Inspiring People

Film maker, Restaurateur and (now) Grocer, Aaron Woolf

Aaron Woolf
Aaron Woolf's award-winning films have been broadcast on The Sundance Channel, ARTE, RAI and SBS, as well as being presented to the State Department and the United Nations.

Aaron is the founder of Mosaic Films Incorporated and an avid mountaineer.

I caught up with Aaron Woolf as he was putting the final touches on his first grocery store, and I was immediately caught up in his enthusiasm. I find Aaron fascinating because he is unafraid to dive in, to satisfy his curiosities and to try and figure out how to do something new.

I like talking to people who endeavor to get involved and who take the time to do what some will only contemplate in passing... I really liked talking to Aaron Woolf...

DR: Tell me about your life and your work.

AW: I've been on a funny sort of trajectory since I finished college.

The first job I had out of school was working as a commercial crab fisherman in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. After that, I worked for almost twenty years making films, most of them on Public Television. Life is circular and so now I am back here making food again. I have a partner in a restaurant and we are opening a grocery store in Brooklyn.

DR: Is this your first grocery store?

AW: (Laughing) Yes and it may be my last...

You know when you are a kid and they go around the kindergarten class and ask all the kids what they want to be when they grow up? You hear "astronaut" and "fireman" and "ballerina" but you don't usually hear anybody say "I want to be a grocer".

DR: How is it, so far, being a grocer?

AW: We haven't opened yet. We open in two weeks. The grocery store is very connected to my documentary career.

I made a film called King Corn which has to do with trying to find out where our food comes from.

King Corn follows two kids, my cousin and his best friend, as they plant one acre of Iowa corn and try to trace its path into the food system. What we found out was that a lot of the food in America, a lot of the food that is made from corn and based on corn, is not the most healthy stuff and it's not prepared in the most appetizing way.

As documentary film makers, there is always this interplay between "Am I an observer in what I do" or "Am I a participant?" King Corn was a wonderful project because it was both journalism, in the sense that we were investigating things, and it was also participatory, because we actually planted our own corn and attempted to follow it. In some ways the movie led to the idea of the grocery store.

I will still make films -- I am working on a couple right now, but I really like the idea of having part of my life be participatory and not just observatory.

Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis in a scene from Aaron Woolf's "King Corn." Photo by Bryan Cullman.

DR: What have been some of the benefits of being an observer?

AW: Being a film maker affords you the chance to talk to a lot of people that you might not otherwise have been able to talk to.

It's easy as a documentary film maker to pick up the phone and get an interview with a Senator - next week if you want. It is easy to talk to leaders of industry or activists whose work seems relevant. One of the great benefits of looking at the world that way is that, if you conduct yourself with respect for those you collaborate with, if you handle yourself with dignity, there is no limit to the kinds of experiences you can have. There is no limit to who you can talk to or where you can go. You can raise money for a film on penguins and live in Antarctica if you want! I don' feel at all regretful that I have spent so much time as a film maker. I am really grateful.

For me making King Corn has been a marvelous political education too. I have wanted to look into agriculture and so I did a film for two or three years in which I explored what the agricultural system is. If you want to really get a top to bottom vertical view of what agriculture is all about, doing a film about it is pretty great.

The previous film I did was about human trafficking. We filmed in eighteen countries and followed the paths of five migrants from very different origins, who ended up going to very different places but all of them shared fundamental experiences. And now I have an education into immigration, into foreign affairs, even into the effects of globalization. Film making provides an incredible education to answer your question.

DR: Well your film on human trafficking is certainly another conversation that we are going to have to have. That sounds like a really amazing film.

AW: That was an amazing project. I think that project emboldened me a lot in terms of what the direct political effect is that I can have with my work. When that film was played on PBS it was a two hour special called Dying to Leave. When the film was broadcast, Sen. Clinton did an afterward on air with us. Sen. Brownback gave a press conference signaling the broadcast and, then Secretary Powell, showed the film at the Secretary's Open Forum at the State Department.

