more a lack of effort. Any semi-wilted greenery you see in my yard exists solely due to my mom's prowess with a watering can when she comes to visit. That's why we make films, to get closer to a subject that fascinates us.
[Rebecca's phone rings and after 20 seconds all color drains from her face. "Chicks in the City?" she repeats into the mouthpiece. "No, that's the name we submitted. It's not on the list? I'm in the middle of doing an interview to promote it."
Chicks in the City didn't make the cut.]
Stop the music. They wait until two days before the show to put together the list of screening selections?
Well, it was nice knowing you. I watched the film and cannot believe that there were 13 selections that beat it out.
There are a lot of talented filmmakers at SDSU and I hear that this semester there were over 50 entries.
What can I say? As a TV reporter, I am no stranger to rejection.
Why did you leave TV news?
I started reporting for commercial TV stations -- the NBC affiliate in Bend, Oregon, ABC in Reno, and NBC in San Francisco. One day I was interviewing a Governor, the next a homeless drug addict. I love chronicling human experience, but long to dive in deeper. That's why I moved to public broadcasting in the first place and now documentary filmmaking.
You can't break away from the SDSU campus.
Sometimes I question my sanity. I went from being a paid, professional broadcaster to an unpaid student documentarian. But making Chicks in the City has infused a new aliveness into my creative life. Plus, I get to sunbathe while working on my Mac laptop in my backyard. (Laughs.) Maybe I ought to get some chickens and goats to keep me company.