“Concrete Gardens”: Making Of A Documentary Competition

This is the documentary that we produced – it’s called “Concrete Gardens“, and has a runtime of 5 minutes. Below is the story behind it.


During one of my many times browsing around on facebook – here is where I get most of my work, crew and industry news – I see a note someone shared about a Documentary competition in the Bay Area, right in the beginning of the summer semester. My plans for summer are still a bit loose, so I would have the time – but the competition demands a team of 3 students. I postpone it until the evening and naturally forget  about it. Until Marc writes me a message on facebook – have I heard about the CAN film competition? Yeah, sure.

The Dream Team

Marc was 1st AD on my film “All I Want Is Silence“, and proved to be a fantastic collaborator. In a recent project, Marc edited all night until 5pm without even taking a break to sleep. No question, Marc is the right man for an extremely short competition. Spencer, 1st AC on my movie and generous donor of a jib and a 5D MkIII joined in as the third member, and our required menage a trois was complete. I make the unkosher reference because what was going on in our little heads was anything but kosher.

Here’s the deal: The competition would last 10 days; 5 days of preproduction, and 5 days of production. Unfortunately, all three of us had lives, so 5 days does not equal 100 hour worth of free time. We would have to have ideas, select the best one, develop the idea, find people that related to the topic and could give us either further pointers or be interview partners, and then schedule interviews for the five days that we were allowed to actually produce and post-produce the film.
As you can possibly imagine if you ever made a documentary – 5 days is a hell of a short time to actually come up with a good idea. And 5 days is also hell of short to shoot, find more people and shoot more, find events and shoot more, and do all the editing. The natural result of such a hardcore timeframe: You get burned out. There is two possible scenarios in my world of getting burned out:

  1. You get really angry, stressed, frustrated and a pain to be around
  2. You go totally nuts and start to laugh about the worst things
In our case, we chose 2, and that’s where things became anything but kosher. We would be up until 2am, spraypainting shoulder rigs from Home Depot, we would be texting back and forth while Marc and Spencer were in class and I was going 80mph in a rental car to get some shots further up north; you get the idea. The humor developed in that process was macabre, disrespectful, completely arbitrary, insane and just totally nuts. We had the time of our lives, and gladly didn’t record anything of it. Well, maybe we recorded a bit of that.
With the rental car up north, filming plantations on our self-made shoulder rig.

With the rental car up north, filming plantations on our self-made shoulder rig. Here, you can see it in its black spray paint beauty, forming a visual symbiosis with the black camera.

Our self-built Shoulder Rigs from Home Depot; built after the prototype I built 2.5 years ago for "Terminated" with Hiroki.

Our self-built Shoulder Rigs from Home Depot; built after the prototype I built 2.5 years ago for “Terminated” with Hiroki – before spraypainting

The bottom line is: If you ever go into a competition like this, don’t go with talented but boring people. Don’t go with people that freak out easily, or have an angry vibe around them. Form a team that laughs about the worst jokes.

Getting Serious

We meet with two nice people from the CAN team (Creative Activist Network, a project of the Non-Profit Organization Students of the World), get interviewed about our past experiences and our past collaborations. At this point, our terrible humor must have already leaked out – nevertheless, we get picked as one of roughly 10 college teams, and go to a meeting in San Francisco a few days later, which marks the official start of the competition. Spencer can’t come, so we bring a bad photo of him on a smartphone in order to shoot a group photo.

The prompt for the competition is: “Brave, Disruptive, Credible” – the credo of Participant Media, who serves as the Co-sponsor for the competition. One group from Stanford is present, but they don’t like talking to us much – Berkeley and “Stanfurd” are in a decade-long fight about who would be the better school. Whatever, they won’t have a chance against the TMS team – Toby, Marc & Spencer, or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. We bury the tomahawk of eternal hatred and wish them good luck. Competition is in the air, the game is on.

Our Topic is Taking Shape

Marc’s dad is a teacher, so we get really friendly with the idea of doing a short documentary about education. He is down in LA though, so the travel costs are a bit of a bummer – although we could win a prize of $1500 per person, we have to budget for not winning, just in case someone is surprisingly better than the Transcontinental Motor Saegen. Out of sheer interest, I post a facebook status along the lines of “Does anyone in the Bay Area know a person or organization that is brave and disruptive?”

