Two short films explore sustainable food and water harvesting

Two new short films Holding on to the Corn and Plant the Rain, produced by students in the School of Sustainability and Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in a class taught by Peter Byck, highlight the benefits of a local regenerative food system.

Holding on to the Corn

Holding on to the Corn explores how Hopi spiritual beliefs, ceremonies and agricultural practices centered on corn are being re-established by tribe members. The original intent of the film’s proponents was to create sustainable agriculture and promote healthy access to food, only to discover that their tribal traditions and experiences provided all the knowledge they needed to succeed.

Sustainability Connect (SC): How has the Hopi community advocated for self-sustainability and access to home-based agriculture?

Itza Crespo: Although we can not speak for the Hopi community, we’re thankful to have learned about their traditions in relation to sustainable agriculture and their community’s efforts to preserve that knowledge. The Hopi people we had the opportunity to work with told us about their origin story — which is depicted in the film — as one of the first examples of sustainable knowledge passed down to their people. They spoke about how self-sustainability and home-based agriculture can at times be depicted as an exclusive and elite practice due to colonization, while their roots show that these systems are actually rooted in their culture. And so the advocacy that must take place to reclaim those systems involves farmers training programs, natural building internships and a plethora of other efforts they promote in order to ensure the health of their youth.

SC: What were the difficulties in filming this unique story?

Karina Dominguez Casas: The difficulties that presented themselves this semester were quite unique. COVID-19 stopped us from having additional filming days. Before everything was shut down, we were able to film 4 people. However, we were short on b-roll because that was going to be filmed at a future date during workshops the Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Institute (HTPI) were hosting. When it came time to editing, we had to get creative to see how we could still tell the full story. Thankfully HTPI shared photographs and videos they had from previous events, and we were able to use other sources such as the Heard Museum’s archive.

SC: What were the benefits of highlighting this story in particular and how can we use storytelling to convey sustainability challenges in the food system?

Luke Simmons: Storytelling is fundamental to everything we do as humans. Stories serve as inspiration, caution, and instruction. In this case, we set out to highlight the work of the Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Institute. Just by happenstance, we stumbled upon an incredible personal story from Valerie Nuvayestewa, President of the Board of Directors of the organization. She told us how permaculture work is deeply personal and necessary to solve some of the unique challenges on the Hopi reservation. It’s easy to get lost in the jargon and the mere idea of “sustainability.” Good storytelling reminds us that taking care of our world affects us all as people in a very real and tangible way.

Plant the Rain

In Plant the Rain, students Franco Latona and Sam Rosenzweig follow a Tucson community and elementary school that depend on rainfall for watering their community and home gardens. Even though they live in the Sonoran Desert, the results are surprising.

SC: How did this Tucson community advocate for self-sustainability through gardens, green space, and desert native plants?

Sam Rosenzweig (SR): The sustainability-minded community in Tucson seems to be tight-knit, a lot of people know each other and have been introduced through mutual connections. One of the participants in the film, Brad Lancaster, grew up in Tucson and has been teaching people about rainwater harvesting and native plants for a long time. He did a lot of work around sustainability that was “Pre-legal” as he would say, meaning that he installed certain rainwater and greywater systems, and composting toilets before they were legally allowed by the local government. Once Brad could demonstrate the effectiveness of his solutions, things like street-side basins for passive rainwater harvesting or “Planting the Rain” and greywater reuse became not only legal, but encouraged.

SC: What were the difficulties in filming this unique story?

SR: All of the participants that we interviewed were great to work with and were happy to share their knowledge and experience. I’d say one difficulty was narrowing down the focus of the story. We started out interested in a lot of different topics related to living more sustainably. Everything from solar ovens, to compost toilets, rainwater harvesting, native plants, solar power, the list goes on. This was too much to put in a seven-minute documentary so we focused in on rainwater harvesting and native plants. Describing active versus passive rainwater harvesting and the connection to native plants was plenty to get into in a short film.

SC: Did the community have any barriers when it came to harvesting rainwater?

SR: In the early days, there were legal issues, there may still be some that I’m not aware of. Some people may have been deterred or discouraged at first but now, at least in Tucson, knowledge of rainwater harvesting is becoming more mainstream — pun intended.

SC: How can we amplify community stories to empower others to make a change?

SR: I think sharing stories, whether they are a film or not, can help spark curiosity and inspire people to learn more about a topic. In Plant the Rain we tried to show how rainwater harvesting and gardening with native plants can be done on varying levels across generations. Brad Lancaster wants to live in a way where all of his water comes from the sky. All of his water for cooking, drinking, and washing comes from rainwater that falls on his property. Other people may want to set up a garden of native plants and harvest rainwater passively in order to save money and resources. I think learning about these stories can empower others to make a change.