It was clear that the political debate was excited by this kind of messaging. Food policy and agricultural policy is such an important realm for the public to take an interest in and it is something that the urban public hasn't had much interest in. King Corn was, in part, an effort to increase the dialogue, in new circles, about the effects of farm policy.

DR: There is a certain aliveness and passion that I experience in talking to people like you -- people who are getting involved and living beyond just daily survival. There are a lot of people who get overwhelmed and bogged down and do what there is to survive and miss looking beyond their own personal needs...

AW: Well, I don't begrudge those people...

Life can be very challenging and there isn't an equality of opportunity in this society, nor is there the meritocracy that we all wish there was. On the one hand people say to me "I am so jealous. I wish I could do what you do." And I tell them to "Just do it". It's not easy and there are certainly many sacrifices that you have to make to do this kind of work and I certainly don't feel that everybody should go out and become a documentary film maker. I look at single working mothers who are trying to raise children on their own... The way that society stacks the deck against certain individuals makes somebody who says "Just do what you want to do" sound a little cavalier.

DR: Yes. I agree.

What I was getting at is that I find that people experience a real sense of satisfaction when they start to get involved and when they start to pay attention to issues and when they start joining forces with other people and when they start building community, they find out that they really can do more than they thought that they could.

What would you say to people who feel overwhelmed by the prospect of getting involved?

AW: What I would say is taking small steps toward issues that really interest you deeply and genuinely is a better course than just saying "I want to change the world".

I think you can become overwhelmed if you think that you have to fix a system that you are not satisfied with. But the smallest act, like joining a community group, even film making...The means to make films has now become incredibly affordable and available. There are websites that allow you to edit footage that you shot on your really affordable handy cam at home.

Media is a language that everybody is effected by and it is increasingly a language that everybody has access to the making of. Making a small project about something that you care about, need not be overwhelming.

King Corn is a feature documentary about two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation.

In King Corn, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, best friends from college on the east coast, move to the heartland to learn where their food comes from. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America’s most-productive, most-subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat—and how we farm.

To learn more, visit the King Corn website.

DR: What is it that you want people to get out of the movie King Corn?

AW: I want people to walk away with the idea that we are empowered to have a great impact on the system that feeds us.

One of the reasons why we have the system we do with the government subsidizing, essentially fast food, is because of just what you were describing - that we have felt so disempowered and overwhelmed by the system. But there are very simple ways we can begin to approach change in the future. One of the simplest ways is to begin to vote with our dollars and seek out local growers - people who are providing fruit and produce instead of processed foods.

Part of what we want to do with our grocery store is to make that more available and less intimidating and indeed more affordable.

You can also vote with your votes.

It is clear that the system that we have right now is directly attributable to legislation and it is also directly attributable to a kind of legislation that urban citizens have not felt connected to. They have never felt that The Farm Bill really affected them. If we called it The Food Bill a lot more people would pay attention.

DR: That is a really good point.

So you are starting this grocery store. How smooth has the ride been?

AW: We did all of the construction ourselves. We put down broad pine plank floors from trees that we cut down ourselves. We built our shelves with our own hands. The counters are made of oak trees that my father milled many years ago. There is a real sense of craft and pride in the construction of a place.

We have created a place that has a very unique and handmade feel. I think people respond to that in this age of mega stores and industrial everything.

The challenge has been trying to make practical your philosophy. We say that we should be eating local and organic but we didn't want to make a snobby food market. We want to make stuff available. When you decide that you are going to eat this way you also have all sorts of issues with seasonality and access and we want this to be the kind of grocery store where people can come anytime of year and get all of the stuff that they need to make a full meal. We really are trying to source stuff from the area.

If the average bite in America now travels fifteen hundred miles from farm to plate, that means with almost anything that you eat today, you're chasing it down with a glass of diesel fuel. We are trying to reduce that.