Promptly, a few hours and not-so-useful input later I get a great lead through a friend/former colleague named Heidi that I haven’t seen in two years: There is this guy in the Bay Area, Fashoka, that advocates for Urban Agriculture Activism. What the hell is Urban Agriculture? While Education is still on the table, I arrange a meeting with Fashoka – who later turns out to actually be named Ashoka, just having changed his name for facebook.
Marc, Spencer and myself only have two days left; we have some decent leads in education, so it all looks like the meeting with Ashoka will just be interesting but nothing more. When we meet him, he has his bicycle next to the table. He starts talking, and after about 20 minutes has to leave again. He leaves three open-mouthed filmmaking morons who have just experienced what it means to come out of Berkeley being smart. We are blown away, abandon the education project and say: Urban Agriculture it is.

Now, you might ask: What did he say? Why did you guys abandon days of work based on a 20 minute conversation? Well, because – we hit gold. I will try to summarize his elaborate explanations, but will most likely not be doing it any justice. Maybe I can get him to write a guest article.

What Got us Hooked

Basically, we all rent or own different properties in order to have a place to live. Some of us are homeless; they don’t even have a transient place to stay in. During the housing bubble, a ton of empty homes went on the market, and many of them are still empty. There’s lots of property around different communities that is vacant for years, may it be just land or actual buildings. Owning land and having power was always a close relation – the more land you control, the more power you have in your community. Now, what is being done with the unused land? Often times: Nothing. It just sits around until the owner decides the market is in the right condition to either develop or sell the property. It’s basically a missed opportunity to make something out of a certain land while it is vacant. The University of California owns a lot in Albany, CA – and that was not used much in the last few years. So, a few activists including Ashoka went down there, occupied the vacant land, dug it up, and built a small farm on it, planting thousands of crops. Eventually, the University decided that this was not the proper way of doing things – occupations – so they came in and bulldozed the farm. The occupiers had planted starters not because they needed food immediately, but because they wanted to expose a few larger issue: Food security, land access, resiliency and panarchy – at least these were the important values for Ashoka.

  • Land Access is the question of who should have access to land. Most of the United States was land annexed from Native Americans by the European colonialists, and handed down over generations of business transactions. But is this land really owned by a person? What entitles people to deal land that has essentially been stolen and/or declared to be owned by a colonizer?
  • Resilience describes the ability of a system to recover from Crisis. Our food system is an industrialized complex, relying of few large companies to control a massive share of the market (i.e. Nestle, Monsanto, Pepsi & Co.) – an interesting fact that became visible during the GMO labeling ballot question in California. A system that relies on a few large monopolies is a very dangerous one – if one of the monopolies fails or introduces an irreversible damage within its own reach, the entire system can collapse. It’s important that there is different players in the food system; urban farming is one way of supplementing the industrial food chain with locally grown food, similar to Farmer’s markets where local farmers can distribute food without needing distribution monopolies.
  • Panarchy is a system where multiple forms of organization and government control power. In terms of the food system, only a panarchic approach can help making the world of food a better place – if governments, Non-Profits, Companies, Grassroot organizations and individual neighborhood groups all work towards a similar goal: The one needs the other.
  • Food Security takes this question and combines it all – if we don’t have access to land, we cannot decide to grow food locally; if we cannot supplement the industrial food chain with locally produced food, lots of people won’t be able to get access to fresh produce because they live in food deserts (where the next supermarket is too far, too expensive or doesn’t sell fresh produce). This problem is largely concentrated on people close to the poverty line – the people with the least voice and the least influence in big government.
    [A good film about this topic is Participant Media’s “A Place at the Table“, which I watched as part of this project, screened by the organizers of the Competition.]

A bit of research reveals to us that Ashoka’s uncle was actually on a TED talk about urban agriculture – in his case, unpermitted yet legal farming on the small sidewalk grass strips in South Central – a food desert in Los Angeles. They both had similar ideas independently of each other – which shows how good of an idea this all is.

Finding A Balanced Perspective

Now, we want to get a balanced view, and a perspective that spreads a message that many people can relate to. Just talking to Ashoka and other activists wouldn’t be journalistically sound and only produce a one-sided viewpoint. We go to the opposing side and find a really nice woman who sits down with us for an hour. After talking to some more people at the College, we feel that the issue of the occupation in Albany is a much more complex problem than we previously thought; the college was supportive to the idea of Urban Farming but felt the Occupiers came in way too late into a decade-long discussion of what to do with the land. So, since we cannot do justice to a difficult issue with a 5 minute documentary, we figure that we should go with what both sides of this conflict seem to support: Urban Farming. We decide to couple that with the question of land access and resiliency, so we go and interview Ashoka at a High School urban farm he works at, interview an Urban Farmer we meet on the way, and start thinking about how we can express our own excitement of the idea in the movie.

Before that, we want to go to Oakland though – a very poor neighborhood in the Bay Area, that has a suprising amount of urban farms – people trying to help themselves and bettering the situation. Some of them are “Guerilla Gardeners”, i.e. they occupy land that is owned by someone but has ben left vacant – they break in, put up wooden boxes with soil, and start growing vegetables. An amazing concept, reminding us of Robin Hood.

Documentary Filmmaking is a Dangerous Job

We know that Oakland was a high-crime area, but we are basically just going to drive through it, filming the empty lots and the urban farms we could find. No chance to get shot at, like Werner Herzog. Three cameras – one mounted on the hood, one on each side held by one of us – mounted on our rented black Chevy Impala, and we were good to go. After half a day of driving, filming and finding beautiful little sidewalk farms in Oakland, our batteries needed a charge. We stop at a big McDonalds parking lot, but find no electrical outlets inside. When we get back to the car, the driver’s side window is smashed, the glove compartment is open, but none of our laptops or cameras is stolen. Super weird. We drive to the Oakland airport, exchanging our car for an identical-looking black Chevy Impala with non-broken windows, and get back on the road. The jokes are on. Suddenly Marc leans forward from the back seat. “Guys, I think this guys is following us. He was there already before we went to the rental car center.” I look into the back mirror – a green car with a mid-20s driver in it.

Spencer and me look at Marc. “Seriously?” – “Yeah… I am positive”. What the fuck. Why would someone follow us? We drive for a while, the car being consistenly behind us. Maybe Marc is only fantasizing, it’s not that unlikely that we have the same streets to take as another driver. I am on the left turn lane, then change my mind to put this to a test. I cut across four lanes to make the turn to the right. Back mirror check – nothing. I am about to tell Marc that he is hallucinating, as suddenly – the green car is again behind us, having made the same illegal maneuver, now catching up. My heart falls into my pants. FUCK. A waterfall of nightmares rushes past my eyes – we getting rear-ended in a high-speed chase, gunfire, glass shattering, swerving, auto accidents, a second car sandwiching us, we being followed to our homes – you name it. I go on a yellow light, cutting across the road into a shopping center, turning 180 degrees, now facing the green car which is waiting at the red light to also get into the parking lot. We lock eyes with the driver, he staring at us, we staring back. My mind is making him pull out an Uzi and opening fire on us through his front windshield. I am ready to just duck and jump on the gas pedal. Eyes still locked. He shoots us a threatening look, then drives off.

Holy fuck. In the back, Marc starts laughing. Spencer and me look at him with something along the lines of “Who the fuck are you Marc?”. Either Marc is delusional, or he doesn’t mind being followed by a shady guy. We make the immediate connection that the smashed window and us being followed probably are both related to us filming in Oakland. That means that the guy was following us for at least an hour. Insane. Maybe it’s because an unmarked Chevy Impala painted black is sometimes used by the police? If you looks at us, we would be the best disguised undercover agents ever though: Looking like some Berkeley softies who shower with warm water, with neither potential for violence nor potential for doing shady undercover operations. Who cares if it’s probable – we need to get rid of this car.

Back at the car rental, they refuse to give us a new car. “Sorry, I can only give you a new car if there is a mechanical defect; I cannot exchange a car twice”, says Mr. Manager. “You do understand that we needed to exchange the first one because our car was broken into, and you do understand that we were followed by some shady-ass guy who wanted to do we-don’t know-what now, and we need a new car that is not a black Chevy Impala?!” “Sorry, there is nothing I can do…” Fuck you. If we get shot later today, I’m sure you wish you just bent the rules a bit you whiny car rental manager. We are so pissed. We call the police. 9-1-1. First time I dial this number. “Sir, what can I do for you?” “We were being followed by a car for about an hour, and we are really scared now.” “Are you still being followed?” “No, but …” “So, no crime occurred?” “No, but …” “Well Sir, then we can’t do anything for you. If you like, you can report this online.”

What the fuck? Do people always get followed around here? I’m not saying some boy peed into my garden, I’m telling them that someone wasted 30 miles worth of gas to tail us. We are in disbelief. I call the Oakland police department. “You are welcome to report this online.” Seriously? ONLINE?! I call the local police department of the Oakland airport. “We will send out two officers, meet them inside the building. Leave the car behind, go into the building immediately.”

Seriously celebrating our survival. What a day.

Seriously celebrating our survival. What a day.

At least one department that understands “To serve and protect”. We meet two officers inside – one of the few times in my life I was glad to see a police officer approach me – and tell them the situation. They assure us that without any license plates or other leads they can’t do anything, but will keep an eye out for the make, model and color we are describing, and take notes. “Next time this happens, take down the license plates and call us while you are driving. That’s the only time you should talk while driving.” We leave with a bittersweet taste. We can’t go back to our house now. And we need a new ride.

So, Spencer and Marc ducking down and me wearing a hat, we drive out of the airport area, enter the freeway and drive with 95 mph – 30 over the speed limit – towards SFO. At these speeds, none of these wanky cars can follow us. The Enterprise rental manager is nice and gives us a new car, after laughing about our insane story. We get a fatass 4×4 pickup truck. “If someone follows us now, we can just ram the shit out of them. Like a Boss.” Still not feeling exactly safe, we find a nearby hotel, and spend the night there, drinking Champagne to celebrate our survival and watching “Airplane” to get our minds off all this tension. No idea if Marc ever got scared while Spencer and myself kept shitting our pants – he said something along the lines of “I’ve been through much worse, you know, in Mexico…” – no idea if I believed him.

Finishing it off Mid-Air

The production dates come to a close; now that we have a pickup truck, we can finally do what we have been thinking about for a few days now – namely show our excitement by establishing an Urban Farm in my front yard. Initially, we just wanted to do this so the documentary would be more interesting – in the end though, we just really wanted to do it, and the filming became rather secondary. There is a section in the documentary where you can see a time-lapse of us bringing fresh soil and tools with the pickup truck, generously given to us by fellow Urban Farmers in Berkeley; we established the first fields on the yard until 3am. Two days before the deadline, I am taking off to Chicago. Not without practical use – I capture some surprisingly steady aerial footage of a concrete and smog-covered LA as well as coastal regions of agriculture and cities – perfect for our documentary. Marc edits the rest, sends me a great rough cut, and while I am in Illinois, they drop off our masterpiece.

Our finished Urban Farm - in the video, you can see a timelapse of us building it.

Our finished Urban Farm – in the video, you can see a timelapse of us building it. For regular readers: It doesn’t stop there…!

One of the best lines, best shots and best edits in our documentary if you ask me: "The way we choose to distribute land is the way we distribute power in a society." - Ahsoka Finley

One of the best lines, best shots and best edits in our documentary if you ask me: “The way that we distribute land is the way we distribute power in a society.” – Ashoka Finley

A week later, the winners are announced. I participate via Skype until Marc’s phone runs out of battery. An hour or so later, I get a flood of pissed off facebook messages that the Stanford team won, and we came in second place. Lots of laughter and terrible humor follow – and although we didn’t win, I have a feeling that our collaboration with the guys who organized the competition, Students of the World, is not over. After all, their mission and the mission of Participant Media are closely related to the mission I am slowly finding for myself – and it would be a terrible mistake to just leave it at being bitter about having been beaten by Stanfurd.