• Big Screen alerts

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?

Apparently so.

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.

  • Big Screen alerts


Startaster May 15, 2012 @ 9:08 p.m.

As a 10 year old child I had a pet rooster. He was my sidekick and friend, and came running each time I entered the family backyard. One late afternoon I was called to the house of an adult relative who wanted to teach me a skill he said all chicken keepers should know. He opened the gate of his coop and abruptly grabbed one of the birds, which protested loudly and with much alarm. As he firmly pinned the bird's body to a tree stump in the center of his yard, I was told to stretch the neck and hold the head while he wielded the axe. I could feel the racing pulse in the warm veins of her face. Her eyes stared wide and intense into mine, a mixture of fear, confusion and pleading. How violently she tossed and squirmed to break free! In a second the hot blood had drenched my hands and arms. Some splashed my forehead. I felt horror and disgust. I was plunged into a nightmare. I cried till sunset, and cried again awake all night. I'd never felt such pain, shame and guilt. And most perplexing of all was the normalcy by which the act I'd witnessed was carried out by the people who knew and cared for me.

Rebecca, in answer to the question of the farmer’s backyard slaughtering you asked, “Why not?” I share this story as a possible ‘why not.’ A friendship with any animal might make us pause to consider the inner life of all animals, the sentient and conscious dimension we do not usually see. Does our taste for flesh make it easier not to think and feel in this way? Can a powerful craving shout down a more powerful inner understanding? We substitute a rationalization: 'They had a good life.' 'It's the way of things.' 'We like meat.' We turn off our capacity to empathize and comprehend. We savor the taste on the plate while suppressing the knowledge of another life taken by force. We kill our ability to see, feel and think. And with this we slay our power to know, change and evolve. Our pleasure trumps their pain. Does not the violence, terror and suffering we impose on our animal companions provide an even stronger persuasion than the present environmental crisis—a passionate reason to end the carnage we so thoughtlessly impose?

You are a skilled reporter and no doubt a gifted documentarian, Rebecca. And you have a heart that is beautiful and kind. I hope you will consider a future documentary that explores the new consciousness movement that is growing up around this awareness.


jamesgmitchell May 17, 2012 @ 3:18 a.m.

I'm with you, Rebecca. Why not eat meat? True, there is no excuse for the mistreatment of any animal. However, the vast majority of these animals would not even exist if they were not being raised for food. The bottom line is, there is no way to live without taking other life. Have we desensitized ourselves to the life in a redwood or an oak tree? How can we be so sure that carrots and chard are not also sentient beings? As a friend of mine once put it, "Don't you hear the grass screaming when you cut it?" I've heard that the Buddha did not become enlightened until he went back to eating meat (whereupon, of course, he lost all his followers). There is no "ism"--including vegetarianism--that is immune to dogmatism. I suggest we relax and stop to consider the words of Adyashanti, who says, "If broccoli had legs, it would be running."


RebeccaTolin May 17, 2012 @ 11:37 a.m.

I’m touched by the most evocative comments. Startaster, your chronicle of being forced to participate in killing a sentient being, a friend even, is truly chilling. Sounds like it opened a well of compassion in you, one that is rare, necessary and admirable. Jamesgmitchell, I enjoy that quote of Adyashanti’s, as I do his teachings. Certainly, I benefit from examining my choices and feelings ever more deeply. It seems we must open our own “inner life” to grow capacity to feel others, as Startaster so eloquently suggests. Our environment reveals that we have indeed become desensitized to the redwood trees and all the natural world.

What we eat is complex and personal. Bodies need different foods to thrive. I learn this by tuning into my body, and ultimately the world around me. Thanks to you both for offering compelling odes to the thoughtful consideration of our choices – living wisdom that comes through feeling and real-life experience, rather than dogma.


RebeccaTolin May 17, 2012 @ 11:55 a.m.

We already learned David Corrales is one talented guy but I’d be remiss not to mention our fabulous Co-Producer, Stephanie Oberto. Also a senior film student at SDSU, Stephanie brought real dedication and skill to the project. She did a lot of heavy lifting behind the scenes, and seemed to have a natural affinity with goats!


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!