DR: And paying extra for the privilege to do so, on top of it...

AW: Of course. And we are not only paying for it on a financial level but also on an environmental level.

DR: What are you most passionate about at this point in your life?

AW: I am passionate about almost everything that I do.

I didn't choose to go into a highly lucrative career so I have to be satisfied by something in life other than great financial compensation. I think what I get in return for the choices I have made has been really substantive. I have a schedule that I can largely make myself and I can do something about issues that I feel deeply concerned about, and I am getting a chance to do that in, not just an observatory way, but a participatory way as well. All of this makes me feel quite pleased.

DR: Do you consider yourself to be successful?

AW: I don't know...I never hear successful people say that they are successful.

I could never decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. I never had an answer to that question but I always had a list of things that I wanted to do. I wanted to make a movie. I wanted to build a house and have a child. I wanted to run a business and -- I am knocking those things off my list. I don't know what that makes me career-wise and I don't know whether that makes me successful, it's just that I always have two or three missions that are before me.

DR: Do you have something that you really look forward to doing?

AW: Yes.

There are a number of things on the list that I haven't done yet that I would like very much to do.

I'd like to finish the house that I started building by hand up in the Adirondacks.

I'd like to have children. I'd like to run for office. There are a lot of things that I would like to do and I feel like everything that I have been doing so far has built toward those goals.

DR: Have you learned anything about yourself lately that has surprised you?

AW: I don't know if I have a ready answer for that. I think that it is always surprising when we get a moment of perspective and when we can see that there are patterns to the things that we do even if we can't see those patterns while they are happening.

DR: Is there something that you wish you could do that you can't?

AW: I feel like if there were something that I wished I could do and I really wished it, except for becoming a professional hockey player which it's probably too late to do, I could do. The problem is, not that I don't have the magic pill to get what I want, the problem is choosing carefully. Every choice can potentially prevent you from doing something else that you might have wanted to do.

I wish I could speak Arabic. If I could take a pill and be able to speak Arabic, I would love it.

DR: Why is that?

AW: I think it's an incredible language and beautiful when written out. If there were one language that I wish more Americans could speak and understand right now it's that one. Instead of wishing other people would do it, I should just do it myself.

DR: You strike me as the kind of person who could muster up passion for just about anything that you were doing.

AW: I guess that's true. I have to feel invested in something in order to do it. There are definitely things that I have chosen not to do.

There are certain realms of finance that I don't think I would enjoy terribly, although I see great creativity in investing, but I guess I realize that we don't have infinite time on earth and I would rather be making a film or building a store from the bottom up or organizing a political campaign then commuting to Connecticut.

DR: When people look at you what do you want them to see?

AW: I don't want them to see anything.

I am usually interested in "them".

DR: Yes...I can get that about you...

AW: I think what is important and essential and beautiful in human interaction is just that - the interaction.

I don't tend to like asymmetrical relationships. I like relationships to be an interchange. Even if it is with a doctor - a doctor knows something about how your body works but presumably they should be getting something from you at the same time that you are getting something from them.

Human beings thrive on community. We yearn for and need very badly to have each other. And, it may not seem like a fulfilling relationship, that which you have with your grocer, but I see it as being a very important interchange.

A grocer is like an expert in providing food and nourishment and flavor and enjoyment to your family and you provide the grocer with a sense of who that family is; what the community is. In the nineteenth century when everyone knew the butcher and the baker, you could count on a higher quality of food and it was totally built on the sense that "we are all in this together". Why does community policing work? Because you know the cop on the beat on your street. Both the cop and the community have an investment in keeping things clean and safe and in maintaining an ongoing relationship. I think we should have that kind of investment in all sorts of ways.

What I want people to see about me? I would answer that by saying "What is it that the interaction brings?"

DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

AW: I would like to be remembered as having been a good father and one who made a positive contribution to the communities I lived in.

Thanks Aaron!

Urban Rustic Market and Cafe

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