By Hyunjee Lee
Beyond the Seal is a web documentary that captures the story of the banana supply chain in Ecuador and the movement for Fair Trade bananas. Directors Leah Varjaques (Medill ‘15) and Katherine Nagasawa (Medill ‘15) screened their film in Harris Hall with a panel that discussed the industry and the movement Tuesday. In Our Nature went behind the scenes with the directors.
In Our Nature: Why did you decide to present the story in the form of a web documentary?
Katherine: We didn’t initially decide to do a web documentary. We actually had a feature length film in mind but as we were editing and transcribing we realized that the story was more conducive to chapters because there are different people in the supply chain. We ended up deciding to try something more innovative and luckily Northwestern has the Knight Lab. We worked with someone there to develop a web layout of it. Another reason was that it’s so much more easy for people to access. It’s not something you have to go to a screening for – you can access it on your own laptop. It’s kind of an individual experience. Also, the story itself fit a lot better for multiple chapters and interweaving text and video.
ION: What was the most impactful thing you saw during your time in Ecuador?
Leah: It was probably seeing firsthand the workers saying in the video, “Workers today are treated like slaves.” That’s powerful. Seeing [a man] pulling up his shorts and showing us his illness that he’s had for 15 years [due to inhumane fumigation practices], that moment, that was real. When I was in Guatemala with a banana farming family, I hadn’t seen health repercussions. It’s only something I’d seen in movies and heard about. So seeing that was like, ‘Wow, this really is messed up and it really needs to change.’
K: I think it was spending the weekend with the banana workers on plantations because we started out with small farmers and that was a relatively positive story. There was some exploitation by middle level traders but it wasn’t to the level that it was physically. [But on the plantations,] you can see that these people have skin conditions that are irreversible because of the spraying. You see that the river turns orange at certain times of the day after fumigation. It was a visceral kind of reaction I had to that. I think I felt a little sick when I was there. Just the whole atmosphere felt a little lifeless.
ION: Did you come out of the process different than you went in?
K: Unlike Leah, I hadn’t really had an experience where I had confronted the realities of the banana industry history before. I was your everyday consumer. I just kind of blindly bought bananas – I loved them. I can kind of put myself in the shoes of people who are watching this for the first time and who might not know about the history. It’s very shocking and you kind of don’t know what to do. I feel a lot more empowered with information. I feel like I can ask the right questions when I’m at the grocery store and I can share the story with my friends.
L: I just came in with a question which was what does fair trade actually mean? I had seen labels on chocolate and coffee. I knew that Starbucks had fair-trade [goods] so I thought it must be kind of fishy because [Starbucks] is a big corporation. The sense that I had about fair trade was that it was kind of bullshit. And I came out with, ‘Wow, this is really complex.’ I gained a much deeper understanding of what fair trade was created to be from the start. The original vision of it was to provide access to small farmers to the greater market and carve a small place out for them in this industry that has been so monopolized.
ION: What was the hardest part of bringing this project to life?
K: The hardest part was deciding how to end and how to appeal to consumers and make it something they feel empowered to make decisions in the grocery stores from. We weren’t really sure if we wanted it to leading consumers to a certain decision or if we just wanted to keep it open-ended. I think we ended up keeping it pretty open-ended because we wanted people to feel free to make their own choices and take different kinds of actions. Bringing it back to regular people in the U.S. was the hardest part. We were so immersed in our own experiences that we wanted to make it relevant for consumers.
ION: Did you run into any problems with big corporations not wanting you to film this story?
K: The closest we got to the corporation was the Javier video, with the plantation worker where we went to a plantation and tried to film him. We didn’t want to associate ourselves with him because he would have been in danger of being fired. We had to present ourselves fairly as filmmakers making a documentary about the banana supply chain but we didn’t affiliate ourselves with the workers. That was a tricky thing because I think they are very wary of who’s talking about what and wary of PR.
ION: So what can consumers do?
K: I think consumers should ask more questions. It never hurts to ask [if the items at your grocery store are are fair trade]. Your produce manager will understand that consumers want to be a little more connected to the food and will be able to either answer your questions or redirect you to the right person. I think that we just need to be more curious. Maybe you’ll end up down the rabbit hole like we did and end up producing a film about it, but if not, it makes you come away with a little negative information about that.
L: It’s going to take consumers to recognize that fair trade right now is not necessarily working towards the original goal of recreating the food system and it’s going to take consumers to demand their power back and change the food system because it needs to be changed.
ION: Do you eat bananas?
K: I’m not boycotting bananas but I am limiting myself to only fair trade.
L: I actually don’t eat them. I think it’s mostly because I boycotted them for five years so it wasn’t in my habit anymore to eat them. But also, I only want to buy Fair Trade Eco bananas. I don’t trust Whole Trade bananas.
ION: Is there anything you’d like to add?
K: It’s really exciting to see things happening on Northwestern’s campus [like the fight for real food and human rights] because students do have a lot of power. Dining halls and the food that’s sourced to dining halls make up a huge source of demand for any kind of food so it’s cool to start at the local level, at the campus level and to see that action. It can really shift a lot for small producers. To have a consistent yearly demand from student dining halls – it’s huge for